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NATO may not be ‘brain dead,’ but it’s in desperate need of new thinking

NATO is marking a couple of milestones this year. But for the moment, the alliance is focused on a rhetorical bomb tossed last week by one of Europe’s leading statesmen, French President Emmanuel Macron. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and German Chancellor Angela Merkel
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressing the media during a news conference in Berlin, Germany, on Thursday.
REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Engaging in a debate about whether you’re effectively brain dead is not really how you want to celebrate a big anniversary. 

NATO is marking a couple of milestones this year: 70 years since its founding to counter the Soviet threat to Western Europe, and 30 years since the threat from Moscow seemed to evaporate with the fall of the Berlin Wall. There were a lot of solemn words and self-congratulations in Berlin on Saturday. And there’ll be a big party — a splashy summit meeting — early next month in Britain. 

But in the meantime, the alliance is focused on a rhetorical bomb tossed last week by one of Europe’s leading statesmen, French President Emmanuel Macron. 

“To my mind, what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO,” Macron told the Economist. His case in point was what he said is a complete lack of coordination on recent developments in Syria. For good measure, the French president questioned whether the heart of the alliance, its mutual defense clause, meant much anymore.

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He might be guilty of overstatement, but not by a lot. There is little doubt that the alliance has been in desperate need of new thinking for years. If you took a fresh look at NATO today, would you include Turkey, for instance? What should Europe’s relationship be with the United States? Or Russia, for that matter?

Macron also has been creating friction this fall within the other pillar of European stability, the EU. He argues that the European Union can’t effectively manage its 27 current members, much less continue doing what it has been doing regularly — take in two more countries on its periphery, in this case Albania and North Macedonia. The EU does indeed have a problem with leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his so-called illiberal democracy. But what do you do about it?

All you really need to do to grasp the dire state of European affairs is realize that the two dominant figures at that NATO summit Dec. 3-4 in Britain are likely to be President Trump, who disdains and distrusts most mainstream European leaders (and whose EU ambassador is a diplomatic neophyte up to his neck in the Ukraine scandal); and Boris Johnson, who will be in final stretch of an election campaign that he hopes will give him a mandate to pull Britain out of the EU. 

It also tells you something when the biggest praise for Macron’s comment about the state of an alliance created to oppose Moscow comes from … Moscow. The French president’s views on NATO are “golden words … a precise definition of the current state of NATO,” according to Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

Syria is important to European leaders like Macron, not just because of what it says about Europe’s relations with important countries like Russia and Iran, but because the refugee crisis of recent years has been enormously destabilizing for their countries. France and Britain participated in air strikes the Trump administration ordered last April on what it said were chemical weapons sites in Syria. So it matters that Trump doesn’t feel the need now to consult with his allies, and that his unilateral actions have allowed NATO member Turkey to attack the Kurdish allies of France, the United States and other NATO members. Macron could have – but didn’t – mention that more broadly, Turkey has been buying advanced weapons from the Russians. He dodged, but didn’t totally reject, the question whether Turkey even belongs in NATO anymore.

Even given France’s long, complicated relationship with NATO, an influential head of state just doesn’t say some of those things. German Chancellor Angela Merkel chided Macron for his “drastic words.” But she herself came close in 2017, when European leaders first started getting an idea of what the Trump presidency and Brexit would mean. Merkel said Europe couldn’t completely depend on either the United States or London anymore.

The European Union has managed to hang together on Brexit, although there too Macron has been pushing to draw a line. If the British insist on shooting themselves in the foot, there’s not much the EU can do except stand aside, remind them how much it’s going to hurt, and try to avoid catching a ricochet.

It’s not doing so well on its eastern flank, where Poland and Hungary in particular are pushing well past what’s considered acceptable in a European democracy. If the officials responsible for the EU’s giant agricultural subsidy program aren’t brain dead, they’re not far off. As the New York Times’ lead story last Sunday made clear, Orban has weaponized the subsidy program to enrich his friends and bolster his own power, in the process squeezing out small farmers. The EU hasn’t showed much interest in stopping him. 

Martin Kettle wrote recently in the Guardian that the big December party celebrating NATO’s anniversary should actually be a cause for worry because it will make clear how many big problems are out there waiting for a solution that is nowhere in sight. The entire rules-based order that took hold after the fall of the Wall is in decline. 

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Brain dead? Maybe not. But Europe has been tottering for some time and its leaders seem no closer to even agreeing on what ails it – much less what the cure is.