LONDON — It wasn’t an attack on one ally that triggered NATO’s collective defense, but an attack by one: Emmanuel Macron.
As NATO leaders gather Tuesday in London to celebrate the alliance’s 70th anniversary, starting with a royal reception at Buckingham Palace, they appear united —28 to 1 — against the French president. Or 29 to 1, counting North Macedonia, which is attending as a guest but is already approved to join NATO. Add in Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and it’s 30 to 1 around the leaders’ table.
Suddenly, as quick as one can say “brain death,” Donald Trump is not NATO’s biggest headache, nor the leader most at risk of being a pariah.
Trump himself wasted no time in kicking Macron even before the meeting started. After pre-summit talks with Stoltenberg, he branded the French president’s controversial comments on NATO “very insulting to a lot of different forces” and to Stoltenberg himself.
“It’s a very, very nasty statement to essentially 28 countries,” Trump declared, before launching a series of attacks on France’s economic performance and Macron’s policies.
As NATO leaders gather Tuesday in London to celebrate the alliance’s 70th anniversary, they appear united against the French president.
Initially, after Macron’s controversial interview with the Economist, in which he proclaimed the “brain death of NATO” and went on to raise doubts about the durability of the alliance’s Article 5 collective defense doctrine, some NATO officials and diplomats privately conceded the French president had made some valid points.
The chaos of two major allies — the U.S. and Turkey — taking unilateral military action in northern Syria seemed clear enough evidence that NATO needed to face some hard truths, even as many officials publicly repudiated Macron’s remarks. But in the weeks since, a belief has hardened among the other allies that Macron’s initial remarks were reckless and damaging.
Some, such as Germany, have also seized the opportunity to get out of Trump’s firing line by declaring their devotion to the transatlantic alliance
The French president’s more recent comments — including his assertion, after a tense meeting with Stoltenberg in Paris, that Russia is not NATO’s enemy — have only reinforced a sense among allies that Macron is conducting himself more like the hyperactive professor of a graduate school seminar in international relations than as a responsible leader of a nuclear power with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
An initial effort by Germany to defuse the controversy by proposing a high-level expert panel to review NATO’s overall fitness has fizzled amid opposition from allies who are adamant about not sending a signal that any other leader shares Macron’s views, several diplomats at the alliance’s headquarters said.
Macron and his advisers have insisted that he was not suggesting that NATO should or could ever be replaced, nor that European allies should distance themselves from the U.S. in pursuit of so-called “strategic autonomy,” but rather that he is forcing an essential discussion about the need for Europe to take more responsibility for its own defense, among leaders who might otherwise prefer to give more attention to posing for the traditional summit “family photo” than on discussing real security deficiencies.
One French official familiar with the discussions between Paris and other allied capitals was ready to declare at least one victory for Macron even before the festivities started in London, as proof that he is not isolated around the allied table.
“The communiqué will launch the strategic review that President Macron triggered,” the official said, adding that Stoltenberg “will take the lead in organizing it.”
“There is no NATO without the U.S.,” the official said. “But our allies in the East are starting to have doubts about the American security guarantee, and we see that there is a way to find common ground with the U.S. complaints, first by making sure defense budgets are increased to 2 percent [of GDP].”
But officials from other allied countries were unwilling to commit to following a path that might be perceived as set by Macron.
And contrary to assertions in Paris, allies in the east seem far more troubled by Macron’s comments than by Trump, who is often seen as having a bark worse than his bite.
“There is no NATO without the U.S., but our allies in the East are starting to have doubts about the American security guarantee.” — a French official
Among the most shaken by Macron are countries in Central and Eastern Europe that perceive Russia as an imminent threat, in some cases immediately on their own borders.
“My country was just so upset — so upset, so upset,” a senior EU diplomat from a Central European country told POLITICO, describing the reaction to Macron’s remarks.
Even if leaders ultimately agree to form the expert study group to address Macron’s concerns, there is no doubt that the French intervention has cast a pall over what was supposed to be a largely celebratory gathering in London.
Stoltenberg has spent much of the last three years dealing with Trump — first persuading him that NATO was not obsolete, and then convincing him that European allies were addressing Washington’s angry demands for greater military spending.
An initial plan to hold the 70th anniversary celebration of the alliance’s founding Washington Treaty in the most obvious location — Washington, where the document was signed — was scrapped, in part because of fears about how Trump has upended previous NATO gatherings, including one in Brussels where he issued a thinly-veiled threat to quit the alliance.
Stoltenberg had hoped to use the London venue to showcase sharp increases in military spending by allies, which he announced at a news conference in Brussels on Friday.
Calling the numbers “unprecedented progress,” Stoltenberg reiterated his oft-repeated talking points about how NATO has never been stronger, and North American and European allies have never in history done as much together as they are doing now.
“We are on the right track,” he said. “But we cannot be complacent. We must keep up the momentum. This includes having more forces at higher readiness. Last year in Brussels, leaders launched the NATO Readiness Initiative. This means 30 battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 combat ships ready within 30 days. We have made substantial progress.”
But increasingly Stoltenberg seems to be trying to convince the alliance itself as well as its enemies that things are not falling apart. And the gains in national military spending, which Trump has now taken to boasting about on Twitter, have largely been overshadowed by the fallout from Macron’s statements.
Many allies have pointed to what they view as hypocrisy in Macron’s remarks, noting that France had long resisted expanding NATO operations beyond the Euro-Atlantic sphere and had never fully committed France’s nuclear capabilities to NATO or even just EU allies.
‘Reptilian’ alliance of ‘cowards’
Paris has also refused to participate in a small increase in contributions to NATO’s common funding — which covers basic expenses like electricity and salaries at the Brussels headquarters — complaining that it’s an accounting gimmick pushed by Germany so that Berlin can claim to now pay as much toward NATO’s annual operational budget as the U.S.
Increasingly Stoltenberg seems to be trying to convince the alliance itself as well as its enemies that things are not falling apart.
“It’s out of the question for France to increase its contribution to NATO’s common funding,” the French official familiar with the discussions said. “We are already the third most important contributor. We pay more than the U.K., we carry our weight operationally like few others. The U.S. decided to reduce its contribution, we already contribute our fair share, it wasn’t up to us to make up the difference. Other allies have been cowards, trying to avoid, above all else, upsetting Trump”
But many of those other allies say Paris should look in the mirror when it gripes about any shortfall in NATO capabilities, and perhaps think twice about whether Macron’s demands, especially that the alliance do more to fight terrorism, are realistic.
The recent stabbing attack in London, for instance, only underscored the limits of military action in tackling a problem that seems to be primarily a challenge for police forces.
Meanwhile, some allies suggest that Macron and his team are in for some tough lessons about dealing with Moscow when they host their first so-called “Normandy Format” meeting to tackle the war in Ukraine next Monday, bringing together the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, German and France.
Macron’s calls for a new rapprochement with Moscow are described by other allied officials as unrealistically hopeful at best, and dangerously naïve at worst.
“Is our enemy today Russia, as I sometimes hear? Is it China?” Macron said after his meeting with Stoltenberg last week. “Is it the goal of NATO to designate them as enemies? I don’t believe so. Our common enemy today is terrorism, which has hit each of our countries.”
Macron, however, can claim success in forcing a conversation that appeared to be unwanted‚ by anyone other than perhaps Russia President Vladimir Putin — over the deep fractures between allies on some issues. Turkey, which has led the criticism of Macron, has been demanding that NATO recognize Kurdish forces as terrorist organizations.
When a journalist asked if there was any chance of that happening, one Western European NATO diplomat replied with a genuinely shocked expression. “Is that a serious question?” the diplomat asked.
“Our common enemy today is terrorism, which has hit each of our countries.” — Emmanuel Macron
Meanwhile, the U.S. has capitalized on Macron’s comments to present Trump as a champion of NATO who has led a successful charge to increased military spending by allies. Washington has also stressed the need for NATO to do more on cybersecurity, especially 5G, and on China — demands that may prove as unrealistic as what Macron has asked for on terrorism.
“NATO is a reptilian organization,” the French official said. “It wants to avoid conflict above all else. They want to avoid upsetting Turkey or the U.S. But who among our allies disagrees that terrorism is a major threat or that there is a need for dialogue with Russia? No one.”
Actually, looking around the leaders’ table in London on Wednesday, Macron may well find that many allies have nothing to say to Russia until it ends its military activities in eastern Ukraine, and curtails a menacing stance toward its neighbors.