The latest NATO summit in London on December 5 was historic not only because it set the organisation’s military profile a lot higher for future, but also because it brought to surface the many internal challenges the alliance is facing – challenges that even led the French leader to describe NATO as ‘brain-dead.’ Will this crisis consume NATO and lead towards its eventual dismemberment? This question has sparked a debate in the international media, leading some to widely conclude that NATO’s end is imminent. This, however, may be too early to jump to such a conclusion. As a matter of fact, there was no ‘NATO crisis’ as such before the beginning of the Trump presidency—and, minus-Trump, there may still not be any crisis confronting NATO now. Many things point to this.
Although the summit didn’t end on a formal joint communique—something that usually is seen as a sign of ‘unity’ – NATO secretary general’s press conference after the summit showed that the organisation continues to follow the same logic it was originally built on: confronting Russia. On the other hand, the latest summit saw China qualifying as a ‘military threat’, needing to be militarily confronted.
At the same time, tensions do exist. These tensions, however, appear largely to be Trump-specific rather than organisational based upon fundamental differences regarding the organisation’s basic ideology. A European Council on Foreign Relations commentary aptly called the crisis “A very American Crisis” with Trump being NATO’s biggest problem for the NATO members.
For the French president, the US, under Trump, is ‘turning its back’ on the organisation by threatening to either withdraw from the alliance or greatly reduce US involvement in Europe’s protection from ‘the enemy’ that Russia is. And, whereas the US, ever since Trump came into power, has been demanding from Europe to shoulder a greater share of financial burden and ‘pay more’, French response has been a new type of bargain whereby Europe does not only pay more, but also sits on the driving seat of the alliance, reducing the US role from that of an overarching ‘protector’ to a member only. The ‘Macron doctrine’ has accordingly been a greater emphasis on dialogue with Russia.
It is in this context that Macron’s “brain dead” remarks need to be contextualised and understood. Ever since Trump’s almost imposing and stubborn demand from European countries to increase their contribution, coupled with Trump’s tendency to practically side-line the NATO countries on as crucial matters as, for instance, Syria when the US made a deal with Turkey and relocated its troops, realisation for a more effective leadership of the alliance has been growing in the NATO countries, with France taking a lead role in changing the discourse.
Canada, too, shares French concerns. In London, while sitting next to the US president Trump, the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, pushed back against Trump’s criticism that allies don’t do enough. Trudeau was seen almost schooling the president about Canada’s significant contributions to transatlantic security.
This sense of leadership became apparent when Turkey, in collaboration with the UK, France and Germany, separately announced that the ‘Quad’ on Syria will meet in Turkey in February and will continue to meet annually as well. This is significant in that four major NATO countries seem to have developed some sort of understanding vis-à-vis Syria, an understanding that doesn’t enjoy US blessings or even participation. Although the ‘Quad’ may not produce any meaningful results, it still shows that the European members of NATO are weighing in on their bid to become a bit more ‘independent’ in terms of securing their interests.
Thus, whereas the bid to increase European role seems significant, it does, in a meaningful way, cut at the alliance’s foundation logic, which was, in the words of alliance’s first secretary-general, to keep “the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” In the current circumstances, the French are rather enthusiastic about no longer keeping the “Russians out” and the US is itself threatening to end its “in” period.
The challenge to the foundation logic notwithstanding, none of this seems to imply that the alliance will literally die. Europe is far from establishing a new alternative, nor is it interested in leaving itself completely open to what many NATO countries still call a ‘Russian expansionist’ threat.
What, in simple words, we have today is a crisis that stem largely from the personality of the US president. The crisis, however, may not simply end once the Trump presidency comes to an end; for, it has already largely triggered forces whereby the urge for leadership among the Europeans would continue to increase. With more money will come more say in the decision-making, and with more European say in the decision-making will come a change in NATO’s outlook and policies away from US-centric approach to global politics and power-relations.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.