If you had hoped for a show of unity during NATO’s 70th anniversary this week, it would have been better to look elsewhere.
At this week’s NATO summit meeting in London, held to coincide with the military alliance’s 70th anniversary, the apparent spirit was to score cheap political points, not to discuss the future of an alliance established in a very different world in 1949 and now struggling to find its identity.
The summit started with an attack by US President Donald Trump on his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, who had said in a recent interview that NATO was experiencing “brain death” after Trump had announced the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria and then given Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the green light to invade those areas in arrangements that were not discussed with any of the other major NATO countries despite their effects on European security.
Macron’s complaint was that two NATO countries, the United States and Turkey, had agreed on this step without informing allies. It is not difficult to see the roots of his frustration.
It was a bad start for a summit meant to save NATO and give it meaning in a changing world where China’s growing strategic influence, terrorism, cyber-attacks, foreign interference in elections and Russia are perceived threats to the Western hemisphere.
Nonetheless, Trump, who questioned the US role in NATO during his 2016 election campaign and suggested Washington could no longer afford to maintain its commitment to the 28-member military alliance, savaged Macron on the first day of the NATO Summit by describing his comments as “very insulting” to the alliance’s other 28 members.
Criticising the French president with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg by his side, Trump said Macron’s statement was a “very, very nasty statement.”
“Nobody needs NATO more than France. It’s a very dangerous statement for them to make,” he said.
Responding indirectly to Macron’s frustration that Turkey, the second biggest NATO member after the US, had invaded northern Syria in October without coordination with NATO partners, Trump appeared to side with Erdogan, saying that Turkey “couldn’t be nicer, more supportive, very helpful.” He added that Turkey had cooperated in the killing of the Islamic State (IS) group leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in November.
From the French point of view, NATO is a family torn by divisions and mistrust. The US-Turkish move to invade northern Syria was a “stab in the back” for the rest of NATO, it believes. Macron is also worried that the invasion has undermined the fight against IS.
“No major European country was consulted in giving Turkey the green light to conduct its operations in northern Syria. The European countries were quite surprised by the understanding between Trump and Erdogan. The European countries, led by Britain, Germany and France, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to shelter Syrian civilians in northern Syria after the Syrian Kurds defeated IS. But after the Turkish invasion, hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled, and IS members have escaped from prisons and may threaten Europe again. If the Turkish operations continue, Europe could see a new refugee crisis,” one European diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Defending his decision to pull US troops out of north-eastern Syria and to give a green light for the Turkish invasion, Trump said that “I wanted to get our soldiers out of there, but I wanted to keep the oil.”
Trump, who also accused Macron of trying to break away from NATO, went on to say that “I think they have a very high unemployment rate in France. France is not doing well economically at all. It is a very tough statement to make when you have such difficulty in France, when you look at what is going on with the yellow vests [anti-government protesters].”
“They have had a very rough year. You just can’t go around making statements like that about NATO. It is very disrespectful. I’m looking at him [Macron], and I’m saying that he needs protection more than anybody, and I see him breaking off [from NATO]. So, I’m a little surprised at that.”
Asked whether the US alliance with NATO was shaky, Trump denied that it was but said that “I do see France breaking off... I see him breaking off.”
Trump also criticised France for a digital service tax that he said unfairly discriminated against US companies, including Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. Robert Lighthizer, the chief US trade representative, on Monday recommended that Washington respond with $2.4 billion in new tariffs on French cheese, wine and other products.
The negative impacts of Trump’s decision to allow Turkey to invade northern Syria could be felt during the NATO Summit.
Erdogan said he would not agree to a NATO defence proposal for Poland and the Baltic nations until the alliance supported Ankara’s concerns related to Syrian Kurdish fighters. The plan to defend the Baltic nations in case of a Russian attack requires the backing of all member states.
Turkey has accused the NATO allies of backing the Baltic countries’ security concerns but dismissing threats to Turkey from Kurdish fighters.
Trump also indicated his willingness to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a view he shares with Macron. “I have to say this, Russia wants to make a deal on arms control... Russia wants to make a deal as recently as, like, two weeks ago. Russia wants very much to make a deal on arms control and nuclear arms,” he said.
“We’ll also certainly bring in... China. We may bring them in later, or we may bring them in now,” he added.
Trump also said a trade agreement with China might have to wait until after the US presidential elections in November 2020, denting hopes of a quick resolution to the dispute that has weighed on the world economy.
“I have no deadline, no. In some ways, I think it’s better to wait until after the elections with China… But they want to make a deal now, and we’ll see whether or not the deal’s going to be right – it’s got to be right,” he said.
European share prices and the Chinese currency fell after Trump’s comments.
However, Trump said he was pleased about the NATO members increasing their defence spending thanks to his pressure.
“When I came in, I was angry at NATO, and now I’ve raised $130 billion,” Trump said, referring to the sum Stoltenberg said Canada and the European members of the alliance will have added to their defence budgets by next year.
“And yet you still have many delinquent – you know, I call them delinquent when they’re not paid up in full,” the US president said.
Only nine of NATO’s 29 members spend two per cent of their GDP on defence. Trump cited Germany as falling short, spending only one to 1.3 per cent of its GDP on defence.
Despite the contrast between former US president Barack Obama and Trump on most issues, both were elected on an almost identical slogan of reducing US military commitments on the international stage, and this worries European NATO members as they celebrate the 70th anniversary of NATO.
The long-term American commitment to the military alliance that was created in 1949 was based on three pillars. The first was to keep the influence of the former Soviet Union outside the Western hemisphere. The second was to restrict German power. And the third was to keep US troops in Europe to protect the security of the old continent after two world wars.
But the world in 2019 looks very different to how it did in 1949, and NATO has been slow to adapt to a changing world and its leaders know it. In Macron’s view, the US under Trump or maybe any future president no longer sees NATO as a vital organisation to its interests.
Since the 11 September attacks, the alliance has intervened with the US in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to fight terrorist organisations, but the result has been disastrous. Europe has paid a high price for the continued crises in those countries, whereas the US because of its geography is naturally protected.
“There has always been an internal American rejection and discomfort towards America’s foreign adventures. This has not changed since the early 20th century. If NATO no longer has a raison d’être, I think the alliance will not be there for its 100th anniversary, and that will help the French argument that Europe should have an independent force to protect the European Union. The military alliance is at crossroads,” the European diplomat said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.