25 November 2019
Dr Ian Davis
When politics gets really debauched—when our leaders, elected or otherwise, forfeit any legitimate claim to power—there used to be a place called satire where you could go to recover. Today, however, if satire is not entirely dead, it is certainly on life support.
Take, for example, this recent string of events. On the 12 November, the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg accepted the ‘Diplomat of the Year’' award from Foreign Policy magazine at a ceremony in Washington, DC. This was undoubtedly a well-earned award for a generally principled and hard-working politician. We all have experience of dealing with difficult and confrontational behaviour in the workplace. But the NATO Secretary General has had to go the extra mile in seeking to build consensus in an alliance of states with increasingly unpredictable and unstable leaders: Erdoğan (“We will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way”); Johnson (“do or die” Brexit); Macron (“brain dead” NATO); Orbán (“procreation not immigration”); and Trump (who described the alliance as “obsolete” while on the presidential campaign trail, but a producer of crazy tweets and narcissistic behaviour ad infinitum).
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that what was initially billed as a major summit celebrating NATO’s 70th anniversary, has been downgraded to a ‘Leaders Meeting’ at the Grove Hotel, Hertfordshire, on 4 December, with only one session of the North Atlantic Council (NATO’s highest decision-making body). This short and sharply focused meeting is designed to highlight existing areas of agreement, while glossing over internal divisions and preventing the meeting from being overwhelmed by the sort of theatrics that marred last year’s summit.
As part of the build-up to the meeting the NATO Secretary General met the US President at the White House on 14 November, where he attempted to soothe President Trump’s ego by thanking him for his strong leadership and commitment to the alliance, and by highlighting rising defence investment (more than $100 billion extra in recent years) across Europe. This, of course, is a President who has displayed exactly the opposite: weak leadership and questionable commitment to the alliance’s central norm of collective defence, while simultaneously bullying other member states to increase military spending. Remember, NATO already collectively accounts for over 50% of global military spending, and instead of Europeans paying more, perhaps Americans should be paying less: closing half of over 800 US military bases in over 90 countries would raise about $90 billion for things like Medicare for All.
But the final straw that broke the satirical camel’s back came a day after the Secretary General’s visit to the White House. While the former US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was testifying before the impeachment inquiry in Washington about being smeared and ousted, at the same time President Trump was smearing her again in a tweet. Nicholas Burns, a retired career diplomat and former US ambassador to NATO called it “reprehensible”, while another highly regarded foreign service veteran, William Burns, has compared Trump’s treatment of US diplomats to the communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era.
In 2013, NATO agreed a Code of Conduct for all NATO staff, whether they be civilian or military, which sets out five core values—integrity, impartiality, loyalty, accountability and professionalism—to guide their personal and professional conduct. Would it be seen as too ironic to include a copy in the NATO Leaders welcome pack at the Grove Hotel?