11 November 2019
Two days before the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, French President Emmanuel Macron stunned allies in an interview published in The Economist (on 7 November, although the interview took place on 21 October), saying that he did not know whether NATO’s commitment to collective defence was still valid and that the alliance was experiencing “brain death” because of a lack of strategic coordination and leadership from the United States.
“What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO,” Macron said, and that the United States under President Trump appeared to be “turning its back on us”, notably by pulling troops out of northeastern Syria without notice, and he called on Europeans, as he has often done, to do more in their own defence with the aim of “strategic autonomy’’.
In separate remarks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she did not share these views. “I don’t think that such sweeping judgments are necessary, even if we have problems and need to pull together,” Merkel said, adding “NATO remains vital to our security”. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged the need for NATO to evolve in a question-and-answer session after delivering a speech in Berlin on 8 November. "Seventy years on ... it (NATO) needs to grow and change. It needs to confront the realities of today and the challenges of today", he said.
NATO leaders will gather in London for a summit meeting on 3-4 December to mark the alliance’s 70th anniversary. Mr. Macron’s pessimistic views about its future, President Trump’s own harsh criticism and Turkey’s military operation against Kurdish forces in northern Syria are bound to overshadow the meeting. Despite his criticism, President Trump has authorized a sizable increase in US money and troops to NATO and European defence, including deployment of US troops in Poland and rotating through the Baltic nations.
President Macron has pushed for closer European integration, a rapprochement with Russia, a tougher line on Brexit and an end to EU enlargement until the process can be rethought. Shashank Joshi, The Economist’s defence editor, said: “I cannot imagine how Macron could possibly have thrown a bigger stink-bomb toward NATO ahead of the London summit of leaders in December. Extraordinary words, and extraordinary timing”.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, was also in Berlin for the 30th anniversary celebrations, and understandably he praised NATO and the US role in Europe. “The reunification of Germany and Europe would have been impossible without the United States’ security guarantee”, he said. “Any attempt to distance Europe from North America will not only weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance, it also risks dividing Europe itself”, he said.
President Trump has persistently demanded that Germany and other allies increase military spending to the NATO goal of 2% of gross domestic product. German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced on 6 November that Berlin will reach this target by 2031, but missing the 2024 deadline agreed by NATO by seven years. “NATO is and will remain the anchor of European security. But it is also clear that Europe must increase its own complementary ability to act”, Kramp-Karrenbauer told a private event to honour the NATO Secretary General. “This starts with the defence budget. We need (to spend) 1.5% by 2024 and 2% by 2031 at the latest,” she said, the first public committment to the target. Only seven NATO countries currently meet or exceed the 2% target: Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the UK and United States. Germany will spend more “not because others demand it but because it’s in our own security interest”, Kramp-Karrenbauer said.
Ted Gallen Carpenter, Macron: NATO is suffering “Brain Death”, CATO Institute, 8 November 2019
Tara Varma, Rocking the Boat: The Macron method, European Council for Foreign Relations, 8 November 2019
Jonathan Eyal, France and NATO: President Macron Gets Clinical, RUSI Commentary, 8 November 2019