NATO’s Anniversary Summit Highlights Internal Fragmentation

Secretary-General Talks Up Alliance Unity Despite Sharp Disagreements

US President Donald Trump (R) and France's President Emmanuel Macron react as they talk during their meeting at Winfield House, London on December 3, 2019. (Getty)
US President Donald Trump (R) and France's President Emmanuel Macron react as they talk during their meeting at Winfield House, London on December 3, 2019. (Getty)

NATO’s Anniversary Summit Highlights Internal Fragmentation

President Donald Trump and 28 other heads of state and government travelled to the UK this week to celebrate NATO’s 70th anniversary alongside Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But while leaders attempted to make a convincing show of unity, the meeting was instead marked by clashes and started and ended in acrimony. Even the lead up to the summit was dominated by an array of fractious disagreements over Turkey’s offensive in Syria, uncertainty over US commitment to trans-Atlantic defence, and French President Emmanuel Macron’s declaration that the alliance is “brain dead,” a comment that prompted Trump to brand his remarks as “very disrespectful”, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to suggest that Macron himself is “brain dead.”

In recent weeks Macron has tried to shake up the agenda by demanding a review of alliance strategy, but Trump -- who arrived boasting that he had forced members to boost defence spending – struck back hard. "I think that's very insulting," Trump said of Macron's assertion last month that NATO is experiencing "brain death". Trump warned that “nobody needs NATO more than France,” adding that Macron’s comments were “very dangerous.”
Adding to the fragmented mood, tensions within the alliance were on show when the leaders of Canada, Britain, France and the Netherlands were caught on video at a Buckingham Palace reception on Tuesday evening apparently having a laugh about Donald Trump's impromptu news conferences and disregard for the day's scheduling. Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could be heard saying, "he was late because he takes a 40 minute press conference off the top." Trump reacted furiously, calling Trudeau “two-faced”, claiming that the Canadian prime minister was upset at US demands for his government to up its defence budget. “I called him out on that, and I'm sure he wasn't happy about it, but that's the way it is,” said Trump, who also cancelled his post-summit press conference and cut short his attendance.

The White House and other NATO leaders disagree on my issues; not least Trump's decision to support NATO member Turkey's recent military operation in north-east Syria to drive out Kurdish militants that Ankara considers terrorists, the same militants that played a key role in the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against ISIS. On December 3, Erdogan demanded that NATO “recognize as terrorist organizations those we consider terrorist organizations” and threatened to block the Alliance’s plans to bolster the protection of the Baltic republics against Russia over the issue. Speaking at a news conference the following day, NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg , said that allies remain divided over a push by Turkey to designate as terrorist organizations two Kurdish militias, the YPG and PYD.

At a NATO Engages — London 2019 event, The BBC’s Lyse Doucet, who moderated the conversation with the former prime minister of Norway, pressed Stoltenberg about whether “NATO’s credibility has been dented by these very public rows about even your founding principle—all for one and one for all.” But Stoltenberg said that such disagreements are a part of the normal give and take of the Alliance rather than evidence of a breakdown.

“It would be strange if twenty-nine allies with different political parties, different history, different geography, always agreed on everything,” he said. “But the lesson we have learned from history is that despite these differences we have always been able to unite around our core policy to protect and defend each other.”

While the NATO secretary-general has admitted that disagreements are rife in the alliance – on funding, how best to tackle global terrorism, on how to engage with Russia – he wrapped up the summit by trying to talk up NATO unity, saying that the alliance "was the most successful in history because we've changed as the world has changed." He pointed to members agreeing a new plan to defend the Baltic states and Poland as proof it can deliver.

He also rejected criticism from Macron that the military alliance is suffering from "brain death and dismissed complaints from Trump that member states are not boosting their NATO military budgets quickly enough and insisted that the organization is adapting to modern challenges. Trump has called it "obsolete."

Trump defended Stoltenberg's record of pushing allies for increased defence spending, but he reiterated his own long-standing complaints.  “When I came in, I was angry at NATO, and now I've raised $130 billion,” Trump said, referring to the sum Stoltenberg says Canada and European members since 2016 will have added to the 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,” Trump said.
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