BRUSSELS – France and Germany outlined separate proposals for reforming NATO on Wednesday after President Emmanuel Macron slammed the alliance as experiencing “brain death,” causing uproar just weeks before a crucial summit.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian used the one-day meeting with his 28 NATO counterparts to explain Macron’s damning verdict and offer ideas for improvement.
Macron argued in an Economist interview that Turkey’s military incursion into Syria and U.S. unpredictability under President Donald Trump indicated a failure of strategic thinking at NATO.
Le Drian suggested a “small group of eminent persons” be formed to reflect on “the vision the alliance has of its values and aims” and report back to leaders at their summit in 2021.
The experts should focus on NATO’s relationship with Russia and the future challenges to alliance security — in particular terrorism, the rise of China and the impact of new military technology, Le Drian told the ministers.
Separately, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas proposed an expert group chaired by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to strengthen political thinking, saying it was essential to preserve the alliance, which he called “Europe’s life insurance.”
“What matters is to make sure that NATO, in the unity as we know it, also goes into the future — that there are no divisive tendencies within NATO,” Maas told reporters.
“There is a need to strengthen the political arm of NATO. There is also a need for greater political coordination between the partners.”
Stoltenberg, who will travel to Paris next week to confront Macron in person about his comments, welcomed the German proposal.
“The aim of the proposal is to consider how we can strengthen NATO as a platform for addressing the political challenges we face together,” he said.
NATO has not had a happy 70th birthday year. Macron’s comments came alongside Trump’s insistent complaints about weak European defense spending and growing concerns about Turkey, which has bought missiles from Russia and launched a military operation in Syria with scant regard for allies.
French officials insist Macron made a bold and necessary step by starkly spelling out truths that other allies preferred to gloss over.
“We aren’t trying to win a popularity contest but we want to be heard and understood,” said one.
But Macron’s arguments that Europe should try to ensure its own security without relying on the U.S. provoked anger from eastern European allies who feel directly threatened by Russia.
Diplomats from other countries point out that it is for now wholly unrealistic for Europe to think it can defend itself without U.S. help — expert estimates suggest filling the gap would cost hundreds of billions of euros.
“There is currently no credible alternative to NATO. We need American capabilities,” one diplomat said.
And Macron’s push for a more politically minded NATO was met with bemusement from some diplomats, who pointed out that in recent years France itself has been firmly against such a move.
Away from the political wrangling, foreign ministers prepared the agenda for next month’s summit in London, lining up a series of announcements to put a positive gloss on the gathering.
“The damage has been done, now we have to limit the fallout to put on a united front in London,” one senior diplomat said.
They also hope that some eye-catching actions will appease the mercurial U.S. president, who will arrive at the summit under the cloud of impeachment hearings back home.
The ministers formally designated space as a domain of conflict — alongside land, sea, air and cyber — though Stoltenberg insisted NATO would not “weaponize” space.
They also signed off a report on China featuring some 24 different areas for allies to work on, though the paper will not be made public.
While China lies well outside NATO’s traditional European-Atlantic sphere, Stoltenberg said Beijing’s growing role as a major military power and heavy investment in new defense technology had implications for alliance security.
He declined to comment directly on the ongoing political protests in Hong Kong but said it was clear China does not “share our values when it comes to elections, freedom of speech.”
The ministers also agreed a new plan for deterring hybrid warfare attacks and another for ensuring the security of energy supply.
Trump’s bugbear — European defense spending — will also feature heavily in London.
NATO will be hoping Germany’s announcement last week of a boost for its military spending will go some way to head off a repeat of the 2018 Brussels summit, when Trump publicly berated Chancellor Angela Merkel for not doing enough on defense.