BRUSSELS – NATO will mark its 70th birthday at a summit in the coming week, but the celebration looks likely to be the scene of bitter personal and political combat.
National leaders will descend on London on Tuesday bracing for a scrap over spending and how to deal with Russia, in a huge test of unity within NATO, which bills itself as the “most successful alliance in history.”
U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused European countries of failing to pay their way and will be looking for evidence they are stepping up defense spending.
French President Emmanuel Macron has despaired of the club’s strategic direction, saying it is suffering “brain death” — riling other leaders and drawing a rare public rebuke from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
On Friday Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, furious at Western criticism of his operation in northern Syria against the Kurds, hit back at Macron in personal terms: “First of all, have your own brain death checked. These statements are suitable only to people like you who are in a state of brain death.” French officials summoned the Turkish envoy in Paris to complain.
This combustible line-up is dropping into a Britain that is gripped by a frenetic national election campaign, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s friendship with Trump under attack from opposition parties.
Personal duels aside, the NATO summit agenda is pretty thin. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is hoping simply to get the leaders to sign off on decisions already taken.
Last year’s NATO summit in Brussels went off the rails when Trump launched a tirade at Merkel during a televised breakfast meeting.
It ended with him heading for a controversial one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
The week before this summit has seen a stage-managed series of spending announcements, all designed to send what one diplomat called a “political signal” to appease Trump.
Stoltenberg was at pains to point out Friday that Canadian and European defense spending has grown for four straight years and is on course to hit $130 billion next year.
He said Trump is right about Europe and Canada needing to spend more, but added that “European allies and Canada should not invest in defense to please President Trump.”
“They should invest in defense because we are facing new challenges, our security environment has become more dangerous,” he told reporters.
Stoltenberg is attempting to mollify Trump ahead of the summit by talking up a billion-dollar contract with U.S. plane-maker Boeing to upgrade the organization’s reconnaissance planes.
NATO members have also agreed to lower the cap on U.S. contributions to the alliance’s relatively small $2.5 billion operating budget, meaning Germany and other European countries — but not France — will pay more.
But such measures are a drop in the ocean compared to the tens of billions of dollars Europeans would have to spend to meet their promise to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense.
In 2014, the allies promised to meet this goal within a decade. But this past week Merkel admitted that economic powerhouse Germany would not hit this sum before “the early 2030s.”
Stoltenberg insists Trump’s tone toward NATO has been more positive of late, but Macron’s broadside in a November Economist interview took many by surprise.
The French leader stood by his remarks after talks with Stoltenberg, saying NATO is failing to address relations with Russia and what do to about Turkey.
Macron’s forthright comments have drawn sharp public criticism, both from Germany and from Eastern European NATO countries that feel threatened by Russia.
Tomas Valasek, a former Slovak ambassador to NATO, said even if there is merit in opening debate, Macron has overstepped the mark.
“NATO leaders have a responsibility that think tankers don’t,” said Valasek, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank.
“If you run one of the nuclear powers and in some ways the most powerful military in Europe you don’t want to feed the perception of NATO disunity and I’m afraid that’s what he’s done.”
However, some acknowledge that the time may be ripe for reflection.
“The reactions on the interview were very negative in the alliance — there is no sympathy,” one NATO diplomat said.
“At the same time, he triggered a very lively discussion on the question where the alliance stands and in which direction it will proceed.”
At the London summit, leaders will consider separate French and German proposals for expert committees to mull how NATO can improve its strategic thinking.
Stoltenberg a week ago welcomed the German plan to create a group of experts — chaired by himself — but was cool on the French plan.
No formal statement by all 29 leaders will be issued. Instead, there will be a “short declaration on the ‘success story of NATO,'” a diplomat said.