Is NATO dead? It has entered intensive care. Let’s wait for its resurrection..

 (B2) “NATO is brain dead“, the words of Emmanuel Macron are being talked about in the corridors of Brussels, both at the Alliance and at the European Union headquarters. Since the publication of the interview in The Economist every single person in the diplomatic and media ranks has questioned themselves and each other. Is this just another ‘trumperie’ or is a deeper reflection ?

Training of the Iraqi forces by the Allied forces, in Iraq (credit : U.S. Army photo by Spc. William Marlow)

A tempo to watch closely

Important precision: this interview was not made yesterday, but on October 21, in the middle of the Turkish offensive. President Macron’s anger is not feigned. He made it clear, shortly before Friday, after a tense European Council. Furious to have learned of the American withdrawal through Twitter and of the Turkish offensive which threatens European security, President Macron says aloud what the others think (read: La faute lourde des Occidentaux et de l’OTAN en Syrie). But few did react. It was therefore necessary to set the bar stronger. The interview is published now, at a tempo that is not random. One month before the NATO summit in London, if the French president wanted to put the subject on the agenda, he would not have acted differently. The objective has been achieved.

A bit of a European Trump

On the form, Emmanuel Macron has understood that in a media panorama where everything is written in 140 characters, in addition to the well-phrased, literary big speeches, he needed shocking sentences. He doesn’t use Twitter like Donald Trump does. But the result is identical: to hit the bull’s eye, to say things that can be understood by all, which forces everyone to position themselves, and to provoke if necessary, or get (a little) angry. In fact, he plays the role of the European Trump. In any case, he wins: we are listening to the message. And everyone positions themselves on his message.

  • To attack NATO is quite easy. Easier that to attack the United States. The Alliance here plays the role of the scapegoat, usually one given to the European Union or European Commission. It is an odd reversal of roles.

The ‘everything is fine at NATO’ is an illusion

On the substance, the word ‘brain dead’ is probably quite strong. But we must wake up the dead. If “NATO on the military side works, and even works very well“, as a European diplomat says, it is not the same at the political level. The meeting of the Defence ministers proved it. The sort of dullness that seized the Alliance after the Turkish offensive in Syria, and the American abandonment of the Kurdish allies, is extraordinary to say the least.

  • If NATO is weakened, it is not because of Emmanuel Macron’s words, but by its absence in the Middle-East theatre these last few months.

A major political defeat of the Western countries in Syria

Let’s be clear. In Syria, NATO suffered a major political defeat. It is the role of chief peacekeeper given to Russia, as well as the operation of de-demonisation of Iran, which are extraordinary by their speed, rather than the Turkish offensive. Petrified, NATO could not say a word about the Sochi agreement. Its hereditary enemy, its raison d’être for always, Russia, is gaining the upper hand right at the borders of the Alliance, on its southern flank. This is happening in direct connection with one of the members of the Alliance, which was historically the centrepiece of the Russia limitation strategy (the former Ottoman Empire), and with the tacit assent of the Alliance’s ‘dad’ (the United States). In Moscow, they are probably rubbing their hands with glee right now. The Alliance has surrendered without even fighting.

  • Donald Trump can hardly blame the use of these words by his French counterpart. He himself had called the Alliance ‘obsolete’. He actually has proved it. In the Syran case, NATO was not put in the loop. It was faced with the fait accompli.

A Russian strategy of circumventing the Alliance

If we move away from the breaking news for two minutes, we can only be struck by the lack of strategy from the Alliance. According to a good old hackneyed military recipe, Russia has succeeded in fixing its adversary on a given territory: from northeastern Europe to the Black Sea. The Alliance, happy to be able to find a leading role, rushed headfirst into an ultimately quite static, very ‘old school’ presence. It does infantry manoeuvres, ground exercises, and noisy demonstrations of tanks and planes, not far from Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow has occupied the ground in Syria and placed its pawns in Egypt, Libya, the Central African Republic (tomorrow it will be in Mali or Burkina Faso. It carried out a turning movement by reversing, for its benefit, the Kennan doctrine of containment used by the Americans after the war to limit the Soviet breakthrough. The Moscow-Tehran-Damascus-Beirut axis (+ Ankara and Cairo if necessary) is now an essential part of the southern Mediterranean. Faced with this, NATO is paralysed.

  • To speak of ‘brain death’ is possibly daring, but if we keep with the medical terminology, we are faced with a beautiful stroke. An electric shock was needed to wake up the patient.

The battle of the old against the modern

On the one hand, no one can ignore the subject anymore. The taboo is lifted. The question will have to be addressed. On the other hand, when we look at the reactions that have taken place on both sides, in Washington, Berlin or elsewhere, we can see how they are actually embarrassed. Certainly the French president seems isolated. But most of the interventions, to justify NATO, are made (literally) in the past tense, talking about History… One only needs to see the language of Merkel or Stoltenberg. It hard to do otherwise on the eve of the celebrations for the fall of the Berlin Wall.

  • Thirty years later, the time of triumphing westernisation and the end of the Cold War seem obsolete. Emmanuel Macron is replaying the battle of the old vs the modern which had brought him to power in France.

A risk of a limited counterproductive effect?

In the medium term, the presidential message seems more hazardous. He plays the role traditionally given to France. That of pain in the neck who groans, blocks, imposes his vision, undoubtedly brilliant, but not very consensual. There is a risk that the French will not be given any gift when the time comes. France also seems a bit isolated. However, immediately an answer comes to mind: who in the ranks of European leaders today is able to oppose something frankly and, above all, to impose themselves?

Objective : an aggiornamento of the Alliance?

In fact, the French president hands are free. He can move a pawn forward, like in chess, even if that means losing it, because he still has other pieces. The ambition of the French president is not to mark NATO’s demise. On the contrary, it is about pushing for an aggiornamento of the Alliance, a change of focus, to accept a more important place for the European in the political (and military) leadership. Basically, if we dared, we could say Emmanuel Macron is calling for a perestroika.

  • As a observer of the European diplomatic scene was explaining it, even a secular republic such as France, “it is not impossible to believe… in resurrection“.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Nicolas Gros-Verheyde

Rédacteur en chef du site B2. Diplômé en droit européen de l'université Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne et auditeur 65e session IHEDN (Institut des hautes études de la défense nationale. Journaliste depuis 1989, fonde B2 - Bruxelles2 en 2008. Correspondant UE/OTAN à Bruxelles pour Sud-Ouest (auparavant Ouest-France et France-Soir).