NATO Turns 70 Political Disputes Overshadow Alliance Anniversary

In recent years, NATO has been militarily successful, but it has also been a political problem child. Indeed, Emmanuel Macron has disparaged it as "brain dead" and Donald Trump once called it "obsolete." The alliance is clearly at a crossroads.
American Marines during a NATO maneuver in Iceland in 2018

American Marines during a NATO maneuver in Iceland in 2018

Foto: Lance Cpl. Menelik Collins/US Marine Corps/DPA

Mobile phones aren't allowed. There are too many out there who would love nothing better than to listen in. The Russians, the Chinese -- who knows, possibly even the North Koreans. You have to turn in your phone before you can enter the sensitive areas at NATO headquarters in Brussels. And what area could be more sensitive than the secretary general's office?

But on Thursday of last week, everyone was free to listen in. Indeed, the secretary general himself positioned the mobile phones on the conference table just right so that all his words would be recorded. Jens Stoltenberg had a message for the small group of journalists who had traveled from Berlin -- and he wanted that message to get across clearly.

In an interview with the Economist at the beginning of November, French President Emmanuel Macron had complained of the "brain death of NATO." Clinical terms are often used in politics to describe situations that are supposedly hopeless. But in contrast to terms like "persistent vegetative state" or "delirium," the diagnosis "brain death" describes a condition that is final. There is no cure.

When Stoltenberg leans over the patient, though he recognizes astonishing signs of vitality everywhere he looks. NATO may be 70 years old, but it is still very much alive. That is the message the secretary general wanted to communicate during this lunch meeting held shortly before the London anniversary summit on Dec. 3.

There are, of course, disagreements among the allies, said Stoltenberg -- on things like trade, climate change and the approach to Iran and northern Syria. "But the paradox is that we do more together than we have done in decades." In his home country Norway, politicians are often accused of being long on talk and short on substance. "But the opposite is true at NATO," the secretary general asserted. "The rhetoric is not the best, but the substance is excellent. And it's the substance that matters."


So, which diagnosis is the correct one -- Dr. Macron's or Dr. Stoltenberg's? The answer to that question depends on your perspective. The truth is that 70 years after its founding, there are two NATOs. One consists of the well-oiled military machine, which conducts joint exercises, develops plans together and is working in concert to move allied units to the "Eastern Flank" to demonstrate alliance solidarity toward Russia.

It's this NATO, the one of ever-increasing defense budgets, to which Stoltenberg is referring. After decades of shrinking and saving, it is becoming more powerful and operational again. It is adapting to new challenges, like the threats of hybrid aggression, cyberattacks and new hypersonic weapons. It is, in that sense, quite animate.

But there's also the political side of the alliance, the deeply dysfunctional side where U.S. President Donald Trump, who once described NATO as "obsolete," is setting the tone. In this NATO, allies sometime only learn of decisions taken by their most important partner from Twitter -- even those decisions that affect their own security interests, such as in northern Syria .

In this NATO, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has maneuvered himself into the role of the troublemaker, one who is ruthlessly exploiting his veto power as he clashes with his allies while flirting with Russia. It is here, that the French president has doubts about whether the Article 5 requirement that all members provide support for another is still valid, where Eastern Europe is sparring with the West, the north against the south, Trump against Macron, Macron against Trump and so on.

Functioning Engine Room, Shattered Family

Next Wednesday in London, when leaders of the 29 NATO member states meet at the queen's reception in the evening, both NATOs will be represented -- the professionals from the well-functioning engine room and the shattered political family.

This won't be a lengthy summit and only a brief "Leaders Summit" is planned. There will be a dinner, a reception and a working session the following day. Everyone is hoping it will all be brief enough that the U.S. president doesn't have time to read the decisions that have been reached. And freak out. That is, if he even turns up at all given the impeachment proceedings currently underway in Washington. The summit declaration will be a maximum of two pages, it won't really tackle any tough issues and each ally will be free to interpret it as they please. The main aim is to avoid any major clashes.

'There's No Crisis'

Not everyone, of course, has such a dark view. On Tuesday, Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak visited his country's embassy in Berlin, and as a diplomat, he knows how to present a situation more positively than it perhaps deserves. Crisis? "There's no crisis," he said. "NATO is very much alive."

Because Macron went public with his criticism, Lajcak said, he is being contradicted in public. "Article 5 is the backbone of NATO, its raison d'etre," said Lajcak. "I would never publicly question the collective defense clause. It's sacred."

Lajcak, too, of course, has recognized the existence of the two NATOs. Militarily, the Slovakian foreign minister believes, the alliance is working well. He also notes that the willingness of Europeans to increase their defense spending has also risen enormously as a result of pressure from Washington.

But Lajcak is skeptical of plans, such as the one from Macron, to make Europe more militarily independent from the U.S. "If more sovereignty means building a parallel structure to NATO, I'm strictly against it." It's clear he says, that "we Europeans cannot defend ourselves without the United States."

It is also crucial for the future of NATO, he says, that Berlin and Paris once again speak with a single voice. Many European governments do tend to complain at times when the Franco-German motor is running in sync, Lajcak allows. "But I assure you: We get scared when the Franco-German motor sputters."

These days, though, describing the state of the Franco-German relationship as "sputtering," seems like a generous assessment. Officials in Berlin have experienced in recent months  just how tough Paris can be in asserting its interests if Macron has the feeling he is being ignored.

Symbolic Burden-Sharing

The reason for the dispute is an initiative undertaken by Berlin. Since the start of the year, Angela Merkel's Chancellery has been planning to relieve the Americans of part of the NATO common funding as a goodwill gesture. The gesture is also aimed at relieving a bit of the pressure from Washington over the fact that Germany, like many other NATO members, has not kept its pledge to increase its defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

The U.S. has thus far been paying around 22 percent of NATO's 2.1-billion-euro budget, with Germany shouldering just 14.8 percent. The U.S. has long felt this distribution to be unfair, which is where the plan from Berlin comes in. The Germans proposed increasing their share by almost 25 million euros to 338 million euros, with France also increasing its contribution by almost 18 million euros. The idea was for other NATO partners to contribute as well, with the result being that the U.S. would have to pay 131 million euros less.

But Paris wouldn't go along and the French vetoed the plan just as soon as the German ambassador to NATO presented it to the North Atlantic Council. France angrily accused Germany of pushing a deal that was favorable to Trump even though there was absolutely no reason for such a budgetary redistribution to take place.

The governments spent months squabbling, largely below the public's radar. Even countless meetings and video conference calls failed to bring the parties closer together. Until recently, in fact, it appeared as though the symbolic gesture would have to be stricken from the London agenda entirely.

Compared to defense expenditures, the sums involved are minimal. But an agreement was only reached at the last minute -- and the French got everything they wanted. As it now stands, Paris won't have to increase its contribution at all, with Washington and Berlin splitting the difference on the 18 million euros Paris would have paid under the plan.

The extra expenditure won't be difficult for the Germans to shoulder. They have, however, taken a page from the French book elsewhere -- namely on the question of how to make expenditures for NATO appear better than they actually are. In other words, how to get closer to the 2-percent defense spending target without actually spending more money.

While reviewing the "Strategic Level Reports," in which all NATO member states report their defense spending to the alliance once a year, experts in Berlin found that their partners had been using some creative bookkeeping tricks. France, for example, reported costs for its federal police, the national gendarmes, as NATO-relavent defense expenditures. The Paris fire department's budget also appears to be listed in the NATO expenditures.

Taking a Cue from Paris

Officials in Berlin then followed France's cue. In a confidential statement to NATO, the German Finance Ministry has listed 800 million euros of expenditures from the country's development aid programs as part of its NATO spending for 2020, although those funds would seem at first glance to have little to do with the country's armed forces, the Bundeswehr. Still, the German federal armed forces and the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), an arm of the German Development Ministry, work together on military-civilian projects in crisis countries like Afghanistan and Mali. At least on the surface, that would seem legitimate.

And the amount in question is indeed quite relevant for the quota of Germany's NATO spending. The 800 million from the development aid division and the budget for new planes for the fleet for German government officials, which has also been listed in the spending, would increase the quota by about 0.02 percent. And although that may not sound like much, it is still symbolically important in the country's slow march toward the 2-percent pledge. In early August, officials in Berlin proudly reported to NATO headquarters that instead of defense spending of 1.39 percent of GDP, 1.42 percent could now be achieved.

Division over China

But the dispute over money is just one of several areas in which cracks in the alliance have become visible. There are also deep divisions on the question of how NATO should approach Beijing in the future. The fact that China is turning into a considerable challenge for the West is not disputed at NATO headquarters. Moscow's role as NATO's perpetual adversary is likely to pale in the long run compared to China. "Russia is like a few hurricanes put together," said one senior NATO official. "China, on the other hand, is like climate change."

The U.S. has been pushing for a tough stance since the beginning of the year. The White House would like to see a kind of doctrine that would classify China, an aspiring economic and military power, as a new threat to NATO. But European countries like Germany and France don't want to jeopardize economic relations with Beijing and are demanding a more measured approach.

The outcome of this split is a classified report typical of NATO, one which foreign ministers approved at their last meeting in Brussels. Several pages are devoted to philisophical ramblings about the security policy implications of China's rise, but in the end, no clear stance is taken.

The report even avoids taking a clear position on the controversial issue of Chinese network equipment-maker Huawei. Rather than coming up with a uniform NATO stance, each member country has been left to decide on its own, based on its security interests, whether or not to involve the Chinese technology company in the development of its 5G network.

That decision has the advantage of sweeping a potentially conflictual issue under the rug ahead of London. But another has potentially arisen to take its place. It remains to be seen, after all, how NATO will react to a proposal by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas for an expert review of NATO's strategic orientation. France would like to prevent Secretary General Stoltenberg from taking leadership of that body and Macron is pushing for an independent commission that could also develop more radical ideas. It is quite possible that no agreement will be reached on that proposal in London.

At NATO headquarters, there are fears that the commission Maas has called for could paralyze the entire alliance apparatus for at least a year. Who, after all, would dare come forward with an idea during that time if it were unclear what direction NATO would ultimately take? For the many among the 29 allies who want to preserve the status quo, that's good news.

It isn't often that high-ranking ambassadors write articles. But last April, Hans-Dieter Lucas, Germany's ambassador to NATO, made an exception. He wrote in a security policy journal of the need to preserve NATO as a political alliance.

"There is no other multilateral format," Lucas wrote, "in which not only 22 EU member states and the U.S., but also important countries as varied as Canada, Norway and Turkey coordinate security policy on a day-to-day basis." It is important to preserve this political core, "despite the undeniable difficulties."


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 49/2019 (November 30th, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.

Half a year later, Lucas is sitting in a black leather armchair in his office on the fifth floor of the new NATO headquarters. To be honest, he admits, those differences within the alliance have grown further rather than diminished.

First it was just Trump with his tweets, but then came Erdogan with his invasion of northern Syria, and now it's Macron, who seems intent on outdoing his American counterpart in terms of expressing his disruptive potential.

Lucas has been Germany's permanent representative to NATO since mid-2015. He is reserved in his assessments and tends not to exaggerate. His office has a view of the flags of the member states and the NATO star, the symbol of cohesion.

He says he would never go so far as to predict the end of the trans-Atlantic alliance, but adds that he is fully aware of what is at stake right at the moment. "There is no alternative to NATO when it comes to defending Europe in the foreseeable future," he says.

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