NATO faces an unprecedented challenge

A cautious stance by the Transatlantic alliance is probably wise

During an interview published in the Economist France’s President Emmanuel Macron accused the White House of inflicting “brain death” on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and accused the US of “turning its back on us” citing America’s withdrawal of troops from northern Syria to pave the way for a Turkish incursion without consultation with allies.

Europe is at “the edge of a precipice”, he said, and must strategise towards becoming a geopolitical force else we will “no longer be in control of our destiny”. When asked whether NATO’s Article 5 all-for-one, one-for-all mantra still applied, he said he didn’t know while warning ominously “what will Article 5 mean tomorrow?”

His premise, described by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel as “drastic,” took member states by surprise and incurred a flurry of rejections.

However, Macron who has real concerns over Europe’s defence does have a point and one is left to wonder whether criticisms from his European counterparts, among them Merkel, were genuine reflections of their real feelings. Or alternatively were they made to ward off the Trump administration’s ire that could translate into retribution?

If indeed European leaderships are going for the bended knee approach, they clearly haven’t studied the character of the Oval Office incumbent, a man who admires the strong and rides roughshod over the weak.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un showered United States President Donald Trump with insults. Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdogan, who recently threw Trump’s letter into the trash can saying he will never forget that “devil letter,” is currently cosying-up to Russian President Vladimir Putin and thinks nothing of breaching NATO’s rules with purchases of Russian S-400 defence systems even in the face of US threats which failed to manifest.

Yet, these, together with Putin, are among the leaders the US president seemingly most admires. On the other hand, there is little love lost between Trump and Merkel while Macron’s serial charm offensives have not paid-off.

In reality, Trump has been disdainful of NATO’s usefulness to his America First policies from the get-go. At times he has treated heads of member states like juniors deserving of being publicly ticked off for their failure to meet their countries’ financial obligations under the treaty.

Moreover, according to New York Times’ sources, last year, Trump privately raised the issue of quitting NATO that was founded by western nations in 1949 to deter Soviet aggression. He has further placed a question mark over Article 5, invoked only once in the Alliance’s history, casting doubt on whether the US would abide by its commitment if a small member country such as Montenegro came under attack.

Former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen pulled no punches characterising Trump’s castigation of the Alliance as “dangerous” and “politically weakening” while arguing that his disparaging remarks encourage Putin to test NATO’s unity.

NATO member Turkey is already testing the Alliance’s unity, not only due to its warming ties with Russia, whose goal is to see NATO decapitated. Turkish-funded Syrian mercenaries entering into Syrian sovereign territory, ostensibly to cleanse the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from a so-called ‘safe zone,’ hasn’t gone down well with NATO chiefs.

But again NATO’s criticisms are gloved because Turkey boasts of the largest army within the bloc and hosts NATO’s attack aircraft as well as US nuclear weapons, besides enjoying the comfort of Trump’s protective wing.

President Erdogan feels sufficiently empowered to silence European powers with threats of opening a route for millions of refugees to access European shores and he now vows to repatriate Daesh terrorists detained in Syria to their home countries, whether they like it or not—a plan that Trump supports.

With ‘Mama’ Merkel set to leave office when her term ends in 2021, Macron is positioning himself as the defender of both NATO and the European Union (EU). He has long been pushing hard for a “true European Army” capable of defending Europe from Russia and the US, a call that elicited fury in the White House and lame responses from his EU counterparts.

Trump is far from being a Europhile. Indeed, he has been a consistent champion of Brexit and has condemned Boris Johnson’s last-minute deal while expressing his preference for Nigel Farage’s ‘no deal’ scenario. He certainly showed his true colours by imposing $7.5 billion (Dh27.58 billion) tariffs on European goods that took effect last month.

Yet, unlike Macron who’s seen the writing on the wall, European heads of state are adopting a softly-softly approach. Perhaps they have chosen to exercise patience until the results of America’s elections to be held on November 3 next year. Given that the Transatlantic Alliance has been a success story for 70 years, their cautious stance is probably wise. However, in the event of a Trump administration Mark II, all bets are off.

Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at heardonthegrapevines@yahoo.co.uk.

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