(Bloomberg) -- What was conceived as a celebration for one of the world’s most important military alliances risks becoming a show of disunity -- and this time it’s not because of anything Donald Trump has said or done.
Meeting in London this week, leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have two other presidents to worry about: France’s Emmanuel Macron, who recently has openly questioned the collective defense clause at NATO’s heart, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has troubled alliance members with his decisions to send troops into Syria and buy a Russian anti-missile system.
To make matters worse, Macron and Erdogan are now trading insults in public.
In fact, so much has changed since then-Prime Minister Theresa May offered to host the two-day commemoration of NATO’s 70th anniversary that her successor, Boris Johnson could be forgiven for wishing she hadn’t.
“I will tell you again at NATO, first check your own brain death,” Erdogan said, addressing Macron in a speech from Istanbul on Friday. He was referring to an interview the French leader gave last month in which he not only criticized Turkey, but described the alliance as brain dead.
With three significant member states bringing conflicting agendas to the table at a gathering that takes place in the closing stretch of a charged U.K. election campaign, the event risks fanning concern about NATO’s future, rather than celebrating what alliance officials and leaders routinely call the most successful military grouping in history.
Why NATO, at 70, Is Facing New Doubt and Criticism
Officials from the U.S. and Britain were at pains last week to highlight NATO’s successes, including a renewed sense of purpose since Russia’s 2014 aggression in Ukraine. Defense spending is on the rise and NATO is expanding into counter-terrorism, cyber security, and now even space.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pushed back against Macron’s portrayal of the alliance as ailing. The two met in Paris last week.
And the alliance does continue to attract. North Macedonia, set to join next year, will bring the leaders at the table this week to 30, up from 15 when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Such accomplishments however are being drowned out by the increasingly public dispute over what NATO should focus on, and what it should stand for. In an apparent attempt to contain the debate, Germany has proposed forming an expert group to report on the future political shape of the alliance.
Macron drove Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel to make a spirited defense of the alliance last week, telling lawmakers in Berlin that “Europe cannot currently defend itself alone.” Long part of the glue that has solidified NATO, Merkel’s position is now under threat at home, however, after her center-left coalition partner elected a new, more radical leadership.
Erdogan May Seek EU Money Even as He Trades Insults With Macron
A senior U.S. official said on Friday that Trump would prioritize enlisting NATO to push back against China’s growing influence. The official said Trump would also press allies to increase defense spending and to exclude Chinese companies from the construction of 5G mobile networks, something many have been unwilling to do.
Instead of containing China, Macron wants NATO to prioritize the fight against terrorism. Thirteen French soldiers died in Mali last week and a lone terrorist on Friday killed two people in London. A French official said Macron also plans to press for greater “operational” burden-sharing as a way of complementing Trump’s push for Europe to carry more of the alliance’s financial burden.
Erdogan, meanwhile, is demanding acceptance of Turkish goals in northern Syria, including classifying as a terrorist threat the Kurdish militias that have fought Islamic State alongside other NATO allies. He also rubbed salt into another open wound in Turkey’s ties with Western allies, by unpacking and testing the NATO non-compatible S-400 air defense system he recently bought from Russia.
NATO Foresees More Europe Defense Outlays as It Braces for Trump
And that’s all before Trump makes his first tweet at the event. The U.S. president will arrive distracted by pressures at home, where he is the subject of impeachment proceedings.
“It will be a great tribute to how much all the NATO allies value the institution if we manage to get through this leaders meeting without President Trump, President Macron or President Erdogan doing something damaging to the alliance,” said Kori Schake, a former National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration who is now deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The shortened time frame –- formal sessions will take only about four hours -- may limit the potential for damage. Long term NATO watchers also caution against exaggerating the dangers of intra-alliance tensions, which aren’t new to an organization that includes countries with differing geographies and security priorities.
Macron’s questioning of the collective defense commitment at NATO’s heart is dangerous, but in many ways he is simply reverting to France’s traditionally semi-detached status. President Charles De Gaulle pulled out of the organization’s military command structure in 1966, and France rejoined only in 2009.
Macron Says NATO Should Shift Its Focus Away From Russia
“It’s not a fashionable view, I know,” said Sir Adam Thomson, the U.K.’s envoy to NATO from 2014-2016, but NATO “has been pursuing a new vision since the end of the Cold War and, to some extent, it’s already got a lot of the material.”
He cited three new roles since the Cold War: Crisis management in places like Afghanistan, keeping a lid on potential disputes between members in eastern Europe, and building partnerships with dozens of non-member countries.
As the site of NATO’s first headquarters, London was a natural choice for this week’s anniversary. It was also supposed to make a statement on the global stature of a new post-Brexit Britain.
Johnson Plans Major Review of U.K.’s Defense, Foreign Policy
Brexit, however, has since been delayed. Johnson also called a snap election for Dec. 12. With anti-Trump protests planned, the opposition Labour Party hopes to capitalize on the U.S. president’s unpopularity and friendship with Johnson.
Were Johnson to lose to Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, that would give NATO yet another individual to worry about at its next summit, due in 2021.
Over his career the socialist firebrand has called NATO “a danger to world peace and a danger to world security”. He has more recently fallen into line with party policy, which is for the U.K. to stay in the alliance, but he’d likely prove another awkward partner.
The last time Britain hosted NATO leaders, in 2014, he told an anti-NATO rally the end of the Cold War “should have been the time for NATO to shut up shop, give up, go home and go away.”
--With assistance from Onur Ant, Geraldine Amiel and Justin Sink.
To contact the reporters on this story: Marc Champion in London at firstname.lastname@example.org;Jonathan Stearns in Brussels at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at firstname.lastname@example.org, Flavia Krause-Jackson
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