NATO's 70th Anniversary: ​​Is There a Reason for Being or Is it in a State of Brain Death?

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NATO's 70th Anniversary: ​​Is There a Reason for Being or Is it in a State of Brain Death?

This year's NATO summit in the outskirts of London early next week should have been an opportunity to smooth out past disputes and focus on unity, while highlighting the UK's key role in the Alliance despite emerging from the European Union.

Instead, events in northeast Syria in October cast a large shadow on the rally.

French President Emmanuel Macron's comment that NATO is in a state of “brain death” has sparked lively debate among 29 Alliance members.

“This meeting of leaders is taking place at the right time,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said two weeks before the meeting. “Especially because questions are being asked about the power of transatlantic relations.”

In early October, US President Donald Trump abruptly withdrew US forces from northeastern Syria, where they were supporting the Kurdish militia leading the international coalition's fight against the Islamic State. This paved the way for a Turkish military offensive against Kurdish fighters, which Ankara considers a terrorist threat.

The events quickly unfolded following a telephone conversation between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Neither the US nor Turkey, both members of NATO, coordinated within the Alliance's structures.

Brain death?

“In my opinion, we are currently witnessing the brain death of NATO,” Macron commented in an interview with The Economist. “Strategically and politically, we have to admit we have a problem,” he said.

“What will Article 5 mean tomorrow?” he asked himself, referring to NATO's fundamental promise that all allies would come to the aid of any member state of the Alliance when attacked. “We should reconsider what NATO really is in light of the United States' commitment,” he said.

Other NATO leaders quickly distanced themselves from the French president's words.

“I do not share that view,” commented German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchinson said Washington “strongly” disagreed with his assessment.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said it was “dangerous” to question NATO's mutual defense provision. Macron “doesn't feel the hot breath of the Russian bear by the neck,” he told the Financial Times.

Following this interview, Germany and France made parallel proposals for the establishment of an expert commission to consider proposals for reform of the Cold War-era alliance.

The idea was welcomed by foreign ministers at a meeting last week in Brussels, Stoltenberg said. She is also likely to be mentioned at a meeting in London.

NATO wants to show that it keeps pace with a rapidly changing world. Last week, it announced that it would extend its operations to the fifth operational zone, space, beyond land, sea, air and more recently cyber space.

Will Trump be pleased?

But let's get back to Earth. European allies are trying hard to increase their defense capabilities within the European Union, as part of a broader effort to make the Union more independent of the US. But few question NATO's key role in defending Europe.

Trump has long criticized NATO allies for not carrying their share of the defense burden. At last year's summit, he mentioned the possibility of withdrawing from the Alliance if other members did not increase defense spending.

Such an approach proved successful as the Allies increased defense budgets. Germany, one of the main targets of Trump's criticisms, is now on track to allocate 1.42 percent of GDP to defense next year, approaching NATO's 2 percent target.

Whether such a rhythm of progress will be enough for the US president will be seen at a rally in London.


The events in Syria have raised another challenge for NATO: its inability to take steps against allies who are misbehaving.

Turkey's intervention is the latest in a series of ignoring NATO. Ankara has decided to buy a Russian missile system instead of NATO-compatible American equipment, while Western allies watched with concern Turkey's stifling civil liberties after a failed coup attempt in 2016.

NATO “can only take steps if we make unanimous decisions,” one diplomat noted recently, noting that his founding treaty “does not provide for measures against allies.”

Merkel, Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are scheduled to meet with a Turkish counterpart to discuss the situation in northeast Syria.

NATO leaders expect a condensed agenda at a meeting at a golf course north of London, while a formal meeting should take only three hours and about 50 decisions should be adopted.

Questions include Russia's threat and NATO's adjustments to respond quickly to events at its borders; the rise of China; hybrid threats; new technologies in warfare such as intelligent autonomous systems and training missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

NATO's 70th Anniversary: ​​Is There a Reason for Being or Is it in a State of Brain Death?

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