Alliance divided: Breaking down NATO’s factions

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Alliance divided: Breaking down NATO’s factions

Ruptures are a familiar feeling for members of the post-World War II coalition. The United States felt bruised by NATO allies refusing to join the Vietnam War. And in 1966 President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO’s military command structure. But the bumps have also pushed NATO to adopt more flexible tactics, give smaller members more of a voice and evolve over time.

Most political and military leaders say that’s exactly how the alliance will emerge from this turbulent political moment. NATO member governments are bound together by history, geography and necessity, while the alliance’s military relationships are solid. Still, the divisions are clear and, in many cases, widening. Here are the top gaps and factions to watch.

Investors …

… vs. the laggers

President Trump’s perennial gripe is that NATO members don’t spend enough on their own militaries.

It’s a convenient complaint — it takes years for other countries shift gears on defense procurement, giving the administration a semi-permanent grievance.

Today only nine alliance members are hitting an agreed-upon target of spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense: the United States, Greece, the United Kingdom, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Turkey and France are close.

The majority are far from meeting the target. Germany is barely halfway and won’t hit it before 2031. Canada, Spain, and Italy, are also far from hitting the 2 percent target.

The bomb throwers


Precious little unites the alliance’s three most difficult members — Turkey, France and the U.S. — but that hasn’t stopped them causing heartburn within NATO.

Turkey recently invaded parts of Syria to the consternation of its NATO allies. Ankara is also drawing closer to Russia, even buying weapons from Moscow. French President Emmanuel Macron’s vision for European defense is at odds with the views of other members, notably Germany. And smaller member states worry that, in a time of crisis, they might not be able to rely on the U.S. to adhere to NATO’s defense guarantee, which guarantees that an attack against any NATO country is an attack on all NATO countries.

Macron’s “brain death” allies

Macron rattled many European leaders when he declared NATO to be experiencing “brain death,” raising suspicions that he would ultimately prefer a European army to supplant NATO, a step far beyond the EU’s recent effort to initiate 34 cross-border military research and procurement projects.

But Macron does have some allies as he heads into this week’s NATO meeting. The defense ministers of Luxembourg and Netherlands share his perspective, if not his language. “President Macron is right when he is attacking the level of coordination in NATO with his words,” said Jean Asselborn, the Luxembourgish defense minister.

The Macron haters

Many NATO members were unsettled by Macron’s comments.

His loudest critic is Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who, like Macron, is attempting to position his country as NATO’s newest indispensable member. Erdoğan told Macron to “have his own brain death checked out first” before criticizing NATO, in a speech Friday, according to state broadcaster TRT. Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu even told reporters Macron is “the sponsor of the terrorist organization,” a reference to Macron meeting with representatives of the Kurdish fighters Turkey has invaded Syria to fight.

Macron is more likely worried about any rift with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who publicly admonished him last month, and whom he needs on his side for wider efforts at EU reform.

Kay Bailey Hutchison, U.S. ambassador to NATO and another critic of Macron’s remarks, is walking a tightrope. She says a divided NATO is “not even rational” and that the U.S. “firmly disagree(s)” with Macron. Attendees will be watching to see whether Trump sticks with Hutchison’s message, given his past criticism of NATO.

The big four contortionists

NATO’s biggest member countries love to have their cake and eat it, too.

German ministers were among the first and loudest Macron critics, but they are also those who have taken the most heat for avoiding serious increases in military funding. Germany’s entire submarine fleet was grounded as recently as 2018, and half its fighter jets and tanks are regularly out of action.

The knock against Macron is that he proclaimed NATO brain dead without a serious plan to revive it. He has also yet to come up with a workable plan with Germany for getting Russia out of Ukraine: the precondition for the thawing of Russian relations that he seeks.

The U.K.’s domestic politics have also put it in a messy NATO position. Critics say the country’s three-year-long attempt to leave the European Union has left it divided and distracted, opening up space for Macron to position France as Europe’s key security actor. And Britain’s opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has previously called for NATO to be disbanded, raising questions about what would happen if Corbyn ever becomes prime minister.

Trump has also flustered some allies by pushing a united NATO hard line against China, while simultaneously offering conciliatory comments about Russia, which many NATO members regard as an imminent threat.

China alarmists …

… vs. cautious engagers

President Trump would like NATO allies to focus on the strategic threat China poses, and is calling on members to not let Chinese firms help build next-generation wireless networks.

China is several steps ahead in dealing with this challenge. Hungary and Italy led 22 European countries in signing agreements to support China’s Belt and Road initiative, Beijing’s controversial foreign investment program.

Greece and Portugal have been other big beneficiaries of Chinese largesse. Croatia hosted a summit in April specifically aimed at deepening Chinese links in Europe’s east. And Luxembourg — which spends next to nothing on its defense, despite being Europe’s richest nation on a per capita basis — hosted the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank summit in July.

On the other side, France and Germany have joined the United States in growing increasingly worried about the economic threat that China poses: pushing the European Commission to describe China as a “systemic rival” in an April 2019 strategy paper. Canada-China relations are also at a low point after the arrest of two Canadian executives on what are widely seen as trumped-up charges.

Russia alarmists …

… vs. cautious engagers

Russia’s nuclear arsenal pointed at Europe is much bigger than what NATO points back at Russia. Russia has also invaded its European neighbors twice since 2008, and cut off gas supplies.

Former Soviet countries in the Baltics and Poland are most exposed and alarmed at this aggression, along with the Czech Republic. But countries as diverse as the Netherlands (which lost 193 citizens when a Russian missile brought down a Malaysian Airlines jet over Ukraine), and the U.K. (site of several poisoning by Russian agents) have sharpened their views.

Still, some NATO leaders are encouraging more overtures to Russia.

Macron has insisted that “the absence of dialogue with Russia” has made Europe less safe, risking a greater Ukraine problem in the long term. Russia also has decent relations with alliance members Greece and Italy. And the Hungarian and Slovakian governments have shown an openness to closer relations with Moscow — Hungary is contracting with Russian companies to build a new nuclear energy plant.

The ‘let’s focus on terrorism’ group

Macron wants to define terrorism as NATO’s enemy, rather than Russia.

NATO is a member of the international coalition to defeat the Islamic State, and has recognized terrorism as a threat under its purview since 1999, activating in 2001 in response to the 9/11 terror attacks. Yet making terrorism the core of NATO’s work would be a fundamental overhaul for an alliance based on troop and nuclear deterrents.

NATO’s civilian leader, Jens Stoltenberg, says the alliance can fight terrorism and more: “NATO is the only platform where North America and Europe can address strategic issues together,” be it terrorism, Russia or China.

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