Donald Trump arriving at the NATO leaders summit in Britain this week was like the school bully who announces that no one can pick on his kid brother. Except him. After spending the last three years questioning the alliance’s relevance, calling it obsolete, refusing to commit to standing by key articles in its charter and rubbishing the contributions of all the other members, the president suddenly found himself defending NATO’s honor.
French President Emmanuel Macron called NATO “brain dead” in an interview with The Economist last month. To use such language was “insulting” and a “very, very nasty statement to essentially 28 countries,” insisted President Manners. He then cut short his presence at the summit when it was clear that the other leaders were barely trying to hide their mockery of him and even the host, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was doing his best to ignore him.
It’s easy to accuse Trump of hypocrisy and delight in the overheard moment at Buckingham Palace where Macron, together with Johnson and Canada’s Justin Trudeau, seemed to be mocking him. Trump has certainly earned it. But when it comes to NATO, the president of the United States, even this president, does have certain rights. The United States is not first among equals within NATO; it is grossly unequal. Which is why the military commander of the alliance is always a four-star American general. It could never be otherwise.
The military capabilities of the United States, with its nuclear triad that can obliterate all life on earth; its ten super-carriers, each of which serves as a floating airbase for more fighter jets than most NATO members have in their entire air force; and its fleet of hundreds of strategic airlifters and airborne tankers that can transport entire divisions to any place in the world within 24 hours, are the cornerstone of NATO’s existence and the main guarantee of its members’ security. If there was any justice, NATO would have long ago received the Nobel Peace Prize for having ensured and safeguarded peace in Europe since the end of World War II.
Trump is wrong in seeing NATO’s fundamental function in transactional terms – as in, what does the United States get out of providing security for 28 other countries? – and has arguably done more damage to the alliance than any other previous president. Still, he does have the right to demand that the other members increase their rather paltry defense budgets, and he does, as strange as it sounds, deserve respect, at least in the NATO context. Because as contemptible as he is, for now at least he represents the nation whose taxpayers foot the bill to defend Canada and Europe.
On the other hand, while Macron should have kept his schoolboy sniggering with Trudeau and Johnson for a room without cameras or microphones, he was right in calling NATO “brain dead.” There is no clear idea among the alliance’s leaders of what it should be doing. A military organization needs to know what enemy it could potentially find itself fighting and, Macron actually isn’t so different from Trump in his preference not to confront Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and focusing instead on Islamist terror emanating from Africa and the Middle East.
But Macron, despite being one of the few non-American leaders in NATO to still have a relatively well-equipped military at his disposal, can’t change NATO’s course with Trump. He may have shared some laughs with Trudeau and Johnson, but when it comes to defense, they will, for historical and geographical reasons, always follow America’s need. Neither can Macron rely too heavily on Germany, which is still unwilling, for obvious historical reasons as well, to translate its economic power into military might. While a Euro-Army sounds cool in theory, the chances of it becoming a serious fighting force any time in the coming years, let alone a credible alternative to NATO, are nil.
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So Macron and his colleagues would do better to swallow their pride around Trump at NATO summits. The U.S. president could still do a lot more damage to NATO in the time left to him in the White House. And even if he loses next year’s election, there’s a good chance that his replacement may be more polite, but not much more appreciative of NATO.
In fact, there’s a good chance that a progressive president with an ambitious domestic agenda would find the money to fund universal healthcare and wiping out student debt by scaling back military commitments overseas. After all, why should the Europeans have the healthcare denied to U.S. taxpayers while enjoying security they paid for?
And speaking of countries with free healthcare and American military support, if NATO wasn’t so brain dead, it would not have denied Benjamin Netanyahu an invitation to join the summit in some kind of guest capacity. Whatever the reasons were for the decision not to accept Netanyahu’s request to meet some of the leaders during the summit, and notwithstanding the satisfaction many Israelis may have felt because their disgraced and indicted prime minister is no longer so welcome among other world leaders, the fact is that NATO needs Israel.
In many ways, such as joint exercises, coordination of operations against the Islamic State, intelligence-sharing and sharing experience of using the same weapons systems such as the F-35, Israel is one of the closest allies to NATO that is not actually a member. In fact, as Turkey increasingly isolates itself within the alliance by buying Russian air-defense systems and refusing to coordinate policy, Israel is becoming even more crucial to NATO in a critical region.
There are as many reasons to spurn Netanyahu, as there are to mock Trump. But a NATO summit is the one place where they both should be taken more seriously.