It’s almost Nato as usual when Emmanuel Macron calls Nato ‘brain dead’. It’s Nato as usual, and Donald Trump as usual, when Trump, who not long ago called Nato ‘obsolete’, chastises his bromantic partner Macron for being ‘insulting’ and ‘disrespectful’. It is unusual for Nato when Trump calls off a press conference and calls blackface artist Justin Trudeau ‘two-faced’. But it’s back to Nato as usual for the American president to do the British prime minister a big favor by blowing out a press conference: the last thing Boris Johnson wants when he’s facing a general election next week is for Trump to offer his thoughts on the ramifications of Brexit and the private habits of Prince Andrew, or to remind the British electorate that, in his eyes at least, Johnson’s fraternity nickname is ‘Britain Trump’.
Uncertainty over the purpose of Nato is one of its oldest traditions. Founded in 1949, the task of the Atlantic alliance has been unclear since the collapse of its Soviet-run rival, the Warsaw Pact after 1989. Which is to say, no one has been entirely sure what Nato’s mission is for nearly half of its existence. Nor does Nato’s history shed much light, apart from confirming that there’s no mission without mission creep and that French doubts about Nato are not a passing mood of Emmanuel Macron’s, but a long-standing hostility.
The germ of Nato was conceived in 1947, when Britain and France signed the Treaty of Dunkirk, a mutual defense pact against possible aggression from the Soviet Union and — if you can imagine such a thing — West Germany. This pairing expanded into a west European group, the Brussels Treaty Organization. In retrospect, the entry of a major military power like Luxembourg into the alliance was a key factor in containing Soviet aggression in western Europe.
The United States and Canada put the ‘North Atlantic’ into the ‘Treaty Organization’ when they joined in 1949. This agreement established the near-sacred principle that Nato is something the American pay for even though they’re not sure what they’re getting, and something the Europeans depend upon even though they’re not sure what they’ve got. The initial American goal was to build a buttress against communism in order to avoid a large and permanent American garrison in western Europe. Most of the western European states preferred to hide in the United States’s skirts while grumbling in Trudeau-like fashion about how hard it is to be a junior partner.
Like all families, Nato has had its scandals and, like all families, no one talks about them when the family gets together. In 1965, Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from Nato. Not inaccurately, de Gaulle reckoned that the Americans were using Nato to control western Europe and the British were using Nato to catch a free ride. As the term ‘rogue state’ had yet to be invented, it wasn’t applied to France in the following decades, even though France was a vigorous proliferator of nuclear technology and never happier than when making trouble for the ‘Anglo-Saxons’.
Only in 1995, did François Mitterrand bring France back into Nato — but without France’s nuclear submarines. To this day, France’s biggest weapons are currently reserved exclusively for the use of its shortest leader, Emmanuel Macron. Britain’s nuclear weapons, by contrast, are always at the disposal of the American president, providing the British have the budget to change the batteries on the launch pad. This illustrates another essential truth about Nato: the British and the French were on the same page when they signed the Dunkirk Treaty, but not so often after that.
By 1995, Nato had turned into the militarist’s equivalent of the tourist’s package-tour company: a quick way of pulling everyone together for a last-minute excursion to somewhere hot. Nato’s first mobilization came only in 1990, as the Cold War was ending, but Nato made up for its late start in the two-decade interventionist spree of the 1990s and 2000s.
The results of successful deterrence being a sequence of non-events, the proofs of Nato’s Cold War value are in inverse proportion to their cost. The results of Nato’s post-Cold War adventures include fiascos like the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the trashing of Libya. These disasters, though, are not the reason for Macron’s ‘brain dead’ remark.
Macron is said to have told aides that Nato will ‘cease to exist in five years’. At the same time, he’s calling for Nato to focus its energies on France’s front in the forever-war against Islamism, in its former colonies in West Africa. Either way, Macron does not want Nato to continue with its historic missions, antagonizing the Russians and bombing recalcitrant Middle Easterners. His understanding of the emerging world order is not dissimilar to those of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Macron blames the EU’s migrant trouble on American ‘regime change’ policies. He describes Nato, in expanding up to Russia’s borders, as ‘violating the terms of the deal reached in 1990’. He accepts Putin’s annexation of Crimea: ‘when Nato got as far as Ukraine, Putin decided to stop that expansion’. He fears that Europe, by which he means France, is losing its ‘geopolitical autonomy’ as its share of global GDP shrinks.
All this reflects a longstanding French preference for a multipolar world in which second- or third-tier powers can leverage their post-imperial connections and second-strike nuclear subs. But none of this is alien to Donald Trump’s view of the world. Trump also recognizes the 21st-century world as multipolar, with each major power asserting its Monroe Doctrine in what Macron calls a ‘zone of privileged interests’. Trump has also managed to avoid conflict with Russia. Trump also sees the reduction in Europe’s global autonomy, and France’s in particular: this week, he upbraided Macron by referring to France’s unemployment levels.
Yet France cannot afford the military that is a premise of ‘geopolitical autonomy’. Britain can’t afford it either. Germany, which can afford it, doesn’t want to buy it. For the European states, there is no current alternative to geopolitics without autonomy: an American-led and American-funded alliance. And America’s generals, to whose advice Trump is not immune, prefer Nato’s outsourcing to the options of retreating from the world or advancing into it with more garrisons.
Rather than burying Nato, Trump’s insistence that its other 28 members honor their treaty obligations may yet save it. There is a difference between stability and inertia. If Nato responds to Trump’s stimulus, it will almost certainly be around in five years’ time — which is more than you can say for Macron or Trump. Call it the fraternity of nations. Isn’t it bromantic?