It’s shaping up as the birthday party from hell. The Germans and east Europeans are angry with the French. The French are angry with the Turks and the Americans. Donald Trump is angry with almost everyone. And the British hosts just wish it was all over.
Welcome to the 70th anniversary celebrations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The meeting was intended to mark the postwar achievements of what fans like to call the “world’s most successful defence alliance”.
Instead, it resembles a particularly neurotic episode of EastEnders with the leading actors driven to breaking point by family feuds, spiteful remarks and personal betrayals. And at the heart of this melodramatic soap opera, an existential dilemma: what is it all for? The meeting’s very modest schedule tells its own story. Leaders of the 29 member states will gather at a posh hotel near Watford, not in London. This is Boris Johnson’s cunning way of foiling anti-Trump protesters.
There will be no welcoming grand banquet. Instead, leaders may be offered a glass of prosecco and cheese-and-pineapple on sticks at a prior Buckingham Palace reception. After a morning “working session”, there is free time for “bilaterals” – meaning more arguments.
It has even been suggested that leaders may bunk off for a tour of the nearby The Making of Harry Potter film studio. For those who believe Nato unity is magical make-believe, the “Hogwarts in the Snow” Christmas feature is recommended.
Nato’s demise has been predicted many times since its main purpose – deterring the Soviet Union – disappeared. Its failure to agree a new mission or, rather, to choose between competing versions of what that mission should be, risks pushing it into irrelevance.
Recent suggestions by an exasperated Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, that Nato is “strategically brain-dead” and desperately needs new thinking were a bid to stir things up. He was furious that Trump had not consulted in advance about withdrawing US forces from north-east Syria, and Turkey’s subsequent invasion, which he found out about on Twitter.
Macron insists that Nato should focus urgently on its overall purpose and specific aims, not on Trump’s obsession over who pays the bills. “The questions I have asked … we haven’t solved yet,” he said. “Peace in Europe, the post-INF [the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty scrapped by Trump] situation, the relationship with Russia, with the Turkey issue, who’s the enemy?”
Macron urged Nato to find common ground with Vladimir Putin and not treat Moscow as a foe. Terrorism, he said, was the biggest threat facing everybody. He also suggested more attention be paid to Europe’s southern flank, meaning north Africa and the Sahel as well as Syria-Iraq.
Macron’s provocative interventions have been met by an outpouring of complacency, mixed with irritation. British officials suggested he was courting a domestic audience. Angela Merkel, Germany’s ever-cautious chancellor, accused him of indulging in childish “disruptive politics” and said she was “tired of picking up the pieces” after him.
The French leader is also suspected of advancing his vision of the EU as a major global power, able to stand up to China, the US and Russia, at Nato’s expense. He wants an expansion of European military capabilities and a stronger defence industrial base.
The Germans and east Europeans worry that such ideas could undermine Nato, which has served their interests well. Berlin suspects it would end up paying for Parisian dreams. Nato foreign ministers meeting last week opted for the usual steady-as-she-sinks message.
Merkel, meanwhile, told the Bundestag that better-developed EU defence structures should complement, not replace, Nato – and flatly rejected Macron’s claim the the US was no longer a reliable partner.
“The preservation of Nato is in our fundamental interest, even more so than during the cold war. For the time being, Europe can’t defend itself on its own — we are reliant on this transatlantic alliance,” she said.
It’s possible Trump, no fan of Nato, will treat this German admission of dependency as weakness and try to exploit alliance rifts. His pre-Watford contribution was to announce a big cut in US funding for the alliance’s operational budget.
Trump has nothing positive to offer the strategic debate. Keen to look tough as America’s elections approach, he appears determined to ignore what Nato secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, calls significant progress on burden-sharing. Diplomats mindful of last year’s disastrous Brussels summit fear that Trump may again resort to trademark abuse.
Another big land-mine awaits in rural Hertfordshire: Turkey’s maverick behaviour. Its invasion of Syria, targeting pro-western Kurds and risking gains made in the battle against Isis, appalled fellow Nato members across Europe, spurring calls for Turkey’s expulsion.
The move by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, acting in cahoots with Trump, handed a strategic victory to Russia and the Syrian regime. Macron’s criticism led Turkey to condemn him last week as a “sponsor of terrorism”.
So explosive is this Turkey-Europe dispute – complicated by Erdoğan’s threats to inundate the EU with Syrian refugees, human rights abuses inside the Turkish-occupied Syrian “safe zone” and a row over Cyprus – that a separate, fence-mending meeting is planned between Erdoğan, Macron and Merkel, hosted by Johnson.
Perhaps they will patch things up. But the bigger questions posed by Macron remain unanswered. Is he right about the need to change or perish? Perhaps Nato really is no longer fit for purpose?
It’s certain that he will make himself heard. It could be a rough day in Watford.