On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and a scant month before NATO celebrates its 70th anniversary in London, French President Emmanuel Macron is disrupting the party. During an interview published on Thursday in the Economist, Macron blew a loud raspberry at the military alliance, declaring that Donald Trump’s presidency has inflicted “brain death” upon it. Ooh la la! His fellow European leaders are dismissing Macron’s remarks as Gallic impertinence; German chancellor Angela Merkel frostily remarked on Thursday, “This view does not correspond to mine,” while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described Germany as being “at the heart of NATO.” They need to get over it.
The truth is that Macron has it right. The surprising thing isn’t that NATO is on artificial life support. It’s that the alliance has lasted as long as it has.
In many ways, NATO is a victim of its own success. In 1957, Lord Ismay, the organization’s first secretary general, explained that the purpose of NATO was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” The formula worked. But after 1989, with Russia prostrate and Germany again ascending, NATO embarked upon a protracted search for a new one. It substituted a process for a doctrine by deciding to enlarge its membership rather than define its mission. Its welcome mat inadvertently set the stage for a fresh confrontation with Moscow as it now directly abutted Russia’s borders. The result was a kind of geopolitical ouroboros: NATO helped provoke the very standoff that allowed it to justify its continued existence.
Until now, a revived Russia threat has allowed the alliance to keep chugging along and some Trump officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are embracing it. On Thursday, during an official visit to Germany to mark the anniversary of reunification, Pompeo stated, “NATO remains an important, critical, perhaps historically one of the most critical, strategic partnerships in all of recorded history.” The champions of the alliance can also point to an uptick in U.S. troops stationed in Europe and the upcoming NATO exercise “Defender 2020,” which will feature more than 37,000 U.S. troops.
But Trump’s own actions and rhetoric suggest that he wants to wave auf wiedersehen to the alliance. His willingness to allow Turkey to run roughshod over the Kurds, his attempt to muscle over Ukraine, his ostentatious praise of Russia and his unremitting condemnations of Germany offer ample evidence of his disdain for the Western allies.
In warning about Trump, Macron has put his finger on a fundamental problem — the fraying Three Musketeers credo of the alliance: All for one and one for all. When asked whether he believed in Article 5′s declaration of reciprocal defense obligations when a member is attacked, Macron punted: “I don’t know.”
Such doubts will only be multiplied if Trump were to win reelection in 2020 and further emboldened to pursue his benighted “America First” course. Trump has made it clear that he regards relations with the allies as an economic venture, in which they are supposed to cough up the funds for their own protection, but the overwhelming odds are that the president’s support in an actual crisis would probably be about as reliable as his previous casino ventures. This is why Macron’s apprehensions about the debility of NATO are as timely as they are appropriate.
What can be done? The moment has arrived for France and Germany to adopt more than baby steps to make Europe great again. This would require them to establish a Franco-German condominium to assert their interests, including the joint development of new nuclear weapons to deter Russia and China. It would also allow Europe to win an independent footing from an increasingly hostile United States.
It’s always possible that France and Germany would adopt the path of least resistance and seek to placate a revanchist Russia by ceding it a de facto sphere of influence in the Baltics and Eastern Europe.
But there are some promising signs: After decades of inhibitions about the prospect of rearmament, Germany is finally starting to up its military game. Its doughty defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is seeking to cement her bona fides to replace Merkel as chancellor, delivered a major speech at the Bundeswehr University in Munich on Thursday declaring that Germany should participate militarily in Asia to help contain China and that it should become the third-biggest spender on defense (behind China and the United States) by 2031.
For his part, Macron has been pushing a European Intervention Initiative that is supposed to allow Europe to operate independently of either NATO or the United States. Forewarned is forearmed. When Europe’s leaders assemble with Trump in December, they would do well to treat the festivities in London less as an affirmation of NATO than as a remembrance of things past.
Jacob Heilbrunn is the editor of the National Interest.