Macron saying NATO is ‘brain dead’ may be right, but he didn’t exactly break any news here

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Emmanuel Macron says that NATO is “brain dead” but the epithet perhaps applies to him.

Macron saying NATO is ‘brain dead’ may be right, but he didn’t exactly break any news here

The French president has shocked allies by telling the Economist that NATO is in a “state of brain death.” He claims this is because of US and Turkish unilateralism: not only has Trump shown himself to be a NATO-skeptic, demanding that European allies pay more for American weapons, but also Turkey, with tacit US backing, has attacked the Kurds in Syria, Europe’s allies, without consulting the Europeans.

However, several things about this statement indicate that Emmanuel Macron has lost the ability to think, if by thinking we mean making sure that one does not say things which are so self-contradictory that they do not make sense.

The first thing to note about this outburst is that Macron is copying the words of his mentor, Jacques Attali, who last month said “NATO is dead.” Attali also proposed the same solution as Macron later did – the creation of an autonomous European military capacity, independent of NATO.

Jacques Attali, an ex-Marxist prophet of globalisation who was the first head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development until his lavish overspending caused him to resign in disgrace, is a very important influence on Macron. He was one of the key people to attend the dinner celebrating Macron’s victory in the first round of the presidential elections in 2017. Two years on and the youthful French president seems to have remained a faithful instrument of his master’s voice.

Second, neither man has explained why Turkey’s unilateral action in Syria is anything new. The US and Britain famously attacked Iraq in 2003: this occurred without the approval of NATO and in the teeth of opposition from France and Germany. France’s then president, Jacques Chirac, even indicated that he would veto any resolution authorizing the attack in the UN Security Council. Why was NATO not proclaimed brain dead then?

Third, Macron even suggested that Turkey’s failure to consult its allies was contrary to the North Atlantic Treaty. Yet the treaty creates no such obligation. Instead, it obliges NATO states to help each other only in the case of an attack against one of them. Turkey is not going to claim that Syria attacked it, so the North Atlantic Treaty does not apply.

Fourth, Macron says that Trump’s unilateralism, like Turkey’s, has killed off the alliance. But, by making these declarations, he is himself acting unilaterally. Not only did Macron not clear his statement with other NATO allies, they have rebuked him for it. Both the German chancellor and the Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg have been vehement in their statements of disagreement with him, Merkel saying that Macron’s “sweeping blow” at NATO was not her view and Stoltenberg saying that “European unity cannot replace transatlantic unity.”

Fifth, Macron said that Europe had to unite militarily to face up to the threat from Russia, a country he said had taken an authoritarian turn. Can this be the same Russia whose “authoritarian” president Macron invited to his summer residence in August, just before the G7 summit, and with which he said Europe had to build a new “architecture of security and confidence”? Surely the very definition of a brain dead alliance is the one Macron is proposing – in which even he cannot work out in his own head whether Russia is an ally or an enemy.

Sixth, Macron argues that the problem with NATO is that of the free rider. “If the regime of Bashar Assad decides to respond to Turkey, will we be obliged to defend her?” he asked. Yet this problem is not new. When Turkey shot down a Russian fighter over Syria in 2015, the first telephone call Ankara made was to NATO for help, not to Moscow to apologize or to calm things down. Was NATO not brain dead then?

Worse, the problem of the free rider – in which countries belonging to permanent military alliances have an incentive to act irresponsibly, safe in the belief that their allies will defend them – vitiates all international alliances, by definition, and not just NATO. In other words, even if one thinks that Macron is asking the right questions, he can only be giving the wrong answer by proposing a European alliance instead.

Within Europe, there are not only deep differences over who is the enemy – radical Islam for France, Russia for Poland and the Baltic states, Greece and Turkey for each other – but there is also the free rider phenomenon. Poland shamelessly uses the European Union to prosecute its anti-Russian agenda and it would also do so in any putative future European military structure. The only solution to the dilemma Macron has identified is national – the very thing he is intellectually and emotionally incapable of embracing.

Finally, it is disturbing that Macron seems to think that a few words in a newspaper interview are enough to change what is, on the face of it, an intractable situation.

NATO is not just the Washington Treaty, it is also seventy years of military and official infrastructure – a whole archipelago of US military bases across Europe plus of course the billion-dollar headquarters in Brussels with 4,000 staff. It is going to take a lot more than an interview in a newspaper to close this down and, until then, NATO – or rather US power on the European continent – will remain an unavoidable political fact.

It is not realistic to think that Germany or Poland or the Baltic States, all EU members, would agree to detach EU foreign policy from NATO. So the European solution Macron proposes is, in fact, no solution at all. His remarks simply do not make sense.

Emmanuel Macron may be right to say that NATO is brain dead but this is not news. The alliance lost its raison d’être when the Warsaw Pact was dissolved in 1991 and the Soviet threat vanished. In the intervening decades, however, we have come to understand that political brain death is a contagious disease which has now infected all European leaders including, unfortunately, the current occupant of the Elysee Palace.

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