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Why NATO is not brain dead

After 70 years in the security and defence business, NATO is still the most successful alliance the world has ever seen, and still the only “kid on the block” able to defend Europe against the villains in its the neighbourhood.

November 12, 2019 - Wojciech Michnik - Hot Topics

Photo courtesy of NATO (CC)

According to a recent interview for The Economist with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, NATO is “brain dead” and “European countries can no longer rely on America to protect its allies”. To be fair, in the interview the French leader has also touched upon a number of interesting issues, including a clear-eyed and cold-blooded realpolitik analysis of European security and transatlantic relations. The French president’s assessment is accurate when he states that Europe stands on a cliff and if it wants to be geopolitically significant it needs to rethink its strategic role.

Macron properly identifies the crisis of Europe with its economic and migration dimensions and its dangerous by-product: populism. He also aptly calls for a reassessment of NATO’s role in contemporary security architecture. He is also partially right when he points towards America’s slow disengagement from Europe in order to concentrate on Asia (though he fails to mention deployment of US and NATO troops to the Eastern flank of the Alliance).

Yet, what will likely be remembered most from this interview is his comment about the alleged death of NATO. However, Macron’s statements couldn’t be further from the truth. NATO – though not in perfect condition – is still very much alive and kicking.

Suicide from fear of death?

As neither the author of this article nor France’s president is a medical doctor, it is worth exploring what being brain dead actually means. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service, defines brain death in situations “when a person on an artificial life support machine no longer has any brain functions”, which means that “they will not regain consciousness or be able to breathe without support”. In this way, a person who is brain dead is legally confirmed dead. In other words, according to Macron, NATO was already in bad shape, but now it is even worse, as it is dead. Since there has been no retraction of what the French president said, this should be a common understanding of his statement about NATO.  Right?

Macron also clearly points at the Americans (mostly the Trump administration, but also Obama and his “pivot towards Asia”) blaming them for the dire state of NATO as the US slowly turned its back on Europe. He has not been the first European leader to raise concerns about the changing character of the transatlantic alliance. German chancellor Angela Merkel voiced her concerns in May 2017 – in the context of Brexit and disillusion about co-operation with US President Donald Trump and his administration – when she admitted: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out” and called on Europeans to take their destiny into their own hands. The striking difference here is in style: whereas Merkel had used carefully selected wording, Macron did not mince words, bluntly declaring the death of NATO and uncertainty about Article 5 of Washington Treaty (which declares that an attack on one country, is an attack on all).

In many ways, Macron’s statement – at least in style – echoes Trump’s method of putting his allies on the spot, for instance when Trump declared NATO being obsolete or when he suggested that the US would defend only those allies that pay their dues. This style has not been met with appreciation or understanding among Washington’s European allies. Did Macron think that similar rhetoric coming from Paris would be welcomed in Europe with open arms?

Yet, it seems that his message was a bit more nuanced than just declaring NATO dead. Macron criticises the United States and other NATO allies for a lack of coordination in decision-making, particularly referring to the American withdrawal from Syria, and subsequent Turkey’s military intervention. But the biggest issue from his interview comes in the paragraph when in one sequence he doubts whether Article 5 of the Washington Treaty would work, turning his attention to the imperative of a European defensive autonomy and finishing with a statement calling for a need of reopening a strategic dialogue with Russia.

NATO beyond average life expectancy

After 70 years in the security and defence business, NATO is still the most successful alliance the world has ever seen and still the only “kid on the block” able to defend Europe against the villains in its neighbourhood. Obviously NATO is not in a perfect state, suffering from different threat perceptions, a complex external environment and an eroding intra-alliance cohesion. Back in the good old days, it was the US that often bore the burden of being NATO primus inter pares. In the 21st century, however, the leadership of the United States has steadily been waning for both national and structural reasons. It has not also helped that Trump not only views international relations in transactional terms of quid quo pro but also questions the usefulness of NATO for America’s strategic interests. More importantly he surprised many allies with his decisions – if not taken suddenly then at least implemented abruptly. The case in point was the US withdrawal from northeast Syria in October.

It is against the backdrop of this decision that president Macron’s words should be understood: “It’s the aggiornamento for a powerful and strategic Europe. I would add that we will at some stage have to take stock of NATO. To my mind, what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO.”

In a way, Macron’s statement is not directly aimed at NATO but at the United States. And it is worth remembering that many European critics have often portrayed NATO as a predominantly American tool. Given the US’s global power, interests and military and economic might, it would be hard to deny the significance of American involvement. But to characterise the Alliance solely in these terms would be to misread the real power of NATO – an alliance of (currently) 29 countries that makes decisions by consensus.

Therefore, Macron seems to be missing the point when calling for a renewed military sovereignty for Europe, especially since he frames it as an alternative to NATO. There has never been a real alternative to NATO, at least not so far. And it can equally testify to the strength of the Alliance as to the weakness of European independent defence initiatives. If NATO were in fact dead, then most of the allies would have to maximise their own security within a European framework. Not to mention that there is a serious case to be made that Europe has never had its own military sovereignty in modern history.

Invisible shield of deterrence


The NATO of 2019 has maintained three main areas of business: collective defence, co-operative security and crisis management. Of these three core tasks, traditionally collective defence has been the cornerstone of the Alliance. Even if in the 1990s and 2000s when it seemed that NATO would be tilting towards managing crises outside its borders and serving as a regional security provider, the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and subsequent war in eastern Ukraine, brought the Alliance back to its initial defensive mission.

So far, NATO has proven Macron wrong. NATO’s strength is in how it deters its rivals. In other words, the success of NATO is actually measured in “attacks that have not happened”. As long as Article 5 is in place – and there is a mutual understanding of both NATO members and adversaries – that allies will come to defend each other, should the need be, NATO proves its value and utility as a defence pact. For the very same reason, one of the worst case scenarios for NATO would be a situation in which an adversary decides to test NATO’s collective defence by pursuing an unconventional (i.e. cyber; paramilitary) attack on one of its members. And that is exactly why Macron might have kept to himself speculations about the future power of Article 5. Certainly, those who strategize about testing NATO have taken notice.

This brings us to the Russian dimension of the interview. For many decision-makers in Central and Eastern Europe the most controversial part of Macron’s overview was not necessarily about NATO’s inability to act, but rather the French leader’s call for Europe to rethink its relations with Russia. Nothing reinforces Poland’s scepticism towards a European security framework more than the idea of appeasing Moscow articulated by Paris or Berlin. That said, Macron does not say anything that has not already been said among NATO member states themselves. The dual track policy towards Russia is based on containment and deterrence on one side, but also keeping dialogue with Moscow.

Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic states are wary of the situation in which European powers will make a deal with Russia to go back to “business as usual”, making the invasion and annexation of Crimea a bargaining chip, completely dismissing the fact that there is still a war going on in eastern Ukraine. That would be a strategic mistake, playing exactly to the preferred scenario of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

Between strategy and wishful thinking?

It is a pity that from all the things Macron said in the interview most of us will remember the “brain dead” NATO label. Yet for the politicians that aspire to be European leaders, style ought to be almost equally important to the content of what they say. According to him, basically, Europe cannot rely on the United States at the moment. Even if that is true does that make NATO brain dead?

Given France’s push for European security autonomy The Economist interview was not only miscalculated, but also counterproductive. If President Macron wanted to send a strong signal to American and European partners about France’s desire to lead Europe towards an independent security architecture, Macron could not have found the worst way to do it. His words not only alienated the already distant (American) partner but also rattled those Europeans that are not sold on the idea of European defence outside of the NATO framework. Even if we take the interview as just rhetoric, the reality on the ground mercilessly points to Europe’s weaknesses. Ukraine, Libya Syria, Algeria Iran, Turkey, etc.; they all have one thing in common – they are part of Europe’s neighbourhood. While we can partly blame the United States for some of the policy failures in those regions, ultimately it has been European indecisiveness and a lack of coherence that prevented European states to secure the borders.

It seems that there is never a right moment to call the alliance that you are a part of as being brain dead, especially when it has just celebrated its 70th anniversary of a (mostly) successful existence. It is definitely not the best timing to throw heavy punches one-month before the informal NATO summit in London; or just a couple of weeks after the Trump administration’s unilateral decision to withdraw American troops from Syria.

The sombre words about a crisis of Europe and NATO’s inability to function with Americans “turning their backs”, came also at a time when many pundits and diplomats quietly count on NATO-EU long-term co-operation and staying-power. Well, good luck with that now.

Wojciech Michnik is a 2019 Eisenhower Research Fellow at NATO Defense College in Rome and an assistant professor of International Relations and Security Studies at Jesuit University Ignatianum in Kraków. The views expressed in this paper are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the NATO Defense College or NATO.

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