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NATO searches for brain life

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POLITICO
POLITICO
 2021-06-14
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French President Emmanuel Macron arrives for a NATO summit at the NATO headquarters in Brussels. | Francisco Seco/AP Photo

French President Emmanuel Macron famously called NATO “brain dead” in 2019 — but will he hold up adoption of a new NATO strategy, based on a pivot to China? That’s one of the key questions as NATO allies gather in Brussels for their annual one-day summit.

The other reason why this summit is happening today: Russia’s Vladimir Putin's ongoing territorial and cyber aggression. President Joe Biden is hoping this summit will be a show of united force against Russia ahead of his meeting with Putin on Wednesday.

Regardless of the enemy, Europe may not be ready for them. A Center for American Progress report said that after decades of decline, “much of Europe’s military hardware is in a shocking state of disrepair. Too many of Europe’s forces aren’t ready to fight. Its fighter jets and helicopters aren’t ready to fly, its ships and submarines aren’t ready to sail, and its vehicles and tanks aren’t ready to roll.”

There are other points of tension. NATO allies have made no secret of their frustration with Biden’s decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan unconditionally by Sept. 11, for example. Many NATO members also worry about Turkey’s drift away from the alliance and democratic norms, making Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the focus of the most important bilateral meetings of the day , with Biden, and also Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “It is no secret that we have big differences with Turkey,” Mitsotakis told France24.

It’s not all hyper-serious military business, though. Brussels’ famous Manneken Pis war trophy has a new outfit for the day .

If G-7 was about containing China, is it fair to say the NATO summit is more about containing Russia?

Anita Kumar, White House Correspondent & Associate Editor:

That’s fair, Ryan. At least from the U.S. perspective. NATO will address many topics — Afghanistan, cybersecurity, among others — but the attention is going to be on Russia and its aggressions. Biden aides say the president will be going into his meeting with Putin in a position of strength in part because he’s coming from NATO where he will be seeking advice and support for his meeting. Back home, Biden is being criticized for holding the meeting now but the White House thinks it’s a good time because it comes after NATO.

Rym Momtaz, senior correspondent, France:

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO's secretary general, doesn’t see it that way. He told reporters this morning he sees China everywhere: “investing heavily in new military capabilities, including nuclear capabilities, and also more advanced weapon systems,” adding China is investing “in cyberspace, we see them in Africa, in the Arctic,” Stoltenberg said. “We also see China investing heavily in our own critical infrastructure and trying to control it.” But he said that shouldn’t stop NATO members from constructive discussions “on issues like climate change and arms control.”

Ryan Heath, Global Translations author:

Today is much more about Russia than the G-7 summit was. Russia is Europe’s biggest neighbor, and it invaded Ukraine, which wants to be both a NATO and EU member. Many suspect Belarus is next, and Baltic countries fear they could be after Belarus. When you read about rising cyber crime: you don’t have to look far from the Kremlin to find out why.



How much are we going to hear about the infamous 2 percent target?

Nahal Toosi, foreign affairs correspondent:

I’m going to guess that the United States will raise the issue of whether NATO members are spending 2 percent of GDP on defense more than many expect. It might be behind closed doors — It won’t be like the Donald Trump years of highly visible complaints that, say, Germany “owes” the U.S. money, which isn’t how it works. But Biden and his aides are familiar with the fact that many NATO countries still don’t meet the 2 percent threshold and the message that sends to the American public. Biden will commit to Article 5 (the mutual self-defense provision) regardless, unlike Trump, who wavered on it.

Kumar: Totally agree with Nahal. U.S. officials say Biden will raise the issue but they will do so privately. As world leaders are beginning to find out, Trump and Biden don't always disagree on policy, sometimes it’s about their style. Biden has quickly returned policymaking and diplomacy back to normal, the way most countries are used to, and that means things will be said behind closed doors.

Andy Blatchford, Canada correspondent:

Count Canada among alliance members criticized by Trump at past NATO summits for not pumping a big enough percentage of its GDP into military expenditures. (Trump’s complaints created tension among the leaders — you might recall that Trump called Justin Trudeau “two-faced” at the 2019 summit after the prime minister’s hot mic moment.) Canadian insiders say they expect this year’s summit to be less about the money and more about the future of the alliance after a challenging four-year stretch. That would be a relief for Ottawa. Expect Canada to also argue that it’s been significantly increasing its defense spending and its contributions to NATO. For example, the official says between 2014 and 2021, Canada expanded its permanent presence in NATO by more than 20 percent.

Hans von der Burchard, politics reporter, Brussels:

The NATO civilian leadership runs a two-sided message that NATO members must keep investing more, but also that they’re on the right track. Stoltenberg said this morning “we now had seven consecutive years of increased defense spending across Europe and Canada,” and “I’m also confident that NATO leaders will agree to invest more together, to meet our high level of ambition.”

What do you make of the subtle pivot to China that the NATO leadership is pushing?

David M. Herszenhorn, chief Brussels correspondent:

It’s needed. Against China, defense experts say, many European militaries would be utterly useless. “European forces aren’t ready to fight with the equipment they have,” analysts from the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank close to the White House, wrote in a recent report . “And the equipment they have isn’t good enough.” These are big problems for any "pivot to China" — the report also went on to say “Europe lacks capabilities like air-refueling for fighter jets, transport aircraft for troops, and high-end reconnaissance and surveillance drones,” which are all essential for long-distance military operations.

Heath: Stoltenberg is canny. He both sees the China threat and knows that keeping the U.S. close and off his back means stepping up on China. Biden and Stoltenberg will get their way in the end, but not without a fight. France doesn’t believe NATO should expand its purview beyond its founding transatlantic mandate, while Eastern Europe countries and the Baltics want the focus to remain on Russia. The best way to square that circle would be to invest more everywhere. Luckily, we’re in an era of multitrillion-dollar fiscal expansion.

What are other NATO members going to do about Turkey’s drift away from the alliance mainstream?

Toosi: When I ask people about this, I’m told that, for a variety of reasons, no one wants Turkey out of NATO. But there’s serious concerns about Ankara’s long-term outlook. If there is a creative way to resolve issues like what to do with Turkey’s purchased S-400 air defense system from Russia (place it under joint U.S.-Turkish custody?) it still seems far from reality. I’m keeping an eye on Turkey’s role in Afghanistan in particular. There are reports that Turkey is considering offering to keep guarding the Kabul airport in exchange for the U.S. letting it off the hook for the S-400s.

Kumar: Glad you mentioned Turkey, Ryan. It’s really getting overshadowed by China and Russia but when talking to current and former U.S. officials they mention Turkey as one of the biggest issues facing NATO. It’s why Biden is having a bilateral meeting with Erdoğan on Monday. The two leaders have known each other for years but it will be their first as presidents. It’s likely to be a tense meeting because it comes after Biden infuriated Turkey by declaring as “genocide” the Ottoman-era mass killing and deportations of Armenians. Previous presidents, including Barack Obama, avoided the term because they didn’t want to complicate relations with Turkey.

Thanks for joining us for this NATO summit preview — we’ll be back with takeaways from the event this afternoon.


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