By Matthew Mai
The NATO summit in London last week was largely overshadowed by tense press conferences and gossip between world leaders. President Trump’s perceived abrasiveness and unpredictability continue to cause discomfort among the alliance’s members who are generally content with a nondisruptive “business as usual” approach to foreign affairs. Yet French president Emmanuel Macron used the gathering to capitalize on a recent critique of the organization.
Last month in an interview with The Economist, Macron criticized America’s withdrawal from northeastern Syria to point to NATO’s perceived obsoleteness.
“What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO… You have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies. None. You have an uncoordinated aggressive action by another NATO ally, Turkey, in an area where our interests are at stake… [NATO] only works if the guarantor of last resort functions as such. I’d argue that we should reassess the reality of what NATO is in the light of the commitment of the United States”.
While it is rich to hear a European complaining about American foreign policy, especially since they have refused to take back ISIS fighters from their countries and taken a “lead from behind” approach in regards to the Syrian conflict, to Macron’s credit he also recognized the weak geopolitical status of Europe by adding “[Europe is on] the edge of a precipice. If we don’t wake up … there’s a considerable risk that in the long run we will disappear geopolitically, or at least that we will no longer be in control of our destiny. I believe that very deeply”.
NATO contributions have picked up as a consequence of President Trump’s threats to leave the organization if the Europeans do not pay their fair share. But while the president touted increased contributions at the summit, but only seven out of twenty-nine member states currently spend the required two percent of GDP on defense. Among others, Germany, Italy, Canada, and, rather hypocritically, France has yet to reach the two percent target.
So while the French president has called out Europe’s fecklessness, he is actually apart of the problem. Not only does his country not meet the required level of defense spending but as he made clear at a press conference in preparation for the summit, his vision for the alliance’s mission is starkly out of touch with the current global paradigm.
“Is our enemy today Russia? Or China? Is it the goal of NATO to designate them as enemies? I don’t believe so… Our common enemy today in NATO is terrorism, which has hit each of our countries”.
Admittedly, Russia today is not what the Soviet Union once was and it’s ambitions as a geopolitical power does not reflect the realities of a stagnating economy, domestic unrest, and population decline. It’s incursions into Ukraine, Crimea, and the Middle East are adventuristic and revanchist. However, they are still an adversary that must be dealt with as they have proved adept at subverting the West through interference in democratic processes and supporting terrorist regimes such as the one in Tehran.
Yet, the only way Russia could strengthen its strategic position in any meaningful way would be to ally itself with China and this brings us to the inherent problem with Macron’s perspective on the role of NATO. He believes that Europe can make accommodations for China in the “community of nations” and that through mutual cooperation they will respect the sovereignty of democratic societies. As he said in a visit to China last month, “This European sovereignty we build it for ourselves, something that China has always done for itself too… This is the goal of the strategic agenda for investments and critical infrastructures. This European sovereignty is not being built against others, foreign investments are welcomed in Europe, without discrimination”.
Is this how Macron plans to strengthen Europe’s position, by opening up the continent to the imperialist ambitions of Beijing?
Never mind that China steals $225 to $600 billion worth of intellectual property annually and they protect national firms from foreign competition through forced technology transfers and massive subsidies while the Trojan Horse “Belt and Road Initiative” aims to reorganize global supply chains in China’s favor and establish economic bases to further the reach of their state-owned enterprises.
Furthermore, Beijing couldn’t care less about national sovereignty. The assertion earlier this year by Xi Jinping that “China reserves the right to use force to bring Taiwan under its control” reveals the historical animus the mainland holds for its small democratic neighbor and the aggressive measures it is open to pursuing in order to reclaim what they view as a breakaway province. This saber-rattling statement coincided with an incident last March where Chinese fighter jets violated Taiwanese airspace for the first time since 1999. Since Japan purchased three islands in the Senkaku Island chain seven years ago, Chinese air and naval assets have routinely penetrated territorial waters and significantly increased military operations in the immediate area.
If Macron really believes that terrorism should be NATO’s top priority then he is part of the reason that the alliance is “brain dead”. For NATO to have any purpose in the age of great power competition, it needs to take on the hegemonic ambitions of China. Moreover, Macron’s perception that China can be pacified through economic cooperation displays an arrogance reminiscent of President Obama’s appeasement of Iran through the 2015 nuclear deal.
Ever since President Trump called out Europe for their free-riding, they have made a concerted effort to undermine the United States by cozying up to Russia and capitulating to Iran. If they cannot overcome their spitefulness and wake up to reality, Macron’s desire for Europe to “control its own destiny” will never come to fruition.
Matthew Mai is a student at Rutgers University studying public policy.