Next week, the Nato heads of state and government will gather in the UK for the organisation’s 70th anniversary. On past form, a festival of celebration and self-congratulation might have been expected. The alliance’s 60th birthday, after all, was marked with extensive ceremony on both sides of the Rhine. But, 10 years on, the mood could not be more different, with damage limitation uppermost in the organisers’ minds.
A sense of trepidation looms after last year’s train wreck, when US president Donald Trump threatened to withdraw his country from the alliance, labelled the EU a “foe”, and headed off, in its aftermath, to Helsinki to meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for their first bilateral meeting.
Next week’s gathering in the UK is therefore being downplayed by all involved. The anniversary aspect will be confined to an evening reception at Buckingham Palace, while the talks proper will be limited to three hours at a hotel in north London.
In fairness, it is not only the US president who is fluttering the Nato dovecotes. Emanuel Macron’s recent interview with the Economist magazine – in which he characterised the alliance as “brain dead” – occasioned considerable pearl clutching in Europe’s chancelleries, and was followed by a chorus of reaffirmations of faith in transatlantic unity and Nato’s alleged indispensability.
In truth, as a comment on an alliance – which comprise two leading military powers, the US and Turkey, who see no reason to consult their allies before initiating a new rounds of blood-letting in the Near East – Macron’s remarks do not seem too wide of the mark. Still, the timing, just before Trump’s new descent on Europe, was hardly tactful.
The Macron squib can be managed, with EU leaders planning to kick the issue of Nato’s relevance as a strategic forum into the long grass of a “wise men” commission. But Trump is less manageable, and the success of next week’s summit will depend largely on whether the US president is ready to accept encomiums about the extent to which his interventions have already caused his country’s allies to shape up, and whether Trump the “triumphant leader” or “Trump the scourge of free-riders” will work best, on the world stage, as he navigates impeachment and the run-up to next year’s election.
Whether he decides to kick over the summit table may also be influenced by one further factor – the imminence of an unusually important general election in the UK. The US president has already broadcast his hope that Boris Johnson, seconded by Nigel Farage, will win the 12 December poll and “get Brexit done”.
For Trump, Brexit is a big prize – a triumph of his brand of ethno-nationalism, a damaging blow to the EU, and an opportunity to impose upon the UK a trade deal that will open up its agricultural and healthcare markets. There is a lot Trump will be able to make of these developments for his domestic political advantage if Johnson wins the election and Brexit happens at the end of January. And Johnson will be pleading with him not to deviate from the script and remind the British public how loathsome and scattergun the US President can be.
As a British patriot and proud European, I am hoping for a result in December that leads not to the disaster of Johnson’s Brexit but to a second referendum. In the face of unprecedented global challenges and for the future of what we used to call Western values, we, as Europeans, need to come together to defend our interests.
Next week’s summit presents an opportunity for constructive and honest dialogue in this regard and for Europe to put forward its case. But this will only be possible if leaders refrain from skirting the issue of the US security guarantee, which, as has been argued elsewhere, is neither dependable nor indispensable. Some hard talk across this subject and a potentially fractious Nato summit could serve as a wake-up call to Europeans to get on with doing what they need to do to secure their own futures.
So, here’s hoping for a bold show by European leaders and, quite possibly, another train wreck Nato summit, that will show us all just how much the world has changed. The past is no longer available and everyone in Europe, beginning with Britain, needs to wake up to that reality.
Nick Witney is senior policy fellow at international think-tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)