Before each NATO meeting, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg sends out a letter to all member states. Prior to NATO’s summit in London this month, the letter addressed one member state in particular: France. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly criticized NATO and thereby undermined the alliance’s credibility that is crucial for its survival and peace.
What Stoltenberg Wrote In His Last Letter
With the words of the Secretary-General, NATO is outlining current issues, but also provide expected sticking points for the globally recognized meeting of the political leadership of NATO. Moreover, Stoltenberg writes about achievements in defense spending and calls for a clear commitment to the obligation to assist among the partners.
One sentence from his latest letter was particularly noteworthy, however. In it, Stoltenberg warns that given the challenges in the world, it was imperative to maintain a common and unified approach. Even though Stoltenberg did not mention him by name, the wording, aimed at Macron. It is his solo efforts towards Russia that Stoltenberg and the European NATO partners continue to be increasingly disturbed and, above all, seriously concerned about, particularly regarding the alliance’s eastern European NATO partners.
Macron’s NATO Missteps
In August, Macron had already offended the NATO partners by unilaterally initiating a new approach towards Russia. This approach entailed inviting President Putin to France for face-to-face talks, just days prior to the G7 summit. The relevance here: Ever since Russia annexed Crimea, Russia has been out of the summit that used to be the G8.
However, Macron did not stop there. Shortly after the G-7 summit, he then sent a delegation to Moscow, who conducted talks about the potential for new Franco-Russian security cooperation. The latter, in particular, was an affront to NATO, which had allowed relations to cool down significantly after the Crimea events.
The situation escalated again shortly before the NATO summit in London. At the end of October, Macron wrote a letter to Putin saying that a moratorium on medium-range weapons in Europe, as proposed by Moscow, was worth “being carefully examined.” For Stoltenberg, it was another slap in the face, since he had already rejected Putin’s offer for the whole of NATO at the end of September.
The fact that Macron suddenly sought to talk about Putin’s proposal for a moratorium caused major issues in Brussels. A prerequisite for any conversation with Moscow—which all members had sworn to—was verifiable destruction of the Russian missile arsenal. Macron’s offer, however, nullified that demand within a second, leaving Russia with significant leverage.
Unity Is Central To NATO’s Strength
However, there is a much more significant issue with Macron’s unilateral attempts that have made NATO appear weak and without any coherent vision. Macron has indirectly challenged questions regarding the alliance’s unity. This unity is what makes NATO works as it relies on the concept – and likely illusion – that under Article 5, all member states would conduct collective defense. The question must nevertheless be asked: does anyone honestly believe that the USA, France, or Great Britain would risk nuclear annihilation in a war with Russia to defend Norway or any other country in close proximity to Moscow?
One has to understand that NATO’s priority does not lie in the alliance itself, but rather in the deterrent it continues to display. And that is precisely where the problem with Macron’s statements lies. The illusion of deterrence is not only weakened by unilateral advances such as Macron’s or US President Donald Trump’s—who once blatantly and openly questioned Article 5—but is severely damaged every time non-members and adversaries see chinks in the alliance’s armor. NATO’s survival, and indeed the survival of Eastern European members, can only be secured if the illusion of collective defense and decision-making is maintained.
The world witnessed how it works in practice during the Cold War. Both President Dwight Eisenhower and President John F. Kennedy explicitly expressed that if West Berlin were attacked, the US would retaliate. However, in reality, it remains hard to believe that the US would have triggered the MAD (mutually-assured destruction) doctrine to defend a German city. Nevertheless, this uncertainty is exactly what sustains the NATO illusion. It’s an illusion that has kept the peace between the West and the East for seven decades, the longest time without war between the major powers in modern history.
Macron should not risk the latter in his attempt to become Europe’s new chief negotiator.