Nato leaders will meet outside London this week against a background of justified fears about the alliance’s future. With the assembled heads of government squabbling openly among themselves, it is tempting to regard any reasonably civil summit as a success. But simply avoiding further disputes is not enough. The Nato meeting should aim to strengthen the alliance by reasserting the need for the 29 members to treat each other as trusted friends — with a common understanding of the threats they face.
The breakdown in mutual trust among Nato members has been all too evident in recent weeks. Indeed, ever since Donald Trump was elected US president in 2016, questions have grown about America’s continuing commitment to Nato. Mr Trump has called the Atlantic alliance “obsolete” and has reportedly floated the idea in private that the US might even withdraw from Nato.
Now European leaders are joining the Nato-sceptical chorus. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, shocked his allies by calling Nato “brain-dead” in a recent newspaper interview. He has also suggested that the alliance should not regard Russia as an adversary — which will come as an unpleasant surprise to Poland and the Baltic states.
Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, has openly rebuked Mr Macron for his provocative words. Turkey’s foreign minister has gone one step further. He has accused the French president of being a “sponsor of terrorism” because of his criticism of Turkey’s military offensive in Syria.
But Turkey itself poses a bigger challenge to alliance solidarity than some incautious remarks by Mr Macron.
Ankara’s unilateral incursion into Syria raises fundamental questions about mutual consultation between allies — particularly given the risk that Turkey could theoretically invoke Nato’s mutual-defence clause.
The problems posed by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan do not stop there.
Turkey has also bought and begun testing a Russian air-defence system — an extraordinary decision that calls into question its plans also to buy American aircraft.
The Erdogan government’s behaviour is now so erratic that some critics have suggested it should be chucked out of Nato. Yet expelling Turkey from the western alliance would be a drastic step that would delight the west’s adversaries. Russia, in particular, has long sought to break up Nato and to draw Turkey into its orbit.
A better course would be for the Nato allies to use this week’s summit to deliver a tough and united message to President Erdogan — reminding the Turkish leader that alliance solidarity flows in both directions.
Turkey cannot expect to call upon the automatic support of its allies if it continues to take far-reaching decisions without consulting them.
This principle of respect for the interests and sentiments of allies also applies to the presidents of France and the US. Mr Trump is correct to complain forcefully that the Europeans do not spend enough on defence. Mr Macron is right to argue that Nato needs to think harder and more strategically about its future.
There are, however, good and bad ways to start such a debate. By throwing out provocative remarks that make light of allies’ concerns and suggest that Nato’s commitment to mutual defence can be called into question, Mr Macron risks undermining the credibility and will of one of the world’s most enduring and successful alliances. That really would render Nato “brain-dead”.