JOHN KAMPFNER: Is Nato tanking?
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The alliance's big guns descend on the UK with its very future at stake, JOHN KAMPFNER reports.
How many times have diplomats sounded the death knell of Nato? How many times have the French and Germans fallen out over European security? The answer to both is "many". Yet something has changed, for the worse.
On the eve of the alliance's 70th anniversary summit in London next week, it is not alarmist to wonder whether the West can hold it together, particularly if two of its most important leaders are happy to trash it in public.
On taking office, Donald Trump declared the military bloc "obsolete", claiming it had done little to confront terrorism. He later changed his mind and has been playing catch-up since.
He was considered an outlier, until earlier this month, out of the blue, Emmanuel Macron described Nato as "brain dead". In so doing, the French President had out-trumped Trump.
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Macron's rhetorical flourish infuriated his partners, particularly the Germans, with whom he has had a scratchy relationship. The ever-doughty Angela Merkel called his remarks "drastic", which by her standards is as angry as she gets in public.
She laid bare her disdain at a dinner to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall that was, not accidentally, reported by the German media.
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She is said to have told her French guest: "I understand your desire for disruptive politics but I'm tired of picking up the pieces."
At a time when it is challenged by increasingly assertive potential foes, the alliance is doing a spectacularly successful job of undermining itself from within. Next week 29 heads of state and government will be invited to a banquet at Buckingham Palace.
Her Maj has shown herself adept at smoothing ruffled diplomatic feathers, and her charms will be required. Most of the action will take place in the bizarre confines of the Grove in Hertfordshire, a country hotel more commonly associated with WAG weekends and weddings.
Perhaps that is a fitting location for Boris Johnson to capitalise on fortuitous timing - the middle of the general election campaign - to try to display his untapped skills as a statesman.
If he is returned as prime minister and proceeds with Brexit by January 31, he will need to show that Britain, no matter how diminished in Europe, is still taken seriously in Nato and other multilateral institutions such as the UN. This will be an important occasion for him.
The event will be chaired by Nato's redoubtable secretary general, former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg. Its key agenda items, prepared by foreign ministers at a meeting last week, are a tougher new policy on China and an agreement to give greater priority to military-technical work in space.
More immediately, Stoltenberg is likely to count the meeting as a success simply if it avoids a bust-up. But more is needed if the alliance wishes to go beyond surviving, to transform itself into a group that is cohesive and strategic. That will not be easy. The personality clashes reflect deep-rooted tensions.
The list of problems is long. These include: America's trade war with China, the climate emergency, China's growing military might, Russian hybrid warfare to destabilise European democracy, its specific military threat to the Baltic states and the collapsed nuclear deal with Iran.
It was Trump's recent decision to remove US forces from northern Syria, giving Turkey the green light to attack the Kurds, that most starkly highlighted the weakness of the alliance. He told nobody in Washington or abroad of his impetuous decision. In one fell swoop, he abandoned a key ally, undermined future promises of American support and gave Vladimir Putin a further foothold in a region where in the past few years the Russians have outsmarted the West.
It was Trump's behaviour that prompted Macron to say what he said. France has over the years hardly been Nato's most supportive member, going AWOL from its military structure for more than four decades.
Successive French presidents have advocated a Europe-only defence structure as an alternative to American power, an idea that has struggled to get off the ground beyond symbolic joint battalions.
Macron's intervention may have incensed several of his partners, but it has also galvanised them. At the heart of the malaise is long-standing American frustration at the failure of member states to cough up for their own defence.
This long pre-dates Trump. Indeed, the much-missed Barack Obama did not conceal his annoyance at European pusillanimity. The issue dominated the last Nato heads' meeting in Brussels in July 2018, when Trump pushed European allies to meet the target of 2% of GDP spending on defence that they had agreed to at a summit in Cardiff in 2014. This was a rare occasion when Trump had right on his side.
While a number of countries remain laggards, the key culprit is Germany. Merkel, whose relations with Trump are particularly sour, has increased defence spending from around 1% to 1.5% of GDP. In real terms, that is a significant uplift. But in terms of the target she has only slightly narrowed the gap.
In foreign and security policy, Merkel's political caution has sustained her in 14 years of office; but at home and abroad it is beginning to exasperate.
Earlier this month, her defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, gave a little-noticed speech that reflected some of Macron's sentiments. She said what few Germans feel emboldened to say: Her country's stability at the heart of a peaceful, prosperous Europe "cannot be had for free". In other words, Germany cannot ride on America's coat tails.
Such is the sensitivity of the debate, politicians of all parties have long concluded that sounding tough on military matters is a certain vote loser. The intervention of Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU's party chairwoman and the likely candidates to succeed Merkel as chancellor, is telling. Some of her rivals for the leadership are making similar noises. Whether they turn that eventually into policy would depend on coalition arithmetic.
Stung by Macron's criticism, Nato is likely to respond in the way large institutions know best. Stoltenberg is said to be in favour of an idea put forward by Germany's foreign minister, Heiko Maas, to set up an expert panel. This group would not report, however, until this time next year, when the result of the US election is known. A wise decision or a case of kicking the problem into the long Belgian grass?
Nato's founding principle is now the cause of its greatest vulnerability. Article 5 of the Washington Treaty of April 1949 says that an attack on one is an attack on all. Can the alliance any more be trusted to come to the defence of one of its members? Trump's penchant for authoritarians such as Putin and his unpredictability on issues from Syria to Iran has shown other leaders that the US can no longer be trusted as the sole guarantor of a continent's defence.
Having surmounted the Cold War, the collapse of communism, al-Qaeda and IS, Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and countless financial crashes, Nato has never looked shakier.
Many of its present troubles are self-inflicted. Will a hotel near Watford Junction be most remembered for being the location where an alliance which has held the West together since the Second World War will be declared brain dead?
Unlikely. Too many nations have too much invested. But it is a long way from recovery.