If you were to judge this week’s NATO summit based strictly on the body language of its participants, you would have to declare French President Emmanuel Macron the winner.
Mr. Macron arrived in London as the trouble-fête, having upset most of France’s allies by deploring the “brain death” of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last month. One expected him to spend most of his time on the defensive, fending off criticism from other member countries. After all, prior to the summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had recommended that the French President get his own brain checked before commenting on NATO’s.
Mr. Macron did get criticized at the summit. During a sit-down with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, U.S. President Donald Trump called Mr. Macron’s November comments in The Economist “very insulting” and a ”very, very nasty statement." Yet, when the French and U.S. Presidents sat down beside each other in those regal damask-covered chairs, there was no doubting who would get the better of this battle of wits. Mr. Trump was spent soon after it began.
Mr. Macron, however, was just getting started. Emphatic and determined throughout, he had plenty to say, and unlike Mr. Trump, he had plenty of reason to say it.
“It’s impossible to just say we have to put money, we have to put soldiers, without being clear on what the fundamentals of NATO should be,” Mr. Macron began. “I’m sorry to say we don’t have the same definition of terrorism around the table. When I look at Turkey, they are now fighting against those who fight with us, shoulder to shoulder, against” the Islamic State.
Mr. Trump – who not long ago announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria on Twitter, not even bothering to inform U.S. allies ahead of time – didn’t like being blamed for allowing Mr. Erdogan to invade northern Syria. But in plain English, Mr. Macron explained to a U.S. audience that their own President had effectively authorized Turkish forces to wage war on the same Kurdish soldiers who had long been the most reliable U.S. partner in the region.
Calling out Mr. Trump was not Mr. Macron’s main purpose in London, however.
The French President and the conflict-averse German Chancellor Angela Merkel have different ways of expressing their frustration with their erratic U.S. counterpart, but both share the goal of strengthening the Western alliance. For all of Mr. Macron’s musings about the creation of a separate European defence force, he knows that NATO is still the only game in town.
He badly needs NATO’s help in North Africa, where France has 4,500 troops stationed in the fight against terrorism in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania. The recent death of 13 French soldiers in a helicopter collision in Mali has intensified Mr. Macron’s bid to get other NATO countries to share more of the burden in the Sahel region. In London, he secured a pledge from Mr. Stoltenberg to support any French request for military backup in Africa.
In campaigning for the presidency in 2016, Mr. Trump had declared NATO to be “obsolete.” In office, however, Mr. Trump has gone on a crusade to get deadbeat NATO members such as Canada to start paying up for their collective defence.
As such, the U.S. President has done NATO a backhanded favour by reminding other members that they shouldn’t take American protection for granted. But this summit, held to mark the 70th anniversary of the alliance, was not about money. It was about NATO’s very raison d’être. Unless members are all on the same page about that, they’re only asking for trouble.
The summit’s final communiqué, hence, was a victory for Mr. Macron, who won a commitment from the other members to “further strengthen NATO’s political dimension including consultation.” Mr. Stoltenberg was handed a formal mandate to conduct a strategic review of the organization and its mission. That in itself constitutes progress.
While Russia is the only adversary that gets singled out by name – and remains the main preoccupation of the alliance’s Eastern European members – Russian aggression is not the most pressing military concern of either Mr. Macron or Mr. Trump. Russian President Vladimir Putin, hence, came out of this summit with less to worry about than he should have if NATO’s members had been more clear-eyed about Mr. Putin’s long-term geopolitical goals.
Canada’s contribution to the summit was summed up by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s overly animated cocktail-party mocking of Mr. Trump. Mr. Trudeau said or did nothing else worth remembering in London, although that did not stop him from hogging the photo-ops.
After this summit, this country will be taken even less seriously than it already was by our allies. If they invite us to these things at all, it may only be because our PM is fun at parties.