The cracks within the NATO alliance widened on Tuesday – with leaders clashing over both Turkey’s behaviour and how to deal with Russia – and a two-day meeting intended to celebrate the alliance’s 70th anniversary looked likely to end in further discord.
The disagreements cut to the very core of the alliance’s stated reasons for existing. If leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization can’t agree on a common set of values – and who or what they see as a threat to those principles – then the ties binding the 29 member countries together are considerably weakened.
In Wednesday’s formal meeting, Turkey could block a new NATO plan to defend Eastern Europe against possible Russian aggression – which needs unanimous approval – unless the rest of the alliance supports Ankara’s designation of a Syrian Kurdish militia as a terrorist group. France and other countries reject that idea. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not address the issue. The alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday that he wasn’t certain a compromise could be reached.
The summit, at a heavily guarded hotel outside London, is expected to be a showdown between three men with dramatically different visions for the alliance: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Donald Trump. Other leaders, including Mr. Trudeau, were left on Tuesday trying to talk up the alliance’s accomplishments amid worries about its future.
“NATO has survived for 70 years because we’ve always had frank, real conversations," Mr. Trudeau said at a forum on the organization’s future. "There have been disagreements that we’ve worked through.”
But the modern divisions over policy are exacerbated by personality conflicts, one of which bubbled over into a tense exchange between Mr. Trump and Mr. Macron in a bilateral meeting at Winfield House, the U.S. ambassador’s residence in London.
They clashed over Mr. Macron’s assertion that the alliance is “experiencing brain death,” as well as their differing assessments of the situation in Syria, where Mr. Trump has been anxious to declare victory in the fight against the Islamic State.
Mr. Trump – who called Mr. Macron’s remarks about the state of the alliance “nasty” – suggested the United States could send captured IS fighters to France. “Would you like some nice [IS] fighters? I could give them to you,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Macron while reporters were present.
Mr. Macron retorted “let’s be serious,” before saying the fight against IS is unfinished. He implied that Mr. Trump’s snap decision in October to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria – clearing the way for a Turkish offensive against the Kurdish YPG militia, which had been part of the anti-IS alliance – complicated the task.
“You still have [IS] fighters in this region – in Syria, and now in Iraq, and more and more," Mr. Macron said. “And the whole destabilization of the region makes the situation more difficult to face. This is why we started to discuss about our relations with Turkey.”
The Turkish offensive began after a phone call between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Trump, and was paused after a meeting between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin. Other NATO leaders weren’t consulted. France, which has several hundred special-forces troops in that part of Syria, was caught particularly off guard.
Mr. Erdogan responded to Mr. Macron’s criticisms last week by saying the French leader had a “sick and shallow” understanding of the alliance. He vowed to use the London meeting to tell Mr. Macron “you should check whether you are brain dead.”
The Trump administration has also sharply criticized Turkey, ending that country’s participation in a NATO fighter-jet program – over Ankara’s decision to buy advanced anti-aircraft systems from Russia.
Relations with Moscow present another policy challenge. In his controversial interview last month with The Economist magazine, Mr. Macron also said the West should “reopen a strategic dialogue” with Russia.
Mr. Macron will play host to talks in Paris next week between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky aimed at resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where the Kremlin has provided support to armed separatists. It will be the first such negotiations in more than three years.
On stage together at the presummit forum in London on Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte gave very different answers when asked to comment on Mr. Macron’s initiatives involving Russia.
Mr. Trudeau stuck to Canada’s policy that Russia should not be readmitted to groupings such as the G8 (now G7) – from which it was expelled after the 2014 annexation of Crimea – until it changes its behaviour towards Ukraine. “We know that Putin responds to strength and not to concessions – and we need to remain strong as an alliance and as allies,” he said.
But while Mr. Rutte agreed Western allies needed to maintain pressure on Moscow over Ukraine, he took a step toward Mr. Macron’s position by adding, “there’s room for dialogue.”
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, carried on with his campaign to get NATO’s other members to pay more for their own defence, in which he has badgered and insulted some of the 21 members whose military spending is below the alliance’s target of 2 per cent of gross domestic product. But he went lightly on Mr. Trudeau during their own bilateral meeting at Winfield House, saying he categorized Canada – which falls below the threshold – as “slightly delinquent, but they’ll be okay. I have confidence.”
He then turned and asked Mr. Trudeau – in front of television cameras – what Canada’s current level of defence spending is. Mr. Trudeau, after initially evading the question, consulted an aide, who said it was 1.4 per cent of GDP. “They’ll get there,” Mr. Trump said.
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