Nato to launch fundamental review of its future direction

London summit ends with vow by members to stand together against Russia, China and threat of terrorism

Nato leaders have agreed to undergo a review on the alliance’s future direction, attempting a show of unity at the end of a summit characterised by public spats and open divisions on policy.

As the two-day summit in London drew to a close, the members vowed to stand together against threats from Russia and terrorism and the challenge of a rising China.

President Emmanuel Macron of France claimed the summit in London had taken on board his call to launch a fundamental strategic review about the alliance’s purpose, including an agreed definition of the terrorist threat and the possibility of a new strategic partnership with Moscow.

Macron’s earlier comments that Nato was suffering a “brain death” dominated discussions and led to a decision to hold an experts’ inquiry into the modern threats facing Nato. The review will be launched under the chairmanship of Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, and will involve diplomatic and security experts. Macron admitted his intervention had rocked the boat, but insisted it was his duty to push for change.

Under heavy political pressure, Turkey abandoned its warning to derail the summit by blocking plans for a new defence of the Baltics and Poland against Russia until Nato collectively agreed that the Kurdish YPG militia were terrorists. In the communique the leaders instead condemned all forms of terrorism and agreed to “a forward-looking reflection process” – a mechanism that allowed Turkey to lift its threat.

Macron admitted that leaders had agreed to disagree on the definition of the YPG, but added the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had clarified that Ankara would not undermine the continued allied efforts to crush Islamic State in Syria.

Macron claims Isis is regrouping in Syria since Turkey invaded the north-east of the country in October in an attempt to weaken the YPG. Turkey regards the YPG as one and the same as the Turkish Kurdish group the PKK, which it views as a terrorist organisation. Most Nato states do not accept that the YPG and the PKK are effectively the same group.

Macron also revealed Erdoğan had agreed to hold regular further consultations about its Syrian interventionwith France, Germany and the UK, a means of increasing European leverage on the subject, especially over Turkey’s plans to press as many as 2 million Syrian refugees based in Turkey to return to their homeleands.

Macron’s description of Nato as brain-dead had in part been prompted by the Turkish invasion. He believes the Syrian Kurds formed the backbone of the western fight against Islamic State in Syria, and was furious Donald Trump gave a green light to Ankara to invade.

The Nato review is likely to last a year, by which time it will be clear whether Trump, seen by many as a disruptive force within the alliance, will have been re-elected.

Macron insisted the strategic review would have to study the implications of a gradual American disengagement from the protection of Europe. “We have to draw conclusions from this American realignment not only from a budgetary point of view, but also from an operational capacity point of view. Europe has to be more involved. This is not an alternative to Nato, but it is a pillar within Nato.”

Nato needed to identify its common enemy, the French president added. “Today would everyone around the table define Russia as an enemy? I do not think so”. Signalling the divisions, his comments came as the alliance issued a joint declaration saying: “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security; terrorism in all its forms and manifestations remains a persistent threat to us all.”

Aware that his approach has already led to fierce pushback in the Baltic States and Poland, Macron insisted he was not naive about Russia, and acknowledged there had been many violations of international law by Vladimir Putin, including over Ukraine. He said he intended first to open discussions with Germany about Russia, before broadening the discussion to the whole of Europe.

Despite the open disagreements between France and the US at the summit over Syria and the role of Turkey within the alliance, Macron believes Trump is open to his initiatives since the US president agrees that European levels of defence spending need to rise and Russia has the potential to become a partner, particularly against China.

But many other European states, notably Poland, the Baltics, Germany and the UK do not share Macron’s optimism about Russia. Those doubts were underlined by the German decision to expel two Russian diplomats in protest over what it said was Moscow’s lack of cooperation in an investigation into the murder of a Georgian man in Berlin, in which prosecutors suspect Russian or Chechen involvement.

In its statement Nato reflected the Baltic states’ concerns by claiming Russia’s “aggressive actions” constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security.

Macron also announced he was seeking a fresh show of solidarity by the Sahel states of west Africa for the French intervention in the region. He revealed he had asked leaders from the five Sahel states – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – to Paris to clarify whether they wished French and other nations’ troops troops to remain. Large swaths of territory have been rendered ungovernable, stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.

The French government has faced criticism at home that its 4,500 troops are making no progress in ending the terrorist threat.

What is Nato?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) is a collective defence alliance between 29 North American and European countries. Founded in 1949, the treaty provides that if one country is attacked, all Nato members would collectively respond. Nato was set up to counter the threat of the Soviet Union. 

The 12 founding members were: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom and the United States.

Over the years the organisation has expanded to its current membership of 29. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, North Macedonia and Ukraine are recognised as states with aspirations to join.

Why is it meeting in London?

This week's summit marks a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the organisation. London was chosen partly because it was the location of the original headquarters of the organisation when it was founded. 

What is on the agenda?

During the two-day gathering there will be addresses by the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, a formal reception at Buckingham Palace hosted by the Queen, and a meeting of the North Atlantic Council attended by heads of state and government. The agenda features discussions about Russia, China and the future of arms control. There will also be a series of bilateral meetings between leaders - the most testing of which are likely to feature Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looking for support for his country's recent incursion into Syria.

What's the context?

Infighting is a major issue. For the third summit in a row, Donald Trump is expected to renew demands that European allies and Canada step up defence spending. He is also unhappy with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, over a tax on American tech giants including Google, Amazon and Facebook.

For his part Macron has lamented Nato's "brain death" due to a lack of US leadership, and said the organisation needs a wake-up call. He insists that strategic questions must be addressed, like improving ties with Russia and how to handle an unpredictable ally like Turkey. 

In turn, Erdoğan has lashed out at Macron. Their very public argument bodes ill for the summit, which is being hosted by the British prime minister, Boris Johnson. Johnson will want who to smooth things over and downplay any links to Trump, who is unpopular in the UK.


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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