What was supposed to have been a joyous 70th anniversary celebration of trans-Atlantic amity and co-operation will instead be an spectacularly unlovely, unloving gathering Tuesday in the United Kingdom of NATO government leaders, ministers and military commanders. There is even a chance it may end up being a sombre wake — or a circus.
French President Emmanuel Macron threw a grenade (figuratively) at the upcoming summit by stating last month that the western security alliance was “brain dead.”
In case anybody missed Macron’s wakeup call, the man from the Elysée Palace doubled down on his “brain dead” remark this week. In the cryptic, clipped language of diplomacy, Macron’s words would be deemed “unhelpful.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan certainly thought so. Speaking in Turkey on Friday, he told Macron to check “whether you are brain dead first.”
In the same absurdist vein, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, who represents NATO’s second-biggest military force after the U.S. Cavusoglu accused Macron of being “a sponsor of terrorism” for criticizing Turkey’s military offensive against Syrian Kurds this fall and for meeting seven weeks ago in Paris with a leader of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Turkey is already in NATO bad books for its human rights record and Erdogan’s tilt towards Moscow, symbolized by the delivery in July of a sophisticated Russian air defence system that includes missiles purpose-built to collect information about and shoot down alliance warplanes. That brazen poke in NATO’S eye caused the U.S. to cancel the sale of 100 stealthy F-35 fighter jets to Ankara.
This could be seen as good news for Canada, providing a potential opening to jump the F-35 queue and get 88 new fighter jets a few years earlier than planned. It is unlikely, however, that Ottawa will deviate from its current schedule, which appears intended to delay the choice of a new jet fighter for as long as possible so as to kick most of the costs forward onto whatever government rules Canada in about 10 years’ time. The deteriorating global security situation and the RCAF’s urgent need for new fighters now to replace its nearly 40-year-old CF-18 Hornets do not seem to be a consideration.
Angela Merkel, the usually calm German chancellor, threw a grenade of her own into NATO’s latrine last week, savaging Macron for his harsh remarks about the state of NATO’s brain.
“I understand your desire for disruptive politics,” Merkel said. “But I’m tired of picking up the pieces. Over and over, I have to glue together the cups you have broken so that we can then sit down and have a cup of tea together.”
Helping to complete the picture of a security and military union in disarray, U.S. President Donald Trump achieved the seemingly impossible by contriving to be on both sides of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Then, true to his “America first” mantra, the president slashed U.S. funding for the NATO bureaucracy in Brussels by about $150 million. This is a trifle considering the hundreds of billions of dollars the U.S. spends on defence, but the move was meant to convey a message. At the same time, Trump demanded that the 21 NATO countries not honouring their defence spending pledges — two per cent of gross domestic product — do so.
NATO members wildly denouncing each other and all but eight member countries being spending promise deadbeats is manna from heaven for Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Chairman Xi Jinping. NATO has already survived three decades of post-Cold War existential debate about its future, so chances are the military alliance will paper over its many serious differences and stumble forward. But Putin and Xi and their generals and admirals are surely watching and drawing their own conclusions.
The portents for the London summit are so bad that, as the New York Times noted, it has quietly been shortened and is now simply described as a gathering.
What Justin Trudeau’s government thinks about NATO’s tawdry internecine dramas is something of a mystery. Rather than offend anyone about anything or draw attention to its own serious shortcomings regarding defence spending, it seldom sticks its head above the parapet to say anything meaningful at alliance meetings.
But Canada’s lack of spending on defence caught the eye of former president Barack Obama, who in a speech to the House of Commons in 2016 urged Canada to do better. President Trump has gone further. As Global News revealed last week, Washington recently sent the Department of National Defence in Ottawa a “blunt” letter demanding that Canada hike defence spending.
Some fancy bookkeeping two years ago miraculously increased Canadian military spending from just under one per cent of GDP to 1.3 per cent. Though it never explained why, NATO administrators accepted Canada’s revised figure. Even with the arithmetic now being used, Canada remains about $8 billion or $10 billion a year short of the spending commitment that the Harper government agreed to in 2014 and the Trudeau government has said it would honour.
Canada plans to get to two per cent eventually. But the long-term spending targets that were announced several years ago are seriously backloaded. If ever realized, the difference will only be made up about a decade from now.
As it is, Canada still languishes in NATO’s bottom third for spending by GDP, and even worse in spending on new equipment. NATO released its annual numbers by country on Friday. Canada’s spending remains well below the two per cent goal. This is an embarrassment for such a prosperous nation.
Lost in all NATO’s squabbles and Canada’s spending shortfalls is that the Canadian Armed Forces help NATO in several important ways. The CAF leads a multinational battlegroup in Latvia that acts as a tripwire to try to dissuade Russia from invading the Baltic states. It provides army trainers to a NATO training mission in Ukraine that prepares troops there to defend the country from attacks by Russian and pro-Russian forces. It has other army trainers in Iraq and other countries in that neighbourhood to help them become better able to fight ISIS and other jihadi groups.
There is a small number of RCAF personnel assisting NATO airborne early warning aircraft (AWACs) based in Germany. Five or six RCAF CF-18 jets are sent out a couple of times a year as part of NATO air policing operations over the Black Sea. And there is almost always an RCN frigate participating in NATO exercises and patrols in Europe or the Middle East.
This may sound like a lot of activity. It isn’t, really. The number of Canadians deployed on NATO missions seldom exceeds 1,500 personnel. This is not much considering that Canada has about 69,400 men and women serving in its regular forces and that Canada has the world’s 10th largest economy.
Canada will undoubtedly cleave to its usual diplomatic strategy with NATO at next week’s non-summit birthday bash in the United Kingdom. It will lie low, make as few commitments as possible and hope nobody notices.
Given the awful things that the alliance’s big guns — the U.S., Turkey, France and Germany — have been saying about each other, that, for once, may be a prudent strategy for Canada.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas