NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced on Tuesday (31 March) the creation of a panel of 10 experts to determine NATO’s future after French President Emmanuel Macron declared last autumn that the alliance was experiencing “brain death”.
The strategic shift comes after a dispute between Macron and US President Donald Trump exposed major rifts in the Cold War-era military alliance.
The French resident’s sobering comments in an Economist interview took many NATO members by surprise and sent shock waves through the Alliance, which had already been plagued for months by squabbles over burden-sharing and strategic choices.
They caused usually diplomatic German Chancellor Angela Merkel to mildly rebuke Macron in public, while in private, according to a New York Times report, she told him she had suffered enough from his disruptive “truth telling”.
“Over and over again I have to glue together the cups you broke just so we can sit together again and have a cup of tea,” the report quoted her as saying.
Macron’s remarks also came amid a standoff between the US and Turkey, who late last year took unilateral military action in northern Syria and blackmailed the military alliance over the alleged lack of support in its actions in the region.
Although Ankara backed off from a threat to block NATO’s Eastern European defence plans unless allies declared Kurdish fighters in Syria terrorists, the dispute exposed cracks in the 70- year-old military alliance.
A Franco-German proposal for a strategic review of NATO’s strategic mission in the form of a “wise persons” group won broad support during the 2019 NATO Leaders Summit in December.
NATO leaders then agreed Stoltenberg would initiate a “reflection process” on NATO’s future strategy, which, according to draft plans, could involve a stronger focus on the Middle East and Africa.
NATO said the expert panel is meant to “offer recommendations to reinforce alliance unity, increase political consultation and coordination between allies, and strengthen NATO’s political role.”
This effectively means the panel is to determine how NATO can play a stronger political role and avoid public displays of dissent as seen around last year’s NATO summit in London.
The composition of the expert group takes into account the gender balance, the relevant experience and the geographical distribution of the allies.
Comprised of five men and five women, the panel will include, amongst others, former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine, his former Polish counterpart and current MEP Anna Fotyga (PiS/ECR), former Italian deputy foreign minister Marta Dassu, and former Assistant NATO Secretary-General Tacan Ildem from Turkey, whose choice is an indication of the wish to mend relations with Ankara.
Other appointed members are ex-Canadian national security advisor Greta Bossenmaier, cybersecurity expert and advisor to the Dutch government Herna Verhagen, Danish terrorist and security policy expert Anja Dalgaard-Nielsen, and British historian and advisor to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, John Bew.
The group will be co-chaired by Thomas de Maizière – a former member of the German Bundestag and German defence minister who is a longtime ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel – and A. Wess Mitchell, a former assistant secretary of state for European affairs in US President Donald Trump’s administration.
However, security officials rated the choice of Mitchell, known as a hawk on Russia, and some of the other core conservative personalities, as a rebuff to Macron’s calls for warmer ties with Moscow.
Stoltenberg told reporters on Wednesday (1 April) he will present the outcomes and recommendation to NATO leaders during their next summit in 2021.
“This is a good opportunity for NATO to look into how we can strengthen the alliance and strengthen its political dimension,” Stoltenberg said, adding that it is “natural that there are differences” among its members, who now comprise 30 countries after North Macedonia formally joined on 27 March
NATO foreign ministers are set to meet for their first ever virtual teleconference on Thursday (2 April) to coordinate their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]