NATO’s ‘brain-death’ linked to its members’ lack of foreign policy strategy

Emmanuel Macron’s recent interview in the Economist stirred controversy when he declared NATO as “brain-dead” as America “turns its back on the European project”. Regardless of whether one agrees with his assessment, Macron has sparked an important conversation about the future of NATO’s leadership, and more strategic foreign policy from NATO’s member states.

If NATO is lacking strategic focus, it is primarily because its members are struggling with the same lack of direction when it comes to foreign policy. The UK, the US, and the EU are all facing similar challenges, which make it harder for them to take a leading role in ensuring NATO’s mission and purpose remains relevant in the years to come.

Under Donald Trump, the United States has pursued an erratic foreign policy, flip-flopping between positions to a varying degree of success. On November 15th Trump tweeted: “The US now has a very strong and powerful foreign policy … it is called, quite simply, America First!”.  But this is not a strategy; at best it is an objective, at worst an empty slogan.

In Syria, Trump recently ordered the retreat of US troops, causing a huge media stir, but shortly after discreetly sent additional troops back in. Even some of these regular features of his foreign policy—unpredictability and disengagement—fail to offer much strategic coherence.

If the confusion around US foreign policy sounds familiar to the confusion in the UK, it is because we too have been caught in a trap of foreign policy by slogan rather than strategy. Back in March 2018 I wrote about the dangers of not backing up the foreign policy strapline “Global Britain” with substantial strategy. And whilst the government has brought out new, significant policies (Fusion Doctrine, the FCO’s Africa Strategy, and a Soft Power strategy in the works), the top-level strategy to explain the UK’s role in the world post-Brexit is still lacking.

Sure, Brexit has taken over so much political bandwidth, but that doesn’t make the need for a strategy any less important.


What next?


“Brain-dead” suggests a need to resuscitate rather than implying NATO is actually “dead”. This is an important distinction.  In this power vacuum and strategic void, there is also opportunity.

Macron and the EU are keen to seize the chance. Their incoming High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Spaniard Josep Borell, praised Macron for addressing the “elephant in the room” in his Economist interview. This is in line with his approach to EU foreign policy and what he aims to bring to the role. His opening speech mentioned the need for a more “geopolitical Commission”, argued that the EU needed to “learn the language of power” and talked about an EU “world vision”. His rhetoric certainly suggests he doesn’t plan to shy away from this strategic challenge.

As ever though, turning concepts into strategy is not easy, in particular given the collection of interests within the EU. Encouragingly for the EU it is not just Macron and Borell making these claims. On the same day as Macron’s speech, Germany’s defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (or ‘AKK’), spoke at a different event. She emphasized “both the willingness and ability to do more than its fair share are dwindling in the United States. This is why we must step up in future, just like others who are defending a reliable, free and democratic order.” In much more controlled language, the German defence minister was also stating the need to “step up”, showing some degree of EU alignment on this issue.

The UK also has the chance to act and formulate a coherent, realistic, and appropriately-funded strategy for its future role in the world. If the strategy is for a truly “global Britain”, it could lead the way for the US and the EU, its two closest allies, and help provide some of the leadership that Western foreign policy as a whole appears to be lacking.

Whilst the upcoming general election will undoubtedly make significant changes impossible, the NATO leaders meeting in London this December will provide an opportunity for the UK to signal its intent to become more strategic in its foreign policy, specifically with regards to NATO. Failure to do so, however, could leave the UK lagging at a time where its role in the world could get further lost.


Edward Elliott

Edward Elliott is a Senior Associate at the British Foreign Policy Group.