NATO's birthday overshadowed by top-level feuding

by Dave CLARK, Damon WAKE
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Emmanuel Macron stood by his criticism of NATO after talks with Jens Stoltenberg

NATO marks its 70th birthday at a summit next week but the celebration could well turn into an arena of political combat between the alliance's feuding leaders.

Heads of state and government will descend on London Tuesday bracing for a scrap over spending and how to deal with Russia, in a huge test of unity within NATO -- billed by its own officials as the "most successful alliance in history".

US President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused European countries of failing to pay their way and will be looking for evidence they are stepping up defence spending.

France's Emmanuel Macron has despaired of the club's strategic direction, saying it is suffering "brain death" -- riling other leaders and drawing a rare public rebuke from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

And, on Friday, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, furious at Western criticism of his operation in northern Syria against the Kurds, hit back with a personal attack on Macron.

"First of all, have your own brain death checked. These statements are suitable only to people like you who are in a state of brain death," Erdogan declared Friday.

In a televised speech, Erdogan said he would "say this at NATO".

French officials summoned the Turkish envoy in Paris to complain while a US administration official said that many members would tackle Turkey over its purchase of a Russian S-400 air defence system.

This combustible line-up is dropping into a Britain gripped by a frenetic national election campaign, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson's friendship with Trump under attack from opposition parties.

Personal duels aside, the NATO summit agenda is pretty thin. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is hoping simply to get the leaders to sign off on decisions already taken.

Last year's NATO summit in Brussels went off the rails when Trump launched a tirade at Merkel during a televised breakfast meeting.

The week before this summit has seen a stage-managed series of spending announcements, all designed to send what one diplomat called a "political signal" to appease Trump.

- 'Trump is right' -

Stoltenberg was at pains to point out on Friday that non-US defence spending has grown for four straight years and is on course to hit $130 billion next year.

A Trump administration official expected 18 of the 29 members to meet the alliance's two percent target by 2024.

Stoltenberg said Trump was right about Europe and Canada needing to spend more, but not "to please President Trump".

"They should invest in defence because we are facing new challenges, our security environment has become more dangerous," he told reporters.

Stoltenberg is attempting to mollify Trump ahead of the summit by talking up a billion-dollar contract with US planemaker Boeing to upgrade the organisation's reconnaissance planes.

NATO members have also agreed to lower the cap on US contributions to the alliance's relatively small $2.5 billion operating budget, meaning Germany and other European countries -- but not France -- will pay more.

But such measures are a drop in the ocean compared to the tens of billions of dollars Europeans would have to spend to meet their promise to spend two percent of their national GDPs on defence.

In 2014, the allies promised to meet this goal within a decade. But this week Merkel admitted that economic powerhouse Germany would not hit this sum before "the early 2030s".

Stoltenberg insists Trump's tone towards NATO has been more positive of late, and a senior US administration official said Friday Trump's spending campaign had been "spectacularly successful."

- 'Still working out what he wants' -

But Macron's broadside to an Economist interview earlier this month took many by surprise.

The French leader stood by his remarks after talks with Stoltenberg, saying NATO was failing to address relations with Russia and what do to about Turkey.

Macron's forthright comments have drawn sharp public criticism, both from Germany and from eastern European NATO countries that feel threatened by Russia.

An official from Macron's office told reporters that NATO lacks political direction and relies too much on the US.

"We can't sweep debates under the carpet because we're afraid the Americans will disengage further" he added.

A Trump administration official on Friday dismissed the "brain death" comments, saying "President Macron is still kind of working out what he wants out of the group".

The official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said Trump will tell the NATO summit that China and Russia remain major challenges.

"China above all," the official added.

Tomas Valasek, a former Slovak ambassador to NATO, said even if there was merit in opening debate, Macron had overstepped the mark.

"NATO leaders have a responsibility that think tankers don't," said Valasek, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe thinktank.

"If you run one of the nuclear powers and in some ways the most powerful military in Europe you don't want to feed the perception of NATO disunity and I'm afraid that's what he's done."

At the London summit, leaders will consider separate French and German proposals for expert committees to mull how NATO can improve its strategic thinking.

Stoltenberg last week welcomed the German plan to create a group of experts -- chaired by Stoltenberg himself -- but was cool on the French plan.

No formal statement by all 29 leaders will be issued. Instead there will be a "short declaration on the 'success story of NATO'", a diplomat said.

Emmanuel Macron stood by his criticism of NATO after talks with Jens Stoltenberg

NATO members have also agreed to lower the cap on US contributions to the alliance's relatively small $2.5 billion operating budget