Germany Proposes ‘Expert Group’ to Bridge Political Divisions in NATO

By James Carstensen | November 20, 2019 | 8:10pm EST
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg. (Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg. (Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

Berlin ( – A number of NATO allies expressed support Wednesday for a German proposal for a new “expert group” to reduce political divisions between members of the transatlantic alliance, according to NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg.

“The aim of the proposal is to consider how we can strengthen NATO as a platform for addressing the political challenges we face together, North America and Europe,” said Stoltenberg, later adding that it “received support from many allies.”

Presented by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas during a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels, the proposal envisions a working group of senior officials and former foreign and defense ministers, led by Stoltenberg, to counteract “divisive tendencies” in the Alliance.

“NATO has recently experienced some stress tests,” Maas’ spokesperson said in Berlin. “We want confidence to be regained in NATO.”

The group would investigate how the political role of NATO could be strengthened, with its first report due in a year’s time.

The proposal is viewed as a reaction to French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent remark to the effect that NATO is experiencing “brain death,” citing a lack of coordination over the U.S. pullback of troops from northern Syria ahead of Turkey’s military offensive there. Macron’s comments suggested Europe move away from NATO.

Stoltenberg, who plans to discuss the comments with Macron directly next week, defended NATO, saying different views were necessary to strengthen the alliance.

“There’s no way to deny that there are disagreements on issues like trade, like climate change, [the] Iran nuclear deal and, most recently, on how to deal with the situation in northeast Syria,” Stoltenberg said.

But he cautioned that any attempt to distance Europe from the U.S. would “not only weaken NATO, it will also divide Europe.”

The German proposal is to be discussed further when NATO head of states meet in London next month.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed support for the idea of confronting differences “head on,” but was hesitant to back the early proposal.

“I don’t know if this is precisely the right moment or if this is the right format,” he told reporters in Brussels.

Jan Techau, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, described the proposal as “process over substance.”

“It is a pretty classic German suggestion: create a working group of some sort and publish a report,” Techau told DW, calling it a “frantic” response to Macron’s criticism.

At Wednesday’s meeting, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also called for the setting up of a “small group of outstanding people from outside NATO.”

Maas, however, insisted his suggested plan was “a purely German proposal.”

James Hess, a professor at the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University, said Maas’ proposal had the potential to be a worthwhile effort, and agreed with Stoltenberg’s view that members’ differences strengthen NATO.

“NATO countries bring a wealth of experience and resources,” he said. “The present leadership in Turkey is straining relationships within the alliance, but given the 70 years of NATO’s existence, it has proven that it is stronger than one man’s personality.”

Global Security Review editor Joshua Stowell said while he agreed with Stoltenberg’s statement discord among allies, such as Macron’s apparent differences with the U.S., can nevertheless pose a threat to the unity of the alliance.

“Germany is wary of Macron’s vision for Europe, which alienates eastern European states like Poland, which are fearful of a resurgent Russia and see the U.S. as a critical pillar of their national security,” he said. France has, for example, “advocated improving relations between Russia and Europe, a view hotly contested in eastern E.U. states,” Stowell added.

“Heightened dialogue and engagement on security and defense issues is never a bad thing,” he said. But it would need to acknowledge security concerns that diverge from the interests of France and Germany – such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany, which is opposed by other E.U. members like Lithuania and Poland.

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