France wants to ‘move from brain death to brainstorm’ on NATO

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French Defense Minister Florence Parly | Mazen Mahdi/AFP via Getty Images

The country’s defense minister doubled down on French calls for a strategic rethink of the alliance.

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MANAMA, Bahrain — France is doubling down on its calls for a strategic rethink of NATO.

On Saturday, the country’s Defense Minister Florence Parly said that as far as the alliance was concerned, she believed “the time now has come to move from the brain death to the brainstorm.”

French President Emmanuel Macron caused a firestorm earlier this month when he said NATO was “experiencing brain death” in an interview.

French officials have been in damage control mode since, trying to reassure allies that France does not intend to abandon NATO while standing firm on the need for a strategic reassessment in light of what they say is an increasingly unreliable and disengaged administration in the United States, unilateral military action by Turkey in Syria and a need to change the alliance’s relationship with Russia.

Parly, speaking at the International Institute for Security Studies Manama Dialogue in Bahrain on Saturday, highlighted events in the Middle East as a way to drive home Macron’s point about American unreliability.

“We’ve seen a gradual U.S. disengagement,” Parly said, citing as examples the Obama administration’s failure to act after Syria used chemical weapons in 2013 and the Trump administration’s unwillingness to respond militarily against Iranian belligerence in the Gulf. “With the U.S. sometimes looking elsewhere, an entire grammar of deterrence needs to be reinvented.”

But 10 days ahead of the NATO leaders’ summit in London, the depth of disagreement and skepticism with the French view was on full display on Saturday, particularly among the U.S., U.K. and Turkey — France’s three most militarily powerful NATO allies.

“I think the brains of NATO are alive and well, but I think brainstorming is always a good idea,” U.K. Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill said when he took the stage after Parly at the IISS Manama Dialogue.

Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal rebuked Parly’s accusation that Turkey had not taken into consideration its NATO allies’ national security concerns when it launched a unilateral incursion into northeastern Syria. The U.S., U.K. and France have been fighting ISIS in northern Syria in partnership with a Kurdish militia that Turkey considers to be a terrorist organisation.

On Wednesday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas made a proposal — with French support — to form an “expert group” to reflect on how to help NATO members clarify the objectives of their alliance and adapt them to current threats.

Both Parly and Sedwill underlined the need for European NATO countries to meet the alliance’s target of spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. France and the U.K. have more or less met that goal, but most other alliance members, notably Germany, are still far from it.

Parly also attempted to portray France as a steadier partner for Arab countries to rely on as the U.S. steps back from the region.

To that end, Paris is working on setting up a “European maritime surveillance mission” in the Gulf, which she took care to distinguish from the U.S.-led International Maritime Security Coalition (IMSC) that launched on November 7 with the participation of Albania, Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the U.K.

For Parly, the IMSC is too closely tied to the U.S. policy of maximum pressure against Iran, which France does not support.

“I believe Europe can play the moderating role,” Parly said. “In that spirit, France is currently working to put together a European maritime surveillance mission, distinct from the policy of maximum pressure, it will be separate from but coordinated with the US presence.”

The launch date of this European-led mission remains unclear. It could include around 10 European and non-European countries and is dubbed a “surveillance mission” — as opposed to a security mission — in order to clarify its rules of engagement, which won’t include fully protecting every ship that goes through the Gulf but rather a deterrence presence.

American and British officials, meanwhile, refuted Parly’s association of the IMSC with the maximum pressure campaign.

“The IMSC is not related to the maximum pressure campaign,” General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of the U.S. Central Command, told the conference. “We’re helping maintain freedom of navigation in and around the Strait of Hormuz.”

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