With Mr Macron ruffling feathers like this, and with a certain prevailing nervousness about President Trump’s tendency to up-end proceedings with a twitter storm, the summit will need a local organiser that is cool, calm and collected.
In Boris Johnson there will be a host who has a reputation for under-preparing for diplomatic encounters, and with a track record from his term as foreign secretary of under-examining his brief. There will also be the major preoccupation for the prime minister of a general election campaign.
The Nato gathering will undoubtedly be pushed into general election service by the Conservative Party.
As well as the optics of Boris Johnson shaking hands with a cast of presidents and prime ministers, it will also allow for an opportunity to contrast the Conservative Party’s security and defence policy with that of Jeremy Corbyn – with his long-standing opposition to Nato and nuclear weapons.
The leaders’ meeting is not a full-fledged “summit”, which in Nato parlance is an occasion for setting major policy direction. The event is an annual gathering of leaders intended to take stock of progress on pressing security issues and programme commitments, and to provide an opportunity to reassure that all is well with the transatlantic alliance.
Mr Macron’s comment about “the brain death of Nato” was rather more nuanced than the headlines might have suggested, and he elaborated by saying that “you have no co-ordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its Nato allies”.
His point was made against the backdrop of the decision of the Trump administration to terminate an alliance with Kurdish forces and to withdraw US troops from northern Syria, which then facilitated a Turkish invasion of that region.
That decision, made without consultation with Nato allies, left major European governments playing catch-up — for example, Germany’s defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, hurriedly launched an initiative for a security zone, which swiftly petered out.
Whether Nato is moribund is rather disputable, but it has certainly been demonstrating symptoms of a political aneurysm. There have been transatlantic tensions on Mr Trump’s questioning of the Nato collective defence guarantee and his brutal statements on the inadequate financial contributions by Nato’s other members.
In addition, other members have expressed concern at Turkey’s behaviour, and in particular its willingness to procure a Russian-supplied air defence system – a move which saw it removed from the F-35 joint strike fighter programme.
In addition, significant fault lines persist between Nato members on how to respond to Russia. Nato as an organisation has taken decisions to boost the deployment of forces in the Baltic states, and more generally to enhance the speed with which military forces could be deployed to counter any hostilities by Russia.
However, despite a catalogue of behaviour — including the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury in March 2018, the shooting down of Malaysian airlines flight MH17, the invasion and the occupation of Crimea, a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, and heightened military activity in the Baltic, eastern Europe and the Black Sea — Nato member states do not demonstrate a unified position on Russia.
There is a degree of incredulity on the part of Baltic, central and eastern European member states that Mr Macron should be publicly proposing a reset of relations with Russia, while Germany pursues a policy that will increase energy interdependence with Russia through the Nord Stream 2, trans-Baltic gas pipeline.
President Trump’s highly personalised diplomacy with Mr Putin has further added to other Nato members’ anxieties, as has the US decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, following breaches of its provisions by Russia, and ending an arms control agreement which has significant impact on non-signatory countries such as America’s Nato allies and partner countries.
The UK government’s response to Mr Macron’s “brain death” comments was rather muted – perhaps to be expected with the Nato leaders’ meeting in prospect. The UK has invested considerable energy in the diplomatic message, since the Brexit vote, that its commitment to European security is undiminished.
It has made notable contributions to enhancing Nato’s military deployments in the Baltics, worked to build rapid readiness forces and engaged in high profile military exercises with other European states. All these actions have signalled that the UK’s enthusiasm for (non-EU) European military security commitments remains firm.
However, the UK has had a rather muted voice in the debate on the future of European security. This is partly because it is preoccupied with its domestic political turmoil, but also because it has not had a role to play in the EU’s recent efforts to collectively build “strategic autonomy”: enhancing the military capabilities of the member states through more collaboration on defence technology development, procurement and collective capacity building.
The UK has a significant stake, but now a greatly diminished say, in the compatibility between the EU’s security and defence ambitions and the extent to which they will be the vehicle for providing an insurance against a diminution in the current US defence guarantees to Europe.
Hosting the Nato leaders’ meeting is unlikely to dispel the impression in other national capitals that the UK has reached a clarity of purpose on its post-Brexit place in Europe and internationally. A competently organised and smoothly run meeting operation might, however, contribute to the impression that the UK’s diplomatic brain is showing flickers of activity.
By Professor Richard Whitman, associate fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally featured in Times Red Box.