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Nato fireworks, flare-up in the making

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Not the best of friends . . . President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) of Turkey and President Emmanuel Macron of France are now trading insults in public, much to the despair of Nato.

London

WHAT was conceived as a celebration for one of the world's most important military alliances risks becoming a show of disunity - and this time it's not because of anything President Donald Trump has said or done.

Meeting in London this week, leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have two other presidents to worry about: France's Emmanuel Macron, who recently has openly questioned the collective defence clause at Nato's heart, and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has troubled alliance members with his decisions to send troops into Syria and buy a Russian anti-missile system.

To make matters worse, Mr Macron and Mr Erdogan are now trading insults in public.

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In fact, so much has changed since then-Prime Minister Theresa May offered to host the two-day commemoration of Nato's 70th anniversary that her successor, Boris Johnson, could be forgiven for wishing she hadn't.

"I will tell you again at Nato, first check your own brain death," Mr Erdogan said, addressing Mr Macron in a speech from Istanbul last Friday. He was referring to an interview the French leader gave last month in which he not only criticised Turkey, but described the alliance as brain dead.

With three significant member states bringing conflicting agendas to the table at a gathering that takes place in the closing stretch of a charged UK election campaign, the event risks fanning concern about Nato's future, rather than celebrating what alliance officials and leaders routinely call the most successful military grouping in history.

Officials from the US and Britain were at pains last week to highlight Nato's successes, including a renewed sense of purpose since Russia's 2014 aggression in Ukraine. Defence spending is on the rise and Nato is expanding into counter-terrorism, cyber security, and now even space.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pushed back against Mr Macron's portrayal of the alliance as ailing. The two met in Paris last week.

And the alliance does continue to attract. North Macedonia, set to join next year, will bring the leaders at the table this week to 30, up from 15 when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Such accomplishments, however, are being drowned out by the increasingly public dispute over what Nato should focus on, and what it should stand for. In an apparent attempt to contain the debate, Germany has proposed forming an expert group to report on the future political shape of the alliance.

Mr Macron drove Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel to make a spirited defence of the alliance last week, telling lawmakers in Berlin that "Europe cannot currently defend itself alone." Long part of the glue that has solidified Nato, Mrs Merkel's position is now under threat at home, however, after her centre-left coalition partner elected a new, more radical leadership.

A senior US official said last Friday that Mr Trump would prioritise enlisting Nato to push back against China's growing influence. The official said Mr Trump would also press allies to increase defence spending and to exclude Chinese companies from the construction of 5G mobile networks, something many have been unwilling to do.

Instead of containing China, Mr Macron wants Nato to prioritise the fight against terrorism. Thirteen French soldiers died in Mali last week and a lone terrorist last Friday killed two people in London.

A French official said Mr Macron also plans to press for greater "operational" burden-sharing as a way of complementing Mr Trump's push for Europe to carry more of the alliance's financial burden.

Mr Erdogan, meanwhile, is demanding acceptance of Turkish goals in northern Syria, including classifying as a terrorist threat the Kurdish militias that have fought Islamic State alongside other Nato allies. He also rubbed salt into another open wound in Turkey's ties with Western allies, by unpacking and testing the Nato non-compatible S-400 air defence system he recently bought from Russia.

And that's all before Mr Trump makes his first tweet at the event. The US president will arrive distracted by pressures at home, where he is the subject of impeachment proceedings.

"It will be a great tribute to how much all the Nato allies value the institution if we manage to get through this leaders' meeting without President Trump, President Macron or President Erdogan doing something damaging to the alliance," said Kori Schake, a former National Security Council official in the George W Bush administration who is now deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

However, the shortened time frame - formal sessions will take only about four hours - may limit the potential for damage. WP