BRUSSELS -- Germany sought Wednesday to ease French worries about NATO by offering to set up a group of experts to examine the alliance’s security challenges after President Emmanuel Macron lamented the “brain death” of the military organization.
Macron's public criticism of NATO — notably, a perceived lack of U.S. leadership, concerns about an unpredictable Turkey since it invaded northern Syria without warning its allies, and the need for Europe to take on more security responsibilities — has shaken the alliance.
At a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Germany’s Heiko Maas said that the 29-nation trans-Atlantic alliance is "Europe's life insurance and we want it to remain so." He said the aim should be to prevent "break-away tendencies" within NATO.
To ensure that doesn’t happen, Maas told reporters, the "political arm" of NATO must be strengthened.
"We should get advice from experts, from people who understand these issues," he said.
During the talks, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also tabled a similar proposal but called instead for a “wise persons” group of senior officials to examine the political aspects of NATO’s decision making.
Asked after the meeting how the two plans were received, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the proposal from Maas “received support from many allies and I think it has value and we will now look into it.” He repeatedly refused to discuss the possible merits of the French plan.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “it is always the case that every institution, every structure that has been created, should constantly be evaluated against whether it’s fit for purpose. Is it achieving its ends? Is it delivering against the objectives that were originally set out?”
Pompeo rebuffed Macron’s criticism of President Donald Trump’s role at NATO, saying “the United States led the formation of this alliance and we are returning our robust leadership today.”
Macron’s choice of words was rejected as “drastic” by German Chancellor Angela Merkel the day after they were published in The Economist magazine. Senior U.S. and European officials have since piled on, leaving France feeling isolated for speaking out.
Stoltenberg heads to Paris next week for talks with Macron, tentatively scheduled for Nov. 28. On the eve of the Brussels meeting, Stoltenberg said the best way to resolve differences “is to sit down and to discuss them and to fully understand the messages and the motivations.”
Asked Wednesday why Macron’s stance has angered allies or might hurt NATO, Stoltenberg said, without mentioning France, that “there is no way to deny that there are disagreements on issues like trade, like climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and also simply on how to deal with the situation in northeast Syria.”
But he added: “We have to overcome these disagreements, because it is so essential both for Europe and the United States that we stand united.”
The rift bodes ill for a Dec. 3-4 summit of NATO leaders in London, where Trump is expected to once again demand that the Europeans and Canada step up defense spending. That meeting comes amid impeachment hearings in the U.S., and in the heat of a British election campaign.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Brussels, Frank Jordans and Dave Rising in Berlin contributed.