Speaking at the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels, Germany’s foreign policy chief Heiko Maas proposed the formation of an expert panel led by the alliance’s Secretary-General and tasked with reviewing NATO’s overall operations.

Maas’ proposal calls for the creation of a commission of experts that would debate strategic issues to help strengthen the political arm of the Western alliance. Maas added that the proposal is essential to preserve the unity of the alliance, which he called “Europe’s life insurance.” 

The German proposal has been widely interpreted as a response to comments by French President Emmanuel Macron, who told the Economist during an interview earlier this month that NATO’s ‘‘brain death’’ was the result of France’s doubts about the collective defence doctrine of the US, the alliance’s largest contributor, due to questions about President Donald J. Trump’s reliability as an ally and his unpredictability when it comes to coherent policy strategies.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has joined most of the North Atlantic allies in flatly rejecting Macron’s comments, said it was “eminently reasonable” for NATO to move to a phase of self-evaluation and internal debate to assure that all of the alliance’s members are fulfilling their commitments and are still speaking with one voice regarding NATO’s role on the world stage. Pompeo did, however, question if Maas’ proposal is “the right format” at the present time.

The Americans’ doubts over Europe’s commitment to its own defence are matched by questions from many of the alliance’s members about the reliability and strategic loyalties of Turkey – one of NATO’s largest members. The Turks infuriated its NATO allies when it violated the alliance’s charter after buying highly sophisticated anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia as part of a move to politically align itself closer with Moscow, and when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a military invasion of northern Syria.

In a further rebuke of Macron’s comments, several NATO members commented that the alliance’s East European members feel directly threatened by Russia and added that it is unrealistic for Europe to believe that it can defend itself without the support of the United States. “There is currently no credible alternative to NATO. We need American capabilities,” a NATO diplomat said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg greeted the German proposal with reserved optimism, saying that “The aim of the proposal is to consider how we can strengthen NATO as a platform for addressing the political challenges we face together.” Stoltenberg said the proposal would be further examined ahead of the December 4 summit in London.

As an alternative, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian suggested the formation of a “small group of eminent persons” to reflect on “the vision the alliance has regarding its values and aims” and to focus on France’s desire to improve NATO’s relationship with Russia, it’s approach to China’s actions in Asia, and the impact of new military technology.