The Current

Tensions at NATO summit are what 'you might hear in a playground,' says historian Margaret MacMillan

Things are tense at the NATO summit, highlighting the pressures on the 70-year-old alliance within its own ranks — and from rivals like Russia and China. Professor Margaret MacMillan tells us where these issues come from, and what's at stake for Canada.

Trump calls Trudeau 'two-faced' over video of Canadian leader talking about president

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump at a meeting ahead of the NATO summit in London, Tuesday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Read Story Transcript

U.S. President Donald Trump's public spat with French President Emmanuel Macron at the NATO summit was "childish," says prominent historian Margaret MacMillan.

"It was sort of 'you said, I said' — that sort of thing you might hear in a playground," said MacMillan, a history professor at the University of Toronto and professor emerita at the University of Oxford.

"At this level, I don't think I've ever seen quite the same sort of thing."

Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested the military alliance was suffering from "brain death" because of a lack of coordination and communication between members, specifically in light of Trump's surprise decision to pull U.S. troops from northeastern Syria.

Trump met with Macron at the summit in London Tuesday, where he called the remarks "nasty," and criticized France's economy, saying the European nation needs NATO more than the U.S.

Trump stokes tensions at NATO events

2 years ago
At meetings ahead of the official NATO summit, U.S. President Donald Trump used news press conferences with other leaders to call out “delinquent” members and suggest sending ISIS fighters back to Europe. 3:15

Macron said he stood by his comment.

MacMillan told The Current's guest host David Common that "goodness knows there have been tensions within NATO and many other alliances before."

"But they usually tend to express it in slightly different language, and I think there's usually a willingness to try and sort it out."

The recriminations continued Wednesday when Trump called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau "two-faced" after a video surfaced of the Canadian leader talking about the president. Trudeau is seen in conversation with Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Princess Anne. 

In an email to The Current after broadcast, MacMillan said the video doesn't tell us anything new about the dynamics among the NATO leaders. But if leaders feel they "can't talk casually among themselves without being recorded," she warned "it will make such summits even more stilted in future."

On Wednesday, Trump said Trudeau wasn't happy he "called him out" for not meeting NATO's target for alliance members' spending on defence.

Asked about the video, Trudeau insisted the Canada-U.S. relationship remained "extremely strong."

Sounds like Trump a topic for NATO leaders' cocktail chatter

2 years ago
PM Justin Trudeau, France's Emmanuel Macron, UK PM Boris Johnson and other VIPs shared a few words at a Buckingham Palace reception Tuesday - and seemed to be talking about U.S. President Donald Trump's lengthy impromptu press conferences earlier in the day. 0:25

Trump has previously argued the U.S. pays too much in financial contributions, compared to other countries — but MacMillan asked if the U.S. wanted "to see a fractured Europe in which Russia has greater influence, in which China has increasing influence?"

As for Canada, she said that "if NATO were to disappear, I think we would be finding ourselves feeling a little bit lonely."

"We are a small power who occupy a very big piece of real estate, and so we have real problems in thinking about how to defend ourselves," she said. 

"We've always, I think, seen ourselves as being part of a larger grouping." 

NATO should 'focus on what its purpose is'

This week's summit marks NATO's 70th anniversary, but in recent years, it has faced questions over its purpose. 

MacMillan suggests Macron's accusation of "brain death" is aimed at making NATO members take a hard look at the alliance's position.

"I think Macron is rightly trying to make NATO focus on what its purpose is, what it's meant to be doing, what it should be aiming for," she said.

She said NATO came into existence as a defensive alliance following the Second World War, and was always focused on Europe and the North Atlantic.

MacMillan said that if NATO's strength was diminished, the U.S. would have to contend with China's increasing influence. (Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images)

But since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been involved in operations on the wider world stage, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It has been rather distorting its mission. It's been trying to do too much," she said.

"And it would be better off concentrating on its original purpose, the Atlantic and the defence of Europe."

MacMillan argued that as the institution has aged, along with institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank, "we are forgetting why we needed them."

"We knew why we needed them after 1945, because ... people could look around the world and see the devastation that a major state-to-state conflict had created," she said.

"I think we've forgotten just how important it is to have ways of working together multilaterally."

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from The Canadian Press and CBC News. Produced by Julie Crysler.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?