NATO in the Asian Century: another ‘threescore years and ten’?

Today is a birthday, so here`s a party game: Guess the date –

Europe`s political independence and economic prosperity is at risk. As Russia extends its influence across Europe, the UK — keystone of European securityteeters ambiguously on commitments to integration with its continental neighbors. The costs of recent wars have left Americans sore and in debt, and re-assessing the necessity of defending Europe while threats and instability gather across the Pacific in North East Asia. Bracing against an impending economic slowdownthe United States puts domestic economic concerns before foreign commitments – particularly where they feel like Joe taxpayer and sergeant Jane might be carrying the security burdens of allies that are also economic competitors.

April 2019 or 1949?

In some ways today`s trans-Atlantic scene resembles the situation 70 years ago when the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington DC. Will allies gathering to celebrate NATO`s 70th birthday embrace the ambivalence and the need for adaptation that have always been part of its story? Given broader geopolitical developments, questions naturally arise about its suitability for current conditions, and if it is set up to be around for another 70 years. Addressing these questions also means thinking about the things that make our world so different from that of 1949. Two stand out:

The first difference is how much Europe mattered in American eyes for the challenges of ordering the world of 1949 compared to today. One reason America committed to European security back then (before de-colonization got going) was European power still extended across the world. The loss of the UK, France, Italy and the Netherlands to Communist influence would mean not just the loss of some European territory. It could destabilize colonial territories that were vital to US interests such as Malaya and Singapore, Indonesia, Indo-China, and vast areas of Africa  not to mention old dominions and new commonwealth members, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Pakistan, and India. In his history of that time “Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945-1957”, Derek Leebaert recalls the extent to which the US relied on the British Empire, the Sterling area and European colonial governance to hold the ring against the advance of global communism. 

European economic recovery, growth and integration over the last 70 years has given it a form of economic and regulatory power that can be very influential, but from an American (global) geo-strategic perspective Europe today is simply less important than it was in 1949. America now has its own worldwide archipelago of military infrastructure that rolled out as the Europeans retreated. The strategic value of European basing for the Cold War US military derived partly from geographical proximity to Russia and the Middle East, but the declining Russian threat (compared to what the USSR presented to America) and emerging US energy independence (thanks, fracking) have further eroded the logic of a “Europe first” policy. The success of the European project has itself raised questions about the centrality of NATO as some Europeans begin to imagine a world where they provide for their security without relying on help from across the Atlantic. 

The second big difference is that great power competition in 1949 was shifting to a USA-USSR axis (through Europe) and today it has swung away from the Atlantic to a USA-China axis. A move to rebalance military resources to favour the Indo-Pacific confirm that hemisphere is seen as more important than the Atlantic. As Edward Lucas noted recentlyRussia’s economy is the size of Italy’s. Its defense spending is the size of the combined military budgets of the Nordic and Baltic countries, plus Poland. But whereas those countries have only to defend themselves, Russia has to pay for a military space program, nuclear weapons, and a blue-water navy. The USSR economy peaked at around 60% of US GDP, today`s Russia is closer to one tenth. China on the other hand has been going in the other direction, with a steady rise in military spending and power. 

While the prize in today`s great power competition is still the same – the freedom to set a world order advantageous to one`s own economic and strategic interests  the character of the competition is different in ways that make NATO if not “obsolete”, let`s say maladjusted. Instead of the ideological threat Communism posed to the US-led global order, intramural arguments among NATO allies about Iran sanctions, Huawei and 5G infrastructure suggest that today`s threat comes in the form of trade, investment and technological competition. US allies and a new “non-aligned” set of nations are attracted to the low cost and high quality of Chinese offerings. The strategy of containment laid out in 1946-7 into which NATO was born was the response to the threat global communism posed to Western interests. Is it possible to imagine anything like it against an economic, technological giant integrated into the global economy like China? Geographic distance has become less relevant. With Italy subscribing to China`s Belt and Road Initiative, NATO borders do not seem to be insulating Europe from Sino-US tension, nor is NATO solidarity binding the West together on a common strategic response. 

Turning to conventional military aspects of rivalry, the tools and weapons that characterize today`s competition are also different in ways that do not seem to play to NATO`s traditional strengths. Threat perceptions towards China and Russia highlight two developments in the changing character of warfare, which NATO must also address to have a secure future. One is “upwards” in the cost of weapons, platforms and systems as the application of technology like Artificial Intelligence, quantum computing, lasers, and hypersonic drives opens domains of competition in space and cyber domains. All areas where national industries compete, rather than work together strategically. The other trend is “downwards” as operational concepts for waging war below the threshold of conventional application of force – so called “grey zone” war have been tested and refined in Crimea and the seas of the Western Pacific. Civil / military distinctions that are wired into democratic cultures make them uncomfortable fighting in the grey areas.   

So when NATO turns 70 on April 4th 2019, the allies face profoundly changed geopolitical conditions. Germany has gone from a nation divided and occupied by the victors of WWII to being the largest European economy, its Chancellor even lauded as “leader of the free world. In Spring of 1949 China was also divided between nationalist and communist forces engaged in a civil war. What changes of comparable magnitude will arise in the coming period?

NATO 2089

To endure far past its 70th anniversary NATO will have to address the trends of reduced security interdependence between Europe and North America, a geo-economic power shift to China, and a bi-polarisation in the character of war (upwards to a high-cost technological arms race, downwards to grey zone warfare). Here are three courses to consider in response:

1. NATO could become more European. This would imply acknowledging that trans-Atlantic interests are diverging fundamentally and irreversibly as a fact. This has some appeal to those  who enthuse about European “strategic autonomy” and even a “European Army (not to mention Americans who see NATO as a `bad deal`). However, until European publics are prepared to meet the cost of even basic readiness to defend themselves, let alone investing in top-tier defence equipment and technologies, genuine autonomy will remain an illusion.
Despite Chancellor Merkel`s pledges to move towards spending 2% of GDP on defence by 2024, the German Finance Minister has indicated that in the next budget there will be less rather than more money for the military. Visions expressed by President Macron and the leader of Germany`s CDU Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in recent weeks show France and Germany at odds on strategic questions. Turkey has been warned by the US Vice President and General Scaparrotti of US European Command on the risk posed by its planned purchase of an advanced Russian air defence system, which requires information on allied military equipment (such as the F-35 stealth jet) to be programmed into it in order to function.

A more European NATO seems the most intuitive strategic option, but would require a more serious commitment to strategic alignment and to Article 3 of the NATO charter, which commits allies to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack”. 

2. If Allies decide to close the divide rather than going it alone, what would it take for NATO to become more Atlantic? If Europeans integrated their defence planning and procurement more closely with the US, would this bring solidarity while also restoring the deterrent strength of the alliance against the most advanced missiles, planes, submarines and cyber attacks? The idea of an `Economic NATO` that will eliminate barriers to economic growth and spur creativity and investment both domestically and across the Atlantic is not new, but is it realistic?

Economic interests across the Atlantic do not appear to be converging. President Trump sees the EU as a “foe” on trade. For instance, the US would like to sell Europe more of its agricultural goods, but the EU prefers to exclude the agricultural sector from a trade deal for its manufactured products like cars, and has ruled out concessions that would undercut its protected farming sector. The prospects on technology hardly look better. Chancellor Merkel pushed back after a leaked letter from U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell to German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier suggested US intelligence cooperation with Germany would suffer if the German government allowed Huawei into its 5G networks

A more Atlantic NATO would have to become as comfortable in diplomatic domains of trade and investment as they are on military matters. Economic analysis has been conducted at NATO Headquarters for some time, and an Economics and Security Committee operates as part of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, but do such issues need to be raised to a higher level in the North Atlantic Council in order to develop common positions on strategic issues like 5G, or the Russia  Germany gas pipeline North Stream 2? 

The instruments are there, and given the political will this could be approached with a more purposeful handling of Article 2 of the Charter, which says NATO allies “will seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them”

3. Finally, to address the really big geopolitical shift – the rise of Asia  would NATO have to become more global? The breakdown of the arms control agreement on Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) showed the Trump Administration is not interested in being bound by a bilateral Russia-US arms limitation treaty that excludes China. As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said “The crisis around the INF Treaty clearly shows that progress in the nuclear arms reductions can no longer be sustained in the bilateral Russia-US format.”

This question is also driven by technology. Inter-continental missiles did not even exist in 1949 but today`s cyber and space weapons operate in a domain that is no longer regional but truly global. Does the idea of a regional security organization still make sense in a world a where geopolitical balance and technology are globalizing security?A more Global NATO would mean teaming up to promote allies` common interests in the face of rivals` expanding power and influence. By this logic, the biggest issue confronting the alliance is not even in the Atlantic area, and that is the question of how to accommodate the rise of China and the centrality of Asia in economic, political and military terms.

Are the founding principles of NATO – democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law – appealing enough to cement a meaningful global partnership? After the Cold War ended NATO built up a set of partners around the globe, such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and others – many of whom participated in the broad coalition of over 50 nations that fought in coordination with NATO in Afghanistan. Would these values now be strong enough, (or threatened enough?) to transform into a global Alliance? Probably not. Although the EU Commission branded China “an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance” in its EU-China Strategic Outlook, the reception just given to Xi Jinping during his recent visit suggests not all parts of Europe share a common view, let alone agree with the US position that China is a “strategic competitor”. 

Following the course of going global would tap into some of the original sources of trans-Atlantic solidarity dating back to the 1940s. Making European security matter more for global security would be a powerful force for cohesion, but it would also involve a major transformation of an organization configured (legally and psychologically) to promote stability and wellbeing in the North Atlantic Area. The NATO charter has been amended only twice: 1951 on the accession of Greece and Turkey and 1962 to adjust for the change of Algerian departments of France. Amending article 6 (that delineates the region for collective security) and Article 10 (that restricts membership to “any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area”) would open up fundamental questions about the direction of world politics in the 21st Century. 

Conclusion: A decade of “Labour and Sorrow”?

Is NATO`s 70th a good time for a big birthday shake up? Problems attend each of the directions described above. But for every objection to becoming more European, more Atlantic or more global, there are is an equally good reason to doubt “business as usual” is an option. Some combination of elements from the above will probably be needed for the Alliance to adapt and survive. The United States is led by a President who seems to have little sympathy for multilateral methods, and may be contemplating leaving the alliance. The US Congress demonstrated how seriously they see this question by going to the trouble of voting through notions of support in July 2018. But the examples above do indicate that challenges facing the alliance lie beyond the White House. 

`Threescore years and ten` was once reckoned a good lifespan and some already see NATO “dying”. That is probably premature but in preparation for the challenges ahead it is worth reflecting on the King James Bible translation from Psalm 90 in full: 

“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; 

and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; 

for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”

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