Tag Archives: NATO

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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NATO’s low key pivot to Asia


NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow is in Korea. Here are links to a couple of speeches he gave – (more commentary to follow soon) –

Remarks by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative Forum, Seoul, Republic of Korea –



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What should NATO do about Asia?

NATO Asia Wales Prime Minister David Cameron, host of the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales,  has indicated that one of the five goals for this gathering should be the establishment of a ‘global security network‘ of partnerships.

“we should demonstrate a clear commitment to working with others who share our values and to maintaining an international rules-based order that promotes freedom, democracy and the rule of law. I support the proposed interoperability initiative with 24 of our partners to sustain these skills and relationships and I would like our defence ministers to meet with a smaller group to discuss enhanced opportunities for working together. ” (link)

Good idea. I suggest the Allies begin by looking at Asia.

I can think of at least three reasons NATO should take a position on its role in Asian security: (A) Just as security in Asia is becoming vital for global economic prosperity, it is also becoming more fragile. We have a stake. (B) America’s alliance structure in Asia means conflict there would likely involve NATO’s leading ally, and Washington would expect NATO Allies’ support. We will be involved. (C) History shows that Asian allies play a key role in successful Western grand strategy: (i) Anglo-Japan Alliance to contain Russia; (ii) Chiang and Mao and finally Stalin for the continental front against Imperial Japan; (iii) Nixon’s turn to China to contain the USSR. We will need Asia again.

Then again, there are also factors that make it difficult for NATO to take a more meaningful position on Asian security: (a) The greatest driver of instability in Asia is China’s rise, and NATO allies can’t agree on a China policy. We are divided. (b) NATO Allies are focused on collective defence and responding to the threat from Russia in Ukraine and other places on its Eastern Border. We are short-sighted in our thinking. (c) Cuts in NATO Allies’ defence spending have greatly reduced its capability to deploy in Asia. We are weak. So what should NATO do about it?

A new trans-Atlantic bargain – USA supports European Allies’ efforts to deter Russia, and in return European Allies support American efforts to deter conflict in Asia – is probably unrealistic. Rather than one big thing, it might be better to go for a lot of little moves that shift the centre of gravity in the right direction:

1) Differentiate NATO’s partners in Asia according to two groups: those who show a commitment to the organization’s founding principles (democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law), and those who don’t. The former would include Australia, New Zealand, Japan, ROK, Mongolia. They get the full package including consultation on NATO activity, intelligence sharing, joint exercises and other close partnership activity. Those who fail to show such commitment get engagement to build confidence and mutual understanding, but also become the target of an advocacy effort in order to further the principles of the North Atlantic treaty.

2) Make Asian security issues a regular topic of consultations under Article 4, and invite the first category of Asian partners.

3) Beef up aspects of NATO interoperability that are relevant for Asian security, such as maritime cooperation, joint amphibious operations and military support to civil emergency planning for disaster response. Make sure to conduct at least one big exercise in these areas per year, inviting the close Asian partners.

4) Extend cooperation to close Asian partners on doctrine and tactics in fields like cyber, SOF, and conducting ‘grey area’ operations and information warfare.

5) Extend cooperation on Security Sector Reform and civil-military relations to Asian nations such as Myanmar, that are oriented towards closer adherence to NATO principles.

6) NATO could forge a partnership with ASEAN, as suggested by US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta in a 2013 speech at King’s College London (link).

7) Establish a NATO East Asia Liaison office (similar to that put in place for Central Asia) to enhance NATO Allies understanding of Asian security, liaise in the region and work with Australia, NZ, ROK, Japan, and Mongolian authorities to maximise NATO’s partnership instruments in support of the goals set out in their cooperation programmes with the Alliance.

I understand those who argue for a focus on today’s threats, and would not have Asian affairs take up space on the agenda at the expense of issues like Ukraine and the Islamic State. But before long Asia’s security issues are going to look just as important to NATO as Russia and Islamist terrorism looks today. But understanding and relationships take time to build, and so the sooner we turn our attention to Asia the better. If NATO could agree on these small steps now, then after a few years it would be in a better position to judge whether the protection of its core interests require it to engage more directly in Asian security.



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Will NATO ‘regroup’ in Asia?


What will this September’s NATO Summit say about the alliance’s role in Asian security?

Chatham House’s Director Dr Robin Niblett is arguing that NATO needs to step up  (link) –

“NATO members would all be seriously affected by an outbreak of hostilities in East Asia. Western companies with global supply chains rely on smooth transportation links between Asia, the US and Europe. The notion that the US alone among NATO members should take responsibility for helping to manage crises in the Asia-Pacific region while its European allies focus on commercial interests would erode the foundation of the Atlantic Alliance at a time when changing demographic profiles and geographic perspectives are weakening the transatlantic instinct…
…The Wales summit may see NATO begin to distinguish between its different types of partners. For example, long-term enhanced, cooperative arrangements would make sense with the small number of countries in Europe and beyond – such as Finland, Sweden and Australia – that share the transatlantic community’s principles and have participated in recent military operations alongside NATO forces. Countries such as South Korea and Japan, which have not been as closely involved in operations, but are also treaty allies of the US, could constitute the next level of cooperative arrangement. “


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NATO and Asia-Pacific Security

“America, Europe and the Pacific,” speech by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, San Francisco, July 9, 2014.

Transcript here.

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US calls North Korean missiles ‘an Article 5 threat’, like Syria

Screen shot 2013-08-31 at 23.22.27

In his valedictory speech (June 17 2013 at Carnegie Europe) entitled ‘Renewed Ambitions for NATO’, US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder made the following comment on the relevance of the US Pivot to the alliance [emphasis added]: 

“Contrary to suspicions on this side of the Atlantic, the United States does not intend to pivot away from Europe. Instead, we continue to look to Europe as an essential partner in facing all security challenges, from wherever they may come.

Let me be clear on this point. The United States is not abandoning NATO—our commitment to security in the North Atlantic community is deep and enduring.

But we also see threats looming on the horizon—including from far beyond Europe. North Korean missiles are an Article 5 threat to the United States and Canada just as Syrian missile are an Article 5 threat to Turkey and Europe.

And we want to make sure that we face these threats collectively, as true partners.

So the question is not whether Washington will choose Asia or Europe. As my former boss, Secretary Hillary Clinton, used to say … we Americans know how to walk and chew gum at the same time. The question is whether our NATO Allies will make the commitments necessary to face 21st century dangers together.”

What does that mean in practice? Something in between more ‘strong condemnations‘ and an actual presence in Asia for the alliance (recently ruled out by Secretary General Fogh Rasmussen)?

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Europe’s undeclared role in Asian security – time to bring the arms trade under strategic control?

eurofighterPeople sometimes ask ‘what should be Europe’s role in Asian security?’, but surely we have first to understand the role European nations and their institutions are already playing.

Something that doesn’t often get discussed (excepting the EU embargo on arms to China) is the increasingly important role played by Europe as supplier of defence equipment and technology to Asia, Continue reading


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NATO and Japan explore opportunities to cooperate on emerging security challenges

20130701_130701-sps-japan_rdax_276x172NATO and Japan explore opportunities to cooperate on emerging security challenges – “such as cyber defence, counter-terrorism and non-proliferation. Opportunities for collaborating on responses to such challenges through science and innovation were a particular focus of the visit” (link)

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Europeans at Shangri-la dialogue achieve Woody Allen’s 80%

scarlett-johansson-woody-allen04Woody Allen said that 80% of life is showing up. By that standard, the various European security actors (EU, NATO, a couple of sovereign states) made the grade at this year’s Shangri-la shindig on Asian security.

EU: Cathy Ashton went (first time) and gave a speech in plenary. It was Continue reading


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NATO response to attack by North Korea

There are some stories circulating to the effect that NATO is going to do this or that if North Korea launches an attack, e.g. ‘NATO to protect US from N. Korea Attack’ here and ‘Senior NATO Official Will Not Rule Out Conflict with N. Korea’  here).

All the hard evidence so far indicates that NATO doesn’t know what it will do until an attack or something like it occurs. The North Atlantic Council would have to first meet to discuss the situation and options for any possible alliance response in the light of what just happened. Remember, Article 5 is about an armed attack on Allies in Europe or North America, not in Asia. An interview the NATO Secretary General gave to the Japanese media on 16 April during his visit to Japan makes it pretty clear:

The key point is around minute 1:

If a NATO ally is attacked it will probably be raised for consultation among NATO allies. NATO allies will discuss the situation and make decisions based on the specific circumstances

This is all the SecGen can say, which is no more than an explanation of the NATO process following the NATO Charter – specifically Article 4 (discussion), rather than 5 (collective action). And yet saying ‘we don’t know what we will do’ has more influence than saying nothing at all.

As for my earlier suggestions about employing NATO’s Article 4Philip Cane at Atlantic Community has some practical suggestions about what NATO could do before an attack by the North (read at ‘South Korea:NATO’s Asian Pivot‘).

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