NATO: Brain dead or stronger than ever?

, by Lewis Powell

NATO: Brain dead or stronger than ever?
NATO leaders at the London Summit. Wikimedia Commons.

At the 70th anniversary NATO summit in London, which took place in December 2019, it was clear that the problems faced by the organisation have changed very little since its formation in 1949. Although the Soviet Union no longer exists, the threat of Russia still dominates much of the discussion between the 26 member states. And although the Cold War ended almost 30 years ago, Russia still can be considered one of the biggest threats to the West and Western-style democracy. With the invasion of Crimea in 2014, rumoured meddling in Britain’s referendum on its membership of the European Union and the U.S. presidential election in 2016, and the poisoning of the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England in 2018, this threat is not likely to go away any time soon.

Future of NATO: in disarray?

Yet some more recent problems have also emerged for NATO, especially due to Donald Trump’s “America First” attitude. The U.S. President’s declaration that his country may not adhere to Article 5 (’an attack against one member is an attack against all’) of NATO’s founding charter, the Washington Treaty, has strained relations across the Atlantic. Trump’s nationalism has put the very utility of NATO into question, and opened up a rift between himself and the more internationally-minded French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, President Macron has also warned European countries that they can no longer rely on Trump’s America to defend fellow NATO allies and has stated that NATO risks becoming ’brain dead’. He believes that NATO must reassess itself as its relationship with the U.S. diminishes under Trump’s ‘’America First’’ administration. Macron believes Europe has to ‘’wake up’’ to this reality or risk ‘’no longer being in control of [its] destiny’’.

A bigger threat than the Russians?

As mentioned before, since NATO’s inception, the biggest threat to the security and sovereignty of the West has always been Russia. However, at the conference, there was much talk of a bigger threat in the East: China. China has grown in power and influence since Mao’s death and its move towards economic reform under Xiaoping Deng (coined “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”), in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) introduced more market-oriented policies while holding on to its one-party autocratic rule. Chairman Deng, the head of the CCP, was responsible for many of these economic reforms, and in retrospect is often seen as “the architect of modern China”. The economic expansion that followed directly from his policies has made this country of over 1 billion people one of the biggest economies in the world.

China’s growth since the 1980s has put the country in such a position that, one day, it could feasibly overtake the United States as the world’s primary economic power. The old phrase “money makes the world go round” is one that superpowers would probably agree with, and in the past few years, China has consistently ranked among the top three largest economies in the world, along with the U.S. and the EU.

This has caused the U.S. to call for NATO to shift its attention from its traditional enemy to a newer, more powerful one. According to Jens Stoltenburg, NATO’s presiding Secretary General, China has the technological capability to launch “long-range missiles able to reach all of Europe and the U.S.” The most significant result of this conference is NATO leaders’ growing recognition of the potentially dangerous implications of decades of increasing Chinese power in the world. When asked about Chinese tech giant Huawei, for example, President Trump called China’s increasing influence “a security risk” and has lobbied for other member states to adopt the U.S. ban on Huawei. At the very least, then, the conference’s attendees have agreed that joint action is needed to ensure that communications remain secure.

Implications of this shift

This agreement to shift focus beyond Russia to other threats like China could signify a new era of defence for NATO: one which is not only focused on sovereignty, but also on modern, globalised security threats. This conference also marks the start of a modernisation of NATO, as plans spearheaded by France and Germany to begin a strategic review of the alliance seemed to have gathered wide support. NATO cannot continue to be the anti-Russia bloc it was created to be, and must move forward to deal with the complex twenty-first century issues which define today’s foreign policy agendas. Despite some tensions between the bloc’s leaders—notably between the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump—it seems that NATO is back on track. This progress may even silence calls from Merkel for an EU army. If bonds across the Atlantic between the EU and the U.S. remain strong, then support for an EU army will erode, and NATO will continue to thrive as a force for global peace.

However, it is true that Trump still has concerns about member states not committing enough of their GDP to defence. And, if Trump continues to feel that the U.S. is overpaying for little benefit (at 3.4% of its GDP), then the future of NATO could be jeopardised. But for now, at least, the member states seem united in dealing with both their old enemy Russia and their new enemy, the ever-growing China. However, if one is to believe the theory of offensive realism, then states are anarchical by nature, and the only way to guarantee their own security is by increasing their power. So NATO needs to remain strong as well as united—otherwise Russia or China could pounce at any perceived weakness, to the detriment of all.

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