How the competition against China could improve NATO

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Soldiers from China's People's Liberation Army march during the military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in WWII, in the the Red Square in Moscow, Russia, 24 June 2020.

Allowing the US to focus its military resources in the Pacific requires a division of labor within NATO that requires the Europeans to take responsibility for the defense of their continent, writes Antonia Colibasanu.

Antonia Colibasanu is Geopolitical Futures’ Chief Operating Officer. Geopolitical Futures (GPF) was founded in 2015 by George Friedman, international strategist and author of The Next 100 Years.

NATO has long ceased to be the military alliance that served the Allies in fighting the Soviet Union. For Eastern Europe, NATO accession was the first step toward EU accession, which brought a promise of much-needed economic development in the absence of a serious threat of looming conflict from the east. Things changed somewhat in 2008, when Russia went to war with Georgia. Moscow showed that it was ready to defend its buffer zones from Western “encroachment.” Georgia, a NATO Partner for Peace, didn’t much benefit from the alliance, but the alliance was still successful in deterring larger-scale, multi-country conflict against its members.

Then came the 2014 Ukraine revolution, which replaced a pro-Russian government with a pro-Western one. This effectively created a new containment line, uniting countries from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea around the triangle of strategic partnerships between the US, Romania and Poland and backed by the Three Seas Initiative, which is supposed to support the development of needed infrastructure for military cooperation between regional states. Thus, in the past five or so years, military exercises in Eastern Europe have increased in number and complexity, always displaying important participation from both US and British forces.

Meanwhile, the rest of Europe – namely NATO’s Western allies – were mostly silent about Russia, treating it for what it was to them: a distant, non-urgent threat. And in any case, they had problems of their own. Since 2008, Western Europe had to deal with an unprecedented economic crisis, followed by a refugee crisis. Both posed new challenges for internal security. Countries like France and Germany were preoccupied with the immediate threat of terrorism and social instability. Some of these threats are Russia-adjacent, of course, and NATO has established research centers throughout the region to study them.

This touches on a foundational and essential principle of NATO: intelligence sharing, which is vitally important yet consistently elusive to the alliance. During the Cold War, intelligence sharing was relatively simple, because it simply meant collecting and disseminating information about the Soviet Union. But as NATO evolved, it established lists of threats and reported risk assessments that had countries grouped based on shared priorities in tackling specific issues. NATO works for the Eastern countries as a platform for communication, and coordination is done within but also outside NATO. Their interoperability and capabilities are discussed with the US directly in accordance with existing strategic partnerships. They don’t share the same level of coordination with France or Germany.

More, capabilities differ from one country to another. Because some NATO member states have been less willing to invest in defense during the past three decades, the alliance lacks interoperability. This is why, since the Obama administration, the US has advised NATO member states to increase their defense budgets. But that’s easier said than done when their economies are reeling from one crisis to another. In essence, different priorities among NATO members make them less willing to share information with one another, creating a deficit of trust that has decreased military efficiency.

What’s Different Now?

The existing strategic concept of NATO was written in 2010. Written in the context of the war in Afghanistan, it discussed “great power competition” but did not look at the potential for Russia and China to emerge as potential challengers of the established order. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated geopolitical trends already underway. The supply chain crisis has brought forth the need for building secured logistics for strategic operations. It highlighted how Europeans may be harmed by too much dependence on China. Put simply, China’s rise and Russia’s constant threat have given NATO a new common purpose.

The US strategy is to secure the possibility of defeating one great power and deterring another in a different theatre at the same time. To that end, Washington famously began to pivot to Asia, enhancing alliances with like-minded countries in the Western Pacific, but it also needed to keep deterrence capabilities against Russia high on the agenda. (Here again, the pandemic accelerated trends already underway.) Allowing the US to focus its resources, including its military resources, in the Pacific requires a division of labor within NATO that requires the Europeans to take responsibility for the defense of their continent. This is the only way that the US can reduce if not eliminate its presence.

For NATO to be able to achieve its stated goal, Europeans would not only need to invest in the readiness of their own forces to make their conventional deterrent credible but also need to play an active role with China. And Brussels seems to have begun to understand as much. The UK, France and Germany have participated in the Indian-led Malabar exercises, which all the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue members (the US, Japan, India and Australia) participated in this year. In fact, the UK has made it a strategic goal to work with the Quad and expand its influence in the Indo-Pacific region, primarily in the Commonwealth.

For this to work, NATO needs to be supported by a platform of economic alliances that give way to enhanced trust and infrastructure needed for military interoperability. That begins with the military-strategic advantages that the alliance affords the U.S. and Europe: guaranteeing access to high-tech resources and, importantly, preventing China from acquiring them. In a political gesture toward that end, the European Parliament vetoed the trade and investment agreement with China in May. The US and the EU have reportedly started discussions over the potential establishment of a transatlantic agreement on artificial intelligence. And the US and Eastern European countries have implemented the Transatlantic Telecommunications Security Act, which will stimulate digital sovereignty.

China is an economic power that could become the world’s leading technological power – something the Soviet Union never was. NATO wants its members to maintain their superiority in what is called emerging disruptive technology. This means that NATO – and its member states’ governments – needs to engage with the private communities that develop dual-use technology, making sure those innovations are protected against exploitation. Since NATO has traditionally defined the standards for military technologies for its members, it could play a similar role in setting interoperability standards for emerging disruptive technology and in defining norms for their use, as well as in export controls to prevent them from falling into the hands of rival powers. Interoperability also refers to streamlining AI algorithms and sharing datasets, which makes it essential to establish some common rules for AI between the EU and the US (To their credit, those rules are already being created.) Working with countries in the Asia-Pacific and with the Quad, in particular, would facilitate the alliance’s efforts at supply chain and technological decoupling from China.

All this would require enhanced coordination between the member states, which in turn could result in increased intelligence sharing based on growing trust among NATO allies. In effect, the current state of play in the world could work for growing NATO’s military function while making good use of NATO’s political power. Considering the economic problems facing all NATO member states – particularly those that face Western Europe – it remains to be seen if ambitious discussions around the NATO strategic concept will become a reality.

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