The U.S. is pushing the trans-Atlantic military alliance, originally formed to counter the Soviet Union, to take a stronger position towards China
In a communiqué issued following the June 14 summit of its member-states in Brussels, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), for the first time, explicitly described China as a security risk. China has never figured in NATO summit declarations before, except for a minor reference in 2019 to the “opportunities and challenges” it presented. But this year’s communiqué bluntly states: “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security.”
China has reacted sharply, calling the statement a “slander”. It has urged NATO to “view China’s development rationally, stop exaggerating various forms of ‘China threat theory’ and not to use China’s legitimate interests and legal rights as excuses for manipulating group politics [while] artificially creating confrontations”.
The other two threats identified by the NATO communiqué are on predictable lines: Russia and terrorism. Tensions with Russia are an inevitable outcome of NATO’s bid to expand eastward into what Russia considers its sphere of influence. Trying to bring countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova under the NATO umbrella was bound to cause a confrontation with Russia, and so it has. As Russia sought to protect its interests by “annexing” Crimea and stationing troops in Georgia and Moldova, NATO accused it of acting irresponsibly and breaking the “rules-based international order”.
There is a significant difference, however, between a strategic focus on countering Russia and casting China as a “systemic challenge”, and this goes back to NATO’s founding mandate and subsequent history. NATO, the planet’s largest — and largest ever — military alliance, was formed in 1949 by 12 Allied powers to counter the massive Soviet armies stationed in Eastern and Central Europe after Second World War.
According to Paul-Henri Spaak, the second Secretary-General of NATO, it was, ironically enough, Joseph Stalin who is the true father of NATO. It was Stalin’s overreach — especially with the Berlin blockade of 1948-49 and the orchestrated coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 — that convinced a diverse set of war-ravaged European nations to come together under an American security blanket. The collective defence principle enshrined in NATO’s Article V states that “an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all allies”. The formation of NATO, and its Soviet counterpart, the Warsaw Pact, in 1955, inaugurated the Cold War era.
NATO was completely successful in its mission of protecting the “Euro-Atlantic area” from Soviet expansion and preventing war between the two superpowers. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, questions were raised about NATO’s relevance and future. After all, if the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) became irrelevant when the Communist bloc disappeared, how does one justify the continuation of a military alliance formed to protect Europe from Communist expansion? Wouldn’t Europe’s security be better served by a collective force managed by the Europeans themselves? While some in Europe did think so, they underestimated the resilience of the powerful NATO bureaucracy, which remains an integral element of what U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower described as “the military-industrial complex”.
Post-Cold war era
This bureaucracy succeeded in refashioning NATO for the post-Cold war era. The refashioning rested on a paradigm shift — from collective defence, which implied a known adversary, to collective security, which is open-ended, and might require action against any number of threats, including unknown ones and non-state actors. In other words, the elimination of one threat to Europe — communist Russia — did not necessarily mean that security risks to Europe have vanished.
Another factor in the persistence of NATO is that, like all successful alliances, it has been a mutually beneficial arrangement. For Europe, it was an attractive bargain where, in exchange for a marginal loss in autonomy, it enjoyed absolute security at a cheap price. Not having to spend massively on defence allowed Europe to focus on building powerful economies and invest its surplus in a strong welfare state. NATO also offered the added bonus of keeping Germany down — historically a major factor for peace and stability in the region. A collective military force organised and managed by the Europeans themselves may offer a way out of American oversight and occasional bullying, but it carried the danger of one or two of the stronger and wealthier states, such as Germany or France, dictating terms to the smaller ones — a danger attractively absent in the NATO arrangement. When the Balkans conflict broke out in 1999, NATO got the chance to prove its utility in a post-Cold War Europe.
For the U.S. on the other hand, NATO has been an ideal vehicle for power-projection around the world — in places beyond the Euro-Atlantic area, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. It views NATO as a tool to ensure the primacy of American interests across the globe. In fact, many would argue that NATO’s real role is as the military arm of a set of advanced, Western capitalist nations led by the U.S., whose elites are predominantly white and whose economies collectively account for more than 50% of the world’s GDP.
Unsurprisingly, NATO’s post-Cold War role has evolved in tandem with U.S. foreign policy priorities. The NATO doctrine of “enlargement”, which Russia calls “expansion”, is essentially about extending the American military footprint by bringing in new members, even if it means alienating other regional powers. That is how NATO’s membership today stands at 30, having added 14 members between 1999 and 2020.
Member-states, of course, have some leeway in terms of the degree to which they commit themselves — not all of them send troops to every conflict outside Europe, and most contribute less than their share of financial resources. This has been an area of friction between the U.S. and the European states, as the former foots nearly 70% of NATO’s bills. While the cost of ‘protection’ is likely to go up for Europe, they are also wary of being dragged into confrontations that, while perhaps necessary from an American viewpoint, may not serve Europe’s interests. These points of divergence within NATO have not gone unnoticed by either China or Russia.
In fact, soon after the NATO communiqué was issued, both France and Germany sought to put some distance between NATO’s official position and their own perception of China. French President Emmanual Macron said, “NATO is a military organisation, the issue of our relationship with China isn’t just a military issue. NATO is an organisation that concerns the North Atlantic, China has little to do with the North Atlantic. It’s very important that we don’t scatter ourselves and that we don’t bias our relationship with China.” Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany also underscored the danger of overreacting to China.
The picture that emerges post the G-7 and NATO summits is of the U.S.’s growing conviction that China is a threat to its global supremacy and must be contained. If one were agreeable to a bipolar or a multi-polar world, it is difficult to see how China alone presents a “systemic challenge” to the world order. U.S. foreign policy, however, remains rooted in American exceptionalism. It is plausible that today the strongest challenge to the doctrine of American supremacy comes from China, the world’s second largest economy.
The Biden administration, therefore, wants to mobilise NATO member-states behind its larger objective of containing China. NATO’s European member states may view China as an economic rival and adversary, but they are unconvinced by the American line that it is an outright security threat. This line also, in a way, points to the underlying logic behind NATO’s persistence in the post-Soviet world. Unlike the Soviet Union, China offers no alternative vision of society that could make Western capitalism insecure.
In fact, its own economy is already deeply integrated into Western markets. China, nonetheless, is perceived as posing a ‘threat’. It remains to be seen how far an ageing Europe would be willing to commit itself to a strategic path that prefers confrontation to collaboration, given that NATO is essentially a military alliance, and for all the talk of hybrid and cyberwar, there is zero risk of China invading the Euro-Atlantic area.