24 March 2021

Prospects for NATO in a Changing Global Environment

Alexander Brotman on US-NATO relations under the Biden administration, European strategic autonomy and the wider challenges facing the Alliance

Alexander Brotman

As the policies of the Biden administration take shape, NATO member countries continue to assess the legacy of the Trump era and their own place within the transatlantic alliance. During his presidency, Trump demonstrated how the United States can question the value of supporting European security, when it so chooses. Yet, Trump’s uncertainty of the Alliance’s worth, while undoubtedly brazen, was not a new concept for the US.

In the debates over NATO enlargement in the 1990s, George Kennan questioned NATO’s relevancy, in a more diplomatic way, after the collapse of the USSR and the implications of an unnecessarily offensive posture towards Russia. Up to that point, the parameters of NATO’s mission were well defined: maintain European security through an American umbrella and keep the Soviets out. Now, NATO faces a multitude of threats, rising powers and new potential partners. Russia is no longer the existential adversary to some, for whom the principal area of competition has shifted to the Indo-Pacific.

After Trump, NATO allies will welcome US President Joe Biden’s pro-Europe worldview, emphasis on bipartisanship and commitment to the Alliance. His foreign policy team, from Antony Blinken at the Department of State to William Burns at the CIA, broadly shares his perspective. However, Biden’s strong support for NATO will not allay its internal divisions. In an age of divisive US partisanship, the Euro-Atlantic partnership still has support on both sides of the political divide. Nevertheless, any ‘special relationships’ between Washington and NATO allies are likely to be less so in the coming decades, as the US adjusts to global shifts. NATO will also have to confront internal and external challenges, including on collective defence, European strategic autonomy, national defence spending and enlargement.

Collective defence

The Biden administration will look to revive NATO and its mission of collective defence. In recent years, the principle has been undermined by the actions of individual members. Whether Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, some NATO leaders have embraced different forms of ‘illiberal democracy’. The harsh reality is that the democratic basis underpinning NATO has frayed, in Hungary and Turkey, but also in the US under Trump. Had he won a second term, Trump could well have attempted to end US membership of NATO altogether.

The effectiveness of collective defence under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is at risk when various members have different priorities and networks. Unlike Trump, Biden has reaffirmed his commitment to Article 5. Yet, its invocation for the Baltic states, Turkey or over a cyberattack is not guaranteed to prompt a united response from the Alliance. Trump arguably damaged the sense of collective responsibility among NATO members. The current trend is towards a more politically diffuse NATO that lacks common cause.

NATO’s mission will have to be revitalised and redefined to incorporate changing power dynamics, hybrid threats and national capabilities. Defence is now less about state survival and more about ideological survival, in the face of adversaries like Russia and China. Ensuring that member countries can believe in its mission will likely determine whether NATO remains relevant in the years ahead.

European strategic autonomy

In a now-famous interview with The Economist in 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron labelled NATO ‘brain dead’. Macron warned of the dangers of being too reliant on America given its unpredictability, as demonstrated by Trump, and its geopolitical reorientation towards the Indo-Pacific. While Biden will want to replace most of Trump’s foreign policy, the Indo-Pacific will likely be central to his foreign policy as well. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has argued that China and the region, not Russia, will now define the Alliance.

Macron’s NATO remarks link to the wider EU debate on European strategic autonomy. On defence, strategic autonomy means developing deeper cooperation against myriad threats and not being dependent on any one ally. Since 2016, the European Council has renewed its support for strategic autonomy each year, defining it as the ‘capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners whenever possible.’ EU High Representative Josep Borrell rightly assesses that ‘the weight of Europe in the world is shrinking’, as its share of global wealth declines. Borrell describes strategic autonomy as a means of ‘political survival’ in the age of reduced European power and the continued rise of China and India.

The ’political survival’ of strategic autonomy that Borrell speaks of may clash with the US. As the EU builds the capacity to act autonomously, the US is likely to be less of a principal player. The view from Washington already is that EU Member States risk being too reliant on China, compromising their national security in relation to infrastructure investments and telecommunications. Although the goal of strategic autonomy is not to develop closer links with authoritarian states like China, for Washington, it is a likely by-product of a search for power and autonomy beyond the US.

While the weight of the US in the world is also shrinking, the weight of Europe is shrinking faster. From the US perspective, this reduced European power could push the EU to forge new alliances that do not match American interests. Outside the US, China is the main source of power in the world today, and a search for autonomy from Washington risks bringing Brussels closer to Beijing in some respects.

Despite these risks, European strategic autonomy and close transatlantic relations are not incompatible. A decoupling of the EU from the US is not inevitable, or even likely. For the EU, and the UK, their greatest capacity for power projection and use of military force is likely to remain within NATO, for regional operations in the Middle East and North Africa. For hard power capabilities, NATO and strong military ties with the US remain paramount for EU Member States. The EU and the UK are unlikely to be major powers in the Indo-Pacific. As such, they will continue to rely on the transatlantic alliance to support operations in their immediate neighbourhood.

In the age of strategic autonomy, NATO may in fact remain the primary military alliance for EU Member States to work collectively and exhibit power on the world stage. France and Germany (and, outside the EU, the UK) all realise the beneficial role that the United States can play in their own defence. Germany, under outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, will push for renewed US engagement in NATO. Biden is also keen to maintain the US’s military presence in Germany. However, the Trump era ushered in more transactional power politics, demanding a return on investment for Alliance commitments. It remains to be seen how Trump’s legacy will impact on NATO in the future.

Within the EU and NATO, different members are already conducting multi-vector foreign policies. Hungary and some other Central and Eastern European states retain political and economic links with Russia. Italy and Greece have significant investments in and agreements under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Turkey has repeatedly clashed with the rest of NATO on its purchase of the Russian-built S-400 missile defence system, and it has distinct objectives and partners in the Middle East.

These developments suggest that some Alliance members are driven by political and economic realism that derives from changing power dynamics. If the EU embraces strategic autonomy, it could redefine the Alliance further. China may have greater influence over critical infrastructure in EU Member States, posing national security risks and potentially even risking sanctions from the US. Militarily, hardware amongst member countries could become incompatible with NATO’s common defences, if it were sourced from China or Russia.

National defence spending

Throughout the Trump administration, defence spending remained a contentious issue. The number of NATO member countries that meet the target of spending 2% of GDP on defence has risen dramatically over the past few years – from only three in 2014 to ten in 2020. In a continuation of Obama and Trump-era policy, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin reportedly plans to encourage all NATO members to meet the 2% target. Germany is spending a record €53 billion on defence in 2021 – a 3% increase from last year, yet still below the target. Of the Alliance’s larger military powers, the United States, France, United Kingdom and Turkey meet or are hovering just below the benchmark.

Despite recent increases in spending, compliance with the 2% target remains uneven across NATO members. However, the target is arguably not the best measurement of engagement. As Jan Techau has noted, Europeans tend to underestimate its significance in the US debate, while Americans tend to overestimate its importance to Europeans. The metric is an easy yardstick but, in reality, the US itself only spends around 1-1.5% of GDP on defence interests in Europe, as opposed to worldwide US defence spending. As Steven Grundman put it: ‘Scaled to the scope of their interests and grand strategies, [US] NATO allies are committing about the same proportion of GDP to the defence of Europe as the United States.’

Grundman’s assessment underscores the different calculations on each side of the Atlantic that impact on national defence spending. For Washington, the defence of Europe is about regional stability and power projection in the region that helped grant the US superpower status after World War II. For Tallinn or Warsaw, it is a domestic matter, weaving together EU and NATO relationships, and thus more than foreign policy. For European countries, nuanced historical relationships mean that the defence of Europe is more complex for them than it is for Washington. EU economic and political links are at play, and defence is much more than a line-item in a budget.

NATO’s neighbourhood and enlargement

Unrest across the Mediterranean in Libya, the war against ISIL in the Middle East, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey have all shown that NATO’s European neighbourhood is still a principal concern. At the same time, Macron has suggested that Europe can face some of its security challenges, including in the Middle East and North Africa, without the US. According to him, ‘more Europe’ is needed to deal with the EU’s neighbourhood, reflecting his emphasis on European strategic autonomy.

For NATO, it is now urgent to consolidate democracy internally in order to more effectively protect and promote its interests. Turkey is likely to remain in NATO, despite its democratic backsliding. The early allure in 2000 of Russia joining the Alliance is a distant memory. NATO-Russia relations are likely to be defined in the immediate period by mistrust, with NATO members divided over how to respond to Russia. Under Biden, the US will push for accountability on Russia and seek to undo the feebleness under the Trump presidency.

Europe’s proximity to the Mediterranean and the Caucasus mean that it is affected by regional instability much more directly than the United States. Indeed, the US’s geographical position has given rise to isolationism, in the original America First movement against US involvement in World War II and in Trump’s foreign policy. Different views on the immediacy of threats can hinder collective action.

On the horizon, three states have hopes to join NATO: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine. Contrary to NATO’s position that enlargement ‘poses no threat to any country’, extending membership to Ukraine and Georgia would be viewed by Moscow as extremely provocative. Russia aims to ‘freeze’ these states and prevent their integration with the West. While it will have no say on whether they join the Alliance, Russia would exert great pressure, including militarily, if the prospect appeared likely. It currently has troops in the Donbass in Ukraine and in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. It has economic levers at its disposal, including energy security through its natural gas supplies and other resources.

Decisions on NATO’s future expansion will require agreement between the US and European members. For the EU, its Member States have differing views on Russia and on NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. However, for the US, both states symbolise American power in standing up to Russia and promoting democracy. If European strategic autonomy is truly developed, and it were to lead to new EU relationships which Washington perceived to sacrifice collective security for political or economic gain, the US response could include a more forceful case for NATO enlargement.

The Biden administration will be determined to preach the relevancy of NATO to both its allies and adversaries and to defend the global institutions that America helped to create. However, the US will have to adjust to a world in which power is becoming more diffuse. The administration will also have to grapple with the EU’s moves to make itself more strategically autonomous – from the US.

Alexander Brotman is a Washington-based political and corporate risk analyst

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