The global geostrategic situation is changing lately: the rise of Asia means more US activity in Asia but less in Europe. Transatlantic values and interests are also becoming more fragile. As Brexit has shown, the unity of Europe is up for debate. NATO’s foresight and strategy determine the politics of how Europe will deal with this situation. NATO and the United States are seen as Europe’s life insurance, but if the framework conditions change fundamentally, Europe’s entire defense may need to be rethought. This is also a situation that will deeply affect the global security ecosystem and open the foundations into discussion in the fields of political competition and cooperation. The NATO 2030 strategy seeks to respond to all these challenges, in line with European demands and the US foreign and security policy.
Since its founding in 1949, NATO as the armed branch of the US-led West had had one clear enemy: The Soviet Union. When this rival disappeared in the early 1990s, a new goal had to be found quickly. Based on evaluations made in the United States, the aim from then on was to use military interventions to maintain western supremacy and extend it if possible. This goal was reflected in the new NATO strategy already agreed upon at the Rome summit in November 1991. It was stated that the “predictable” threat originating from the Eastern Bloc is now replaced by “multi-faceted” threats. At the time, this included the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and also the cutting of important raw material flows.
The transformation of this new strategy from an official defense alliance to an intervention alliance for missions outside the alliance was finalized and embodied in April 1999 with the adoption of a new strategic concept. With NATO’s operation against Yugoslavia without UN mandate, the new main task of the alliance has been declared. The alliance also stressed that it intends to engage in military interventions, possibly without UN mandate, in the future, to underline that it does not want such interventions to be vetoed by Russia (or even China) in the UN Security Council.
In contrast, the third strategy document, adopted in November 2010 after the end of the Cold War, did not bring new unforeseen expansions. Relations with Russia were not as strong as they are today, and there was no mention of China.
Since 2014, the increase in relations with Russia, largely stemming from the West, was important in terms of timing. Ultimately this demonstrated NATO’s effectiveness as a bulwark “against a Russian will for enlargement”. Over the years, the rival cluster shifted the focus and China’s economic and political expansion began to stand out as another subject that deserves attention militarily.
Military alliance NATO likes to call itself “the guarantor of a more peaceful world”, but lately, many political conflicts between allies have fueled criticism and question marks about securing internal unity first. US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and actions have raised doubts about the loyalty of the United States and then some alliance members to NATO. Subsequently, the withdrawal of the US troops from Germany and military confrontations of two NATO members Turkey and Greece led to questioning of the validity of the alliance among other members. All these developments eventually led to criticism of the French President Emmanuel Macron who declared the “brain death” of the alliance in November 2019.
At the time, almost all allies reacted to this diagnosis and made fervent commitments to NATO. But again, almost all of them refrained from answering the French President’s question: Is this still a real alliance? According to Macron, while continuing to work militarily, NATO is unable to achieve political alliance, and the political and strategic interests of the allies, whether directed against Russia or terrorism, are increasingly diverging.
Subsequently, a “Reflection Process” was agreed upon at the NATO summit in London in December 2019, and as a result, in April 2020, a group of experts specially selected by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was tasked with preparing a report on the revitalization of the alliance. Thomas de Maizière (CDU), former Defense and Interior Minister of Germany, and Aaron Wess Mitchell, former US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, chaired the 10-person group of experts.
Maizière, the co-chair of this expert group, which was formed in response to Macron’s diagnosis in some way, said of the brain death rhetoric, “It was a provocation. But it was useful because it set the process in motion,” said Maizière, which confirms that NATO is definitely experiencing “internal havoc”. According to Maizière, as the external threat situation also changed, it was time to renew the alliance.
This determined group of experts has prepared proposals for months to harmonize the Western defense alliance. According to NATO diplomats, the content of the report is a response to Macron’s claims and general criticism of the alliance’s slow adaptation to the future, arguing that the NATO alliance should assume a more political role as the cornerstone of the West.
More Unity, Faster Decisions
In the report prepared, 138 recommendations were listed under the title of “NATO 2030: United for a New Era”. The group of experts recommends making decisions faster to strengthen (or to reestablish) internal unity. they propose to achieve this rapid decision-making process by softening the principle of unanimity that has been in place for decades and is protected almost like a shelter by NATO.
Maizière warns that the consensus principle should not allow for the situation “I stay in my seat and I always vote no”, that this will put an end to the alliance. Although it does not seem possible to completely reverse the principle of unanimity, it is desirable to make the blockades more difficult by only vetoing directly at the ministry level. However, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas thinks that “NATO is about war or peace”, saying that deviation from unanimity is unlikely. This proposal is also likely to face resistance from many members especially from Turkey, United Kingdom and East Europeans due to various reasons.
In addition to the more meetings the Defense Ministers will hold at NATO Headquarters and allied capitals in different formats, the foreign ministers also hold formal meetings more frequently, which is considered effective in the development of the alliance’s common policy. Expanding the military issues, defense and security dimensions, this idea aims to strengthen the relations of states with each other as well as to increase NATO’s fact / incident-oriented effectiveness. Experts also propose a “voluntary pledge” that NATO countries will inform each other before making important decisions so that they do not constantly surprise each other.
Asian Threat to NATO: Genetic Presence of Russia and Newly Emerging China
Although the process of adapting to different threats with the collapse of the Soviet Union continues, which was the foundation purpose of NATO and the end of the Cold War, Russia continued to be included in the texts of the alliance and to be effective in policy designation. The familiar two-directional approach of the long-standing mix of dialogue and deterrence continues to be seen as the most effective way to counter Moscow.
Although Russia is confirmed as one of NATO’s threat focal points, the report suggests that the alliance is “open to discussing peaceful coexistence” with Moscow, but does not lack the ability to respond promptly to any hostile action.
China is seen as the rising power of this century, not the benign trading partner the West hoped for. The report identifies China as a potential military threat not only to the US but to Europe as well, making Beijing a challenge to NATO’s collective defense system of thirty Western countries. According to the report, in the long run, China is increasingly likely to project its military power not only into the Euro-Atlantic area but also globally.
The Alliance’s increased attention to China is mainly due to China’s failure to meet the conditions of its peaceful evolution into a global superpower. The report questions both the pace of China’s military modernization and the use of force against its Indo-Pacific neighbors through economic pressure and diplomacy. When we consider the RCEP free trade agreement signed with 15 countries in the region in November 2020, the source of the perceived risk becomes clear.
While China does not pose an immediate military threat to the Euro-Atlantic area, it has expanded its military reach to the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Arctic, deepened its defense ties with Russia, has a global reach with long-range missiles, aircraft and aircraft carriers, wide space-based capabilities and more. It is known that it is working to increase the defense/attack capability with nuclear submarines with a large nuclear arsenal. The report emphasizes that it will be very important to consider contact with China in future arms control negotiations, especially in the context of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
If NATO countries are threatened by China, the Alliance, by its very nature, must be able to demonstrate its ability to be an effective actor in providing protection. Hence, the report highlights the need to increase the ability to anticipate and react to Chinese activities that undermine the security of the allies. The report advises NATO to devote time, political resources, and concrete steps to China’s security challenges, and improve its ability to coordinate a strategy and protect the security of allies.
According to the authors of the document, NATO needs to expand its efforts to assess the consequences of China’s technological development, to prepare and defend itself against any Chinese activity that might affect the Alliance’s collective defense, military readiness or resistance. Over the next decade, China will be capable of challenging NATO’s ability to protect critical infrastructure, adapt to emerging technologies such as 5G, and protect sensitive sectors of its economy, including supply chains.
The report also refers to the Chinese threat on the economic front, and the New Silk Road, a strategic project to improve commercial infrastructures in Eurasia, and the 17 + 1 platform promoted by China and the “Belt Road Initiative (BRI)” formats. Concerning that economic relations with China in these formats will affect the politics of allied countries, the report includes an effort to maintain NATO loyalty.
“Indo-Pacific partners” that NATO has contacted as a pre-emption strategy, and especially China’s regional rival India, may be important partners in the new era. Due to strategic requirements, a security guarantee for Taiwan or others, and improved relations with other countries in the region raise concerns that NATO will move from a Trans-Atlantic alliance to an Indo-Pacific alliance, but the report does not make such a forecast.
Situation on Both Shores of the Atlantic: NATO and Europe
The report was prepared at a time when the EU, which was tense due to the US’ withdrawal from Europe and the changing threats, started working on its “Strategic Compass” and military doctrine until 2022, in line with the decision taken by the EU in June 2020.
Amid a growing debate over whether Europe should increase its military power independently of the United States, despite the possibility that the change in the White House may reverse the hostile attitude towards European allies, bold steps need to be taken with the report. NATO diplomats believe that the recommendations in the report do not fully take into account the US election results, but are still valid in this change of President.
Maizière, the co-chair of the expert group, could not ignore the idea that the EU should become more militarily independent, or even establish its own “European army”. In this debate, the German politician does not find a “strategic autonomy” logical outside of NATO. On the contrary, Maizière stressed that the EU should strengthen its capabilities within NATO, warning European politicians who have spoken a lot on the issue, saying “A little less big words and a little more action will be good for European security policy and also for the alliance.
Experts anticipate that the relationship between NATO and the EU will take cooperation a step further, with the proposal to pursue a coherent approach and synergy that should be applied equally to all allies, including procedures on military mobility. However, the precondition for acknowledging that in Europe NATO remains the main forum for strong collective defense, security consultations and decisions between the transatlantic framework and allies, emphasizes NATO leadership in relations.
With the diagnosis of NATO’s “brain death”, the idea of ”European strategic autonomy” voiced by the French President Macron was removed from the focus that was tried to be expressed by the statement that the stronger European defense would be supported by NATO due to its support to NATO.
If NATO unanimously enters a new era, it will clearly be under US leadership. Many of the articles in the 67-page report appear to have been shaped in a way that further strengthens US sovereignty and subordinates proposals for strategic autonomy for Europeans. Likewise, thoughts on the abolition of the principle of unanimity are ultimately associated with the criticism of NATO’s (and the EU’s) large member states that they give / will give less importance to the opinions of minors.
The reactions from Europe to the report, which aims to increase relations and cooperation with EU member states that are not NATO allies and with the EU institutionally, are varied. However, it is generally accepted both inside and outside that these ideas pave the way for NATO’s future.
The Critiques and Conclusion
In the report, which provides suggestions for NATO to draw new routes on issues such as pandemics, environment and health for the 2030 vision, general emphasis is on the adaptation to new threats and political consultation mechanisms.
The new status of Trans-Atlantic relations in NATO depends on the newly elected US President Joe Biden. After taking his oath on January 20, 2021, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces will be invited to the summit in Brussels and to attempt to quickly fill the cracks that US President Donald Trump has deepened in transatlantic relations.
It is obvious that there is an effort to align NATO with “more advanced awareness and measures against Russia and systematic competition with China” in accordance with the spirit of Washington. However, Biden has already announced that he will continue Donald Trump’s aggressive policy towards China. Biden, who also declared his commitment to NATO in security and defense relations with Europe, was not welcomed by some wings in Europe.
The reaction based on warnings and precautions against China, with some numerical data, shows that the situation is more than security. The reality is that while NATO member USA solely has 5,800 nuclear warheads, China’s 320 warheads are roughly at the same number as NATO members France (290) and Britain (215). While the US has a global network of about 800 military bases around the world, China’s only military base outside of its home country is in Djibouti.
NATO member states spent more than $ 1 trillion on armaments and the military last year, which is four times that of China. According to the Swedish Peace Research Institute SIPRI, China increased its military spending to the equivalent of $ 266 billion last year. This equates to $ 190 per person relative to its population. NATO armament policy opposes this increase, but in the same period, US military spending is more than $ 2,200 per capita relative to its population. Also, within a few years, Germany will become the most spending military power in Europe, outpacing Russia in military spending.
NATO diplomats comment that China, which does not share common Western values, is trying to intimidate other countries, especially economically, when considering military spending charts, foreign policy vision, economic progress, and its strategy to move closer to NATO territory from the Arctic to Africa. Although the phenomenon of NATO’s loss of influence and China’s gaining influence in Asian and Eastern European countries which China has facilitated their developments, with formats such as BRI, is being perceived as ‘suppression’ it can be predicted that it will change the regional dynamics in the medium term.
In Europe, it seems that Biden’s commitment to NATO will hamper the steps to reduce US influence in defense management, such as strategic autonomy and the European military. Following Macron’s anti-NATO rhetoric, France and Germany’s high rate of increase in military spending might seem like a preparation for this situation. However, the process must begin immediately for a new strategy. New visions can be expected especially in the leaders’ summit.
The concessions of NATO’s principle of unanimity and cooperation with EU member states that are not in the alliance are open to discussion. Even France and Turkey which can be seen as two separate parties in the alliance can demonstrate common resistance to this transformation.
Although NATO 2030 is not binding, it can be seen as a summary of how Trans-Atlantic relations and global security architecture will take shape. The new era will be a challenging process in NATO that requires the management of both internal and external risks.
This article has been published in Turkish at Anadolu Agency on December 11, 2020. https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/analiz/nato-2030-projeksiyonu-ve-asya-avrupa-dengesizligi/2073624