In public, this week’s NATO defense ministers meeting went off without a hitch.
As usual, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reaffirmed (for the zillionth time) Washington’s commitment to Article 5 of the NATO charter, where an attack on one member state is viewed as an attack on the entire alliance. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg bragged about NATO’s status as the oldest and most successful alliance in modern history.
But underneath the veneer of pious regularity lie problems, or at the very least disputes. Challenges that the alliance is having trouble coming to terms with.
Perhaps the most immediate is the deterioration in relations between NATO and Russia, which seem to get worse with every passing week. The NATO-Russia Council, a forum meant to increase communication and mutual understanding on both sides, has been in a coma since Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Earlier this month, NATO expelled eight Russians for spying on the organization. Moscow retaliated to the expulsions this week, suspending its own mission to NATO and shuttering the alliance’s office in Russia.
Issues are bubbling up within the alliance as well.
French President Emmanuel Macron is convinced Europe must be on a fast track to strategic autonomy, in which the continent can do more for itself, by itself, without having to rely on the United States. The Biden administration’s “AUKUS” nuclear submarine deal with Australia and Britain has merely strengthened Macron’s belief in the concept. Others, however, are either unsure of what strategic autonomy actually means, divided about the extent to which Europe should proceed with building an independent military capability, or are downright petrified about it.
Outgoing German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer doubts Europe could even get to the point where detachment from Washington is possible. Others, such as Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, would rather put all their eggs in the NATO basket than trust the European Union to come to the rescue in the event of a Russian invasion.
Then there’s China. In 2010, the last time NATO published a strategic concept paper, China wasn’t even mentioned. Today, China is on everybody’s lips. Individual NATO member states are increasingly distressed about Beijing’s foreign policy, particularly its testing of hypersonic technology, its growing arsenal of intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and its insistence on bringing Taiwan to heel.
Yet there is confusion about how NATO should manage its relations with China. Stoltenberg, who will step aside as secretary-general after eight years at the helm, is becoming less gun-shy about labeling China a security threat. But there are those in the alliance who worry about NATO developing a China obsession. One of those leaders is France’s Macron, who reminded reporters after a NATO heads-of-state summit in June that “NATO is an organization that concerns the North Atlantic, China has little to do with the North Atlantic.”
Some eastern European governments fear that placing China under NATO’s remit risks averting NATO’s gaze from Russia.
In a world where reason ruled the day, the U.S. would advise its European allies to push full-steam ahead on strategic autonomy, take primary responsibility for security disputes in their own neighborhood, and keep their military assets in the European theater. Rather, that is, than send them to the Indo-Pacific for symbolic naval deployments. That so much time has passed without a single one of these commonsense recommendations being tabled is an unfortunate reminder of how inertia, habit, and hyperbole often dominate NATO’s decision-making process.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own.
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