“A systemic challenge” for security: NATO united against China and Russia?

The 28th NATO summit on Monday, 14 June 2021, has seen the members of the Organization step up their tone regarding China and Russia. Both powers have demonstrated a certain aggressiveness in their foreign policies and have also formed alliances that pose threats to the international alliance of 30 European and North American nations.
NATO summit in Brussels, 14 June 2021
NATO summit in Brussels, 14 June 2021, photo by Влада на Република Северна Македонија, via Wikimedia Commons

Multiplying threats

The summit could certainly be deemed successful from a diplomatic point of view: the essential task of agreeing a common strategy until 2030 between the Allies was completed. NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg noted that “[t]o do more, Allies agreed that we need to invest more together in NATO”. This investment is to be made in the military, civil and infrastructural sectors of the alliance to ensure it is ready to “face the challenges of today and tomorrow”.

Among these challenges feature cybersecurity, terrorism and the rise of authoritarianism. The summit centered on the imminent problematics relating to Russia and China in particular. This notably includes their aggressiveness on the international scene and the threat they pose to European and American security. There, the Allies found rather clear words. They reaffirmed the importance of defending “our values and interests”, especially “at a time when authoritarian regimes like Russia and China challenge the rules-based order”. This strong separation between Russia and China on one side and NATO countries on the other is polarising; the words “Cold War” do not seem that far out of reach.

Communication from NATO has however been very specific: a new Cold War is to be avoided at all costs. Ideally, this would best work through cooperation with respective opposing powers to ensure global peace as effectively as possible. Cooperation is however not always a given, especially with regards to China and Russia. NATO thus faces a difficult balancing act between marking its territory on the international scene and de-escalating potential conflicts with aggressive counterparts.

A balance between words and actions

In communication from the summit, it affirms following a so-called “dual-track approach” of both defence and diplomatic dialogue concerning Russia. In practice however, this strategy has so far leaned heavily towards the side of dialogue and less defence; and while essential, diplomacy has not always had a sufficient effect when it comes to Russia.

This is especially illustrated by Russia’s expansionary tendencies and NATO responses. Ukraine, neighbour and Moscow’s enemy, is a crucial factor in this. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and sparked the war between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in Ukraine’s East, NATO’s response was certainly less than hoped for by Kiev. And Russia’s recent aggressive behaviour near the Ukrainian border in April, where it amassed several thousand troops in a menacing gesture, represented a worrying sequel to the situation. NATO members of course condemned the action firmly. Yet aside from individual sanctions from Germany, France and the US, not more joint action followed. This came despite Ukraine’s potential for NATO membership. Having Ukraine join NATO would have both moved the border between NATO countries closer to Russia and would have sent a warning signal to Moscow.

NATO reacted in a similar way in 2008 when Russia attacked Georgia, also a potential NATO member, claiming it was only assisting rebel forces in the region Ossetia; in the same manner, Russia is now supporting separatist forces in the Donbass in Eastern Ukraine. The hesitations on NATO’s part regarding Ukraine’s membership partially stem from highly cautious approaches to foreign policy and defence from its most prominent members, notably Germany. Fears of “angering” Russia by stepping up the tone have influenced decisions in Europe to a great extent; and yet, a cautious approach has not stopped Moscow whatsoever, as recent events have shown.

From Moscow to Beijing

This is not to say that NATO completely neglects its active and military role. The Baltic states and Poland for instance see the joint NATO military exercise “Springstorm” take place every year. It is an exercise that aims to demonstrate active capabilities of defending Europe at its borders and to deter Russia. NATO also took an active role in Afghanistan, when the rise of terrorism became its main security concern after 9/11.

China on the other hand is a relatively new and different threat. It does not share a direct border with NATO members, unlike Russia; yet this does not mean that it has not become a military threat. While it does not have the traditional status like Russia of being the “West’s” – and especially America’s – enemy, it has shown the same expansionary ambitions and defiance as Moscow. Its aggressions reach from threats towards Taiwan and Hongkong to oppressing the Uyghur minority; China thus makes clear that the world is no longer led by a “small group of countries”, as Chinese officials said following criticism from the G7.

Worrying alliances

The main problem regarding Russia and China is however not their individual aggressive stance. While this is a threat, an almost greater menace comes from alliances and military cooperation with equally aggressive powers.

Russia is particularly active in its military cooperation with nations such as Turkey and Iran. Both are also military business partners; Russia has notably sold a new advanced satellite system to Iran, and missiles to Turkey. Of course, cooperation also exists between Russia and China, and could increase after the latest sharp words from the G7 and NATO. Were the warnings at the summit therefore counterproductive? Perhaps, but they were also necessary. Even though a diplomatic approach is to be privileged, NATO needs to find clear words to make itself heard internationally too.

Although NATO is formed of nations with similar interests and sometimes long-standing histories of alliance, it is not as unified as it should be. Its individual member states still have differing objectives and approaches to foreign policy and matters of defence. This makes a globalised approach to security concerns difficult. The agreement on the 2030 Agenda suggests however a willingness for more cooperation and more specific goals for the alliance. It is to be hoped that nobody outside NATO seeks military escalation; after all, a new Cold War would be in nobody’s interest. Not even Russia and China, aggressive on the outside, would wish for a global conflict on that scale. However, it will take a joint effort from NATO and those outside of the alliance to ensure global peace as it is now.


to neglect = negliger

challenge = défi

to condemn = condamner

stem from = provenir de

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