The most important signal from the first NATO summit after Trump: Unity prevails once again. But that’s not quite right. Biden is focusing on the conflict with China.>
It was a summit of harmony: In Brussels, U.S. President Joe Biden was welcomed by the 29 other heads of state and NATO with emphatic relief. A staunch multilateralist and trans-Atlanticist is finally leading again in Washington — how nice! And with the message of a harmonious new beginning, the primary objective of the first meeting after four years of Donald Trump was actually fulfilled.
The new president had previously confirmed that America stands unconditionally by the “sacred” mutual defense obligation under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and that the alliance is “critically important” to the security of the United States. Of course, Biden also pressed his allies to fulfill their commitment to spend 2% of their gross domestic product on defense. This wasn’t Trump’s idea, but rather a NATO resolution from 2014. Barack Obama was president at the time and Biden was his vice president.
At every opportunity, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has pointed out that the Europeans have noticeably increased their military spending since then. Germany has also raised its defense budget considerably since 2014, from 35 billion euros ($46.5 billion in 2014) then to 53 billion euros today (approximately $63.2 billion). However, in terms of percentage, that still doesn’t reach 2%, but rather comes in at 1.53%, in the lower middle (ranked 19) of all 30 member countries. And if you look at the budget planning in Berlin, Germany falls even further behind.
However, this time, the numbers weren’t at the forefront. Likewise, Afghanistan was not a central issue, even though the NATO countries are withdrawing their troops completely in the coming weeks. After a nearly 20-year presence in the Hindu Kush, this withdrawal seems almost rushed. There is great concern that the Taliban could return to power in Kabul. To ensure that the operation in Afghanistan doesn’t end in a fiasco, NATO wants to continue training the Afghan army, albeit abroad in the future. Will that be enough to prevent the Taliban from coming to power again?
Systemic Conflict with China
However, the debates in Brussels didn’t involve that, either. They concentrated far more on the strategic realignment of the alliance. Since the beginning of his term, Biden has spoken of the historic “turning point” at which the West stands. He wants the United States and its allies to concentrate on dealing with authoritarian states, and on the systemic conflict with China most of all.
On this issue, Stoltenberg is entirely in line with the Americans. “The rise of this country is the greatest security challenge of our time,” he said before the summit in an interview with Der Spiegel. “China doesn’t share our values. The government controls its own population in a way that the world has never seen … At the same time, China is moving closer to us and trying to control critical infrastructure in Europe like ports, airports or power grids.”
China took up a lot of space in Stoltenberg’s press statement after the end of the summit: NATO must deal with the People’s Republic; it threatens the interests of the alliance with its armament and disinformation. In the final press release, there was mention of “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order.”
‘We Are in an Age of Global Systemic Competition’
The most important signal coming from this summit is the geographic expansion of the security concept beyond the North Atlantic area. NATO is looking to the Indo-Pacific and wants to intensify cooperation with its partners there — with Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. As Stoltenberg put it in a discussion with Welt am Sonntag, “NATO is an alliance of Europe and North America, but we must adapt to a global security environment that is becoming more and more competitive. We are in an age of global systemic competition.”
So that’s what it’s about. As one of the most brilliant foreign policy minds in Berlin recently put it, “For the United States, the centrality of the Chinese challenge means that the trans-Atlantic relationship will increasingly become a function of the German and European roles in the U.S. government’s China strategy.” In fact, some in Washington view NATO primarily as a building block in a global bulwark of democracies against autocracies.
Most European NATO countries, on the other hand, still see Russia as a greater threat to themselves; the challenge by China concerns them less. The summit in Brussels likely made it clear to them that the center of American foreign policy is finally shifting to the Indo-Pacific. It’s nice when it’s calm in the North Atlantic region and the allies are united in keeping the peace there. However, in terms of world politics, the traditional NATO area as viewed from Washington is increasingly moving to the periphery.
Whatever comes next, whatever follows from the “new chapter” that NATO, in Stoltenberg’s words, has begun today. According to the will of the summit participants, such concerns should not disturb its harmonious new beginning.