NATO’s defensive role was once largely limited to the European heartland, a legacy of its origins as a Cold War foil to the Soviet military presence in Eastern Europe. After 9/11, however, its reach was extended to Afghanistan, under the assertion that a treaty member, the United States, had come under armed attack from a hostile party and so warranted support from other alliance members in accordance with their treaty obligations. Over the years, NATO also acquired new members in the Baltic Sea area and Eastern Europe, advancing its defense perimeter all the way to Russia’s borders and inflaming tensions with Moscow. Now, the alliance is about to undertake its most ambitious expansion of all: extending its strategic reach to Asia and the Pacific in an ambitious, US-led campaign to curb China’s rise.
NATO’s new strategic vision, entailing the simultaneous containment of both Russia and China, was to have been anointed as official NATO policy at the summit scheduled for June 28–29 in Madrid, Spain. A new mission statement, identifying China as a “a full-spectrum systemic rival” had been drafted by US and NATO officials as far back as November 2020 for the heads of state to approve in Madrid. But before they could assemble and ratify the document, Russia invaded Ukraine, altering the summit’s priorities. While the broader strategy of containing China remained a major focus of deliberation, countering Russia became NATO’S most pressing concern.
Identifying Russia as both an immediate and long-term threat to alliance security, the NATO leadership agreed to speed deliveries of heavy weapons to Ukraine and to significantly bolster NATO forces deployed among the “frontline” states facing Russia in Eastern Europe. This will involve the deployment of additional US and Allied combat troops in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania, along with other measures. Finland and Sweden will also be incorporated into the alliance, vastly extending its defense perimeter along the Russian border.
The NATO buildup in eastern and northern Europe is ominous in itself and not to be ignored. According to a fact sheet issued by the White House, the US Army will establish a permanent garrison headquarters in Poland, add more permanently stationed troops in Germany and Italy, and commit an enduring rotating combat brigade team to Romania; the Navy will add two destroyers to the four already stationed at its base in Rota, Spain, and the Air Force will forward-deploy two F-35 fighter squadrons in the United Kingdom. These major commitments will move the center of gravity of US force deployments in Europe—now numbering over 100,000 military personnel—much closer to Russia’s land border and to the air and sea space adjoining Russia in the Baltic and Black Seas. This, in turn, will increase the risk of a clash with Russian forces that might escalate into a major conventional war and, from there, to a catastrophic nuclear war.
There is much that can be said about the escalatory risks of deploying so many heavily equipped forces on Russia’s land, sea, and air borders, especially when taking note of NATO’s commitment to the use nuclear weapons in response to an overpowering Russian assault. This applies in particular to the US tactical nuclear munitions stored at Allied bases in Europe for potential use by “dual-capable” aircraft (planes capable of delivering either nuclear or conventional munitions), such as the F-35s deployed in Germany, Italy, and the UK. With Vladimir Putin regularly threatening the use of nuclear weapons in response to a NATO attack on Russia, the danger of miscalculation and overreaction in a crisis can only increase.
But it is the global implications of the Madrid summit that command our greatest attention. Not content merely to identify Russia as an enhanced threat to European security, the NATO leadership found time to embrace the anti-China agenda of the Biden administration, expressed in such White House documents as the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance of March 2021, and to incorporate it into the mission statement they adopted in Madrid. Under this edict, China is to be viewed along with Russia as major challengers to the “rules-based international order” on which alliance security and prosperity supposedly rest. This, in turn, requires that NATO extend its defensive reach not only to nearby areas of Africa and the Middle East, but also to Asia and the Pacific.
“Strategic competition, pervasive instability, and recurrent shocks define our broader security environment,” the NATO document asserts, reflecting US strategic thought. At the root of all this instability, it claims, is a drive by authoritarian states, led by China and Russia, to undermine the “rules-based international order” on which we rely. “Authoritarian actors challenge our interests, values and democratic way of life,” it states. In addition to posing sophisticated military threats to alliance members, “these actors are also at the forefront of a deliberate effort to undermine multilateral norms and institutions and promote authoritarian models of governance.”
The only conceivable response to this, the NATO strategy asserts, is to mobilize alliance members for a long-term struggle to resist and overpower those “authoritarian actors,” especially China. This means not only acquiring advanced nuclear, conventional, and cyber weaponry, but also developing enhanced security ties with like-minded states on China’s periphery. “We will strengthen dialogue and cooperation with new and existing partners in the Indo-Pacific to tackle cross-regional challenges and shared security interests,” the document states.
Adoption of the new strategic concept by NATO ensures that tensions between the United States and its allies on one side, and China on the other, are bound to increase. From Beijing’s perspective, this can only be viewed as a malicious attempt by Washington to incorporate Europe into its ongoing drive to prevent China’s rise—and so will very likely provoke resistance. “We urge NATO to stop provoking confrontation by drawing ideological lines, abandon the Cold War mentality and zero-sum game approach, and stop spreading disinformation and provocative statements against China,” said a spokesperson for the Chinese mission to the European Union. “Since NATO positions China as a ‘systemic challenge,’ we have to pay close attention and respond in a coordinated way. When it comes to acts that undermine China’s interests, we will make firm and strong responses.”
And so, with NATO now committed to an anti-China stance in Asia, we must view the Ukraine conflict as but the opening act in a long-term struggle for global power between the major Western powers and those labeled as “authoritarian actors,” notably Russia and China. This will involve competition and conflict in nearly every sphere: economic, diplomatic, technological, and cultural, among others. At the G7 meeting in Bavaria, for example, leaders of the major Western economies agreed on June 26 (just before the Madrid summit) to raise $600 billion in public and private funds for infrastructure development in developing countries in a belated drive to compete with Beijing’s well-established Belt and Road Initiative. These, and other such ventures, are sure to result in broken supply chains, rising prices, and other economic dislocations, while ignoring such common perils as climate change and recurring pandemics. But it is in the military sphere where the greatest danger lurks: At the very least, this competitive drive will result in periodic crises and clashes over such flash points as Taiwan and the South China Sea; in the worst-case scenarios, these encounters will trigger full-scale wars with a high risk of nuclear escalation.
For the military and political elites who dominate NATO summits and other such conclaves, this long-term struggle for control of Eurasia and the Pacific constitutes the overriding mission of our time, outranking all other global concerns, including climate change, Covid, and systemic poverty. It is striking to note, however, that the NATO leadership met at a time when their own citizens seemed far more concerned about domestic issues that impacted their lives: inflation, record energy prices, ethnic tensions, and, in the United States, abortion and gun violence.
This disconnect between Biden’s lofty statements in Madrid and troubled conditions at home was raised in the very first question directed to the president at his final press conference in Madrid. In a remarkable expression of our current dilemma, Darlene Superville of the Associated Press asked the president, “You’ve come to this summit…after the US Supreme Court overturned constitutional protections for abortion, after the shootings in Buffalo and Texas, at a time of record inflation, and as new polling this week shows that 85 percent of the US public thinks the country is going in the wrong direction. How do you explain this to those people who feel the country is going in the wrong direction?”
All Biden could say in response: “America is better positioned to lead the world than we ever have been.… We have the strongest economy in the world. Our inflation rates are lower than other nations in the world.” In other words, he said nothing that is likely to persuade the average US citizen that a global campaign to contain China—with all the costs and risks that entails—will do anything to address the mounting problems that confront us all.