The leaders of the Western world—meeting first as the G7 powers in Cornwall, England, on June 11-13 and then as the NATO members in Brussels on June 14—did not exactly initiate Cold War II. However, they did lay the necessary groundwork by describing a world divided along fundamental ideological lines.
On one side, they contend, are the democratic, stability-seeking nations that adhere to international norms and rules; on the other are aggressive, authoritarian states like China and Russia that seek to undermine the rules-based international order. While it might be possible to work across this divide on matters of common concern, such as climate change and nuclear nonproliferation, the West’s main task in the coming decades must be to enhance its capacity to defend itself against the other camp—and diminish the other side’s economic, political, and technological clout.
“We are committed to the rules-based international order,” the final communiqué from Brussels reads. But “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security…[while] China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.”
Not since the early days of the original Cold War have Western leaders been so explicit in their depiction of a world divided into two ideologically opposed camps. That earlier global fracturing resulted in extreme military tension and frequent crises, accompanied by recurring “proxy wars” in the developing world. Today senior officials appear determined to avoid such an environment—at least for the time being. Indeed, following his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Geneva on June 16, President Joe Biden told reporters that despite his condemnation of many Russian policies, he was prepared to work with Moscow in devising ways to avoid a military clash—especially one that might trigger the use of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, by creating this dichotomy between “us” and “them,” the NATO leadership is providing the rationale for a wide range of military measures that will make such a clash ever more likely.
Ostensibly, the aim of all this summitry was to revitalize the Western alliance in the wake of all the damage wreaked by former president Donald Trump and to restore America’s status as the West’s leading champion. But what is this new chapter really about? The 79 points in the final communiqué make the intent clear: to recast NATO in the image of the US military, with its focus on “great power competition” and a renewed arms race with Russia and China. The vehicle for accomplishing this is the NATO 2030 agenda, a virtual facsimile of the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy. Both call for the harnessing of advanced technologies to ensure combat superiority in every “domain” of warfare—land, air, sea, space, and cyber—and both focus on countering China’s geopolitical outreach in Asia and beyond.
For the US military, China represents the leading threat to the Western-dominated world order. But NATO was formed to counter the Soviet Union, and most of its European members view Russia as the principal threat to the alliance. Accordingly, much of the Brussels communiqué is taken up with measures to bolster NATO’s capabilities on its eastern flank, along Russia’s borders. Under pressure from Washington, however, the organization has, for the first time, also designated China as a potential threat requiring an alliance-wide response.
Unless challenged, this outlook will now govern NATO’s organizational structure and the various military forces—including those of the United States—assigned to it. In such an environment, the likelihood of a military clash becomes ever greater, whatever the intent of particular leaders at any given moment. As Bernie Sanders recently argued in Foreign Affairs, the current US drive to isolate China can only “deflect attention from the shared common interests the two countries have in combating truly existential threats.”
A new Iron Curtain has not yet come down. But if the presumed logic of the G7 and NATO meetings prevails, it will become increasingly difficult to prevent such an outcome in the years ahead. Progressives must, therefore, reject the false contention that the world can be neatly divided between the upholders and destroyers of the “rules-based international order” and that we, the upholders, must be prepared to risk nuclear annihilation in its defense.