NATO’s future unclear despite Biden’s ‘America is back’ vow


President Joe Biden’s first international trip was much anticipated in terms of him outlining his vision for US foreign policy in any real detail for the first time since the campaign trail. Sandwiched between the meeting of the G7 in the UK and a US-EU summit in Brussels, Biden attended the NATO summit. Still reeling from President Donald Trump’s disparaging remarks about the organization at its last gathering in 2019, the 29 allies eagerly waited for a reaffirmation of transatlantic solidarity amid new threats posed by an increasingly menacing Russia and ascendant China.
“America is back,” Biden announced, after communicating that the political phenomenon that brought Trump to power, though significant, represented the worldview of only a minority of Americans. After he used the opportunity to affirm that the alliance’s mutual defense pact was a “sacred obligation” for the US, onlookers no doubt breathed a sigh of relief. Trump’s departure from the previous summit after clashing with French President Emmanuel Macron seemed a distant memory, but what lingered was that, despite Biden’s announcements, past US policies may not have an opportunity to return as the geopolitical challenges of the world are unrecognizable from what they were.
At the center of the organization’s vision lies the NATO Strategic Concept, which outlines its purpose and nature. Last updated more than a decade ago, it does not reflect the security challenges of today. Russia is no longer the potential security partner it was, and China is by no means the benign giant it seemed.
Though Biden was clear that he wanted “all Europe to know that the United States is there,” the geopolitical realities of the world today are such that Washington will struggle to maintain the economic and military supremacy required to counter the influence of China. This was seen as NATO leaders warned that China presents “systemic challenges,” forcefully singling out Beijing in a communique. This stance, however, is not as clearly delineated as it was during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union sought to court and maintain a parallel alliance system. China is far too integral to the global economy and too central a partner to many NATO powers, who cannot afford to oppose it at every turn.
Germany’s Angela Merkel, attending her last NATO summit as chancellor, made this clear. Welcoming Biden’s arrival as the beginning of a new era, she noted the importance of keeping relations with China in perspective — “we need to find the right balance.” NATO agreed to respond to China’s rise, given its investments in European ports, sensitive technology and plans to set up international military bases, but the allies are mindful of their economic links with it. Total German trade with China in 2020 was more than $257 billion. In the American context, Chinese holdings of US Treasuries stood at $1.1 trillion as of March, while total US trade with China in 2020 was $559 billion. The NATO allies simply cannot afford to isolate China, however nostalgic they are about the post-1945 US-led status quo.
Biden spoke for many allies following the summit and his subsequent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he said: “How would it be if the United States were viewed by the rest of the world as interfering with the elections… of other countries and everybody knew it?” In the context of increased Russian posturing on the international stage and the prospect of joint Chinese-Russian military exercises, NATO has cause for concern.
However, as with China, the EU is aware that it has geopolitical interests that do not always coincide with those of the US. Macron’s ambition to position himself as a “negotiating party” with Moscow falls foul of US demands of its allies, but the recent experience of an isolationist American president has made Europe insecure. Whether or not Biden is able to restore European faith in US exceptionalism, the European leaders are minded to better provide for their own security.
The recent experience of an isolationist American president has made Europe insecure.
The recent joint mission of the British HMS Queen Elizabeth and the French Charles De Gaulle aircraft carriers on three days of exercises named “Gallic Strike” goes some way to illustrating the mood in European capitals. With an increasingly unreliable US, they must seek alternative arrangements. It did not go unnoticed that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first overseas trip was to Asia, as was that of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Europe’s primacy to US foreign policy is no longer a foregone conclusion.
For now, America’s European allies are reassured that a Trump-like populist will not occupy the White House for the time being. However, the NATO summit indicated — in the context of the recent Belarus airliner incident, Russian troop buildups on the border with Ukraine, the US withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq, and the pandemic — that the alliance must seek to revisit its strategic ambitions for the future. Now that Europe is aware it has geopolitical interests that do not always coincide with those of the US, NATO provides a tried and tested platform for it to develop a robust strategic capacity to defend those interests. Though the “America is back” sentiment is reassuring, it is also unhelpful at a time when European allies should be asserting themselves as self-standing global actors amid the fading of the Pax Americana. –AN