Logic Under the Mask of Chaos: Contextualizing NATO’s Anniversary

Behind the hype about disagreements within the Western community, the discussions at the anniversary jubilee NATO summit and the decisions made during it conceal another step towards a new bipolarity. They push European states to further aggravate relations with China, writes Valdai Club expert Igor Istomin

The publicity of the anniversary NATO summit was expectedly focused on difficult relations between the leaders of the alliance. Moreover, these leaders themselves provided many opportunities, continuing to exercise in a witty swordplay. A surprise gift for journalists was the video made (by chance?) of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sharing harsh words toward Donald Trump. The American president himself entered into a fierce discussion with his French counterpart right at the press conference after the bilateral meeting. In turn, Emmanuel Macron, who had previously stirred up the Western public with words about the “brain dead NATO,” continued to raise doubts about Turkey’s membership in the alliance.

The public picture creates a final image – that everything is not in order in the North Atlantic family; and a serious meeting among national leaders had actually given way to scandalmongering. Moreover, even American journalists are inclined to write off the lion’s share of responsibility for squabbles within NATO, attributing them to the US president. The 2017 narrative continues to see in Trump’s statements and actions a threat to transatlantic solidarity and the reason for the fall of the European allies’ confidence in the United States.

Meanwhile, a high degree of trust is not always an unquestioned virtue in international alliances. Confidence in allied guarantees gives rise to the “free rider effect,” prompting individual states to shift the responsibility for their own security to others. In an asymmetric association (such as NATO), a certain imbalance in obligations is unavoidable and even necessary – in exchange for a greater contribution, the leading state gains the opportunity to determine the agenda of interaction and maintain the loyalty of junior partners to a given general course. Nevertheless, in this case, the bidding continues regarding the distribution of the benefits to various categories of participants.

In this context, Donald Trump’s readiness to aggravate the collaboration with the Allies no longer seems so absurd. Moreover, existing studies show that (properly, in relations with them) the negative incentives are especially effective – unlike traditional opponents, the NATO partners have something to lose in the event of potential sanctions. Washington’s rigidity is all the more justified, given the revision of the priorities of the US global strategy, in which the importance of the Euro-Atlantic sphere has significantly decreased, and Washington is paying more and more attention to Asia.

The anniversary NATO summit provides clear evidence that the assertiveness of the current American administration is bearing fruits. First of all, there is an increase, albeit uneven, in NATO military spending by the European countries. The defence economy trend in Europe, which Washington criticized even before Donald Trump came to power, has reversed. Even if escalating fears since 2014 regarding the supposed Russian threat contributed to this, pressure from the United States encourages a spending increase not only by the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, but also by their neighbours in the west. A symbolic addition to this trend was the redistribution of investments in the NATO budget, within which the Americans reduced spending on maintaining the organisation’s secretariat, its headquarters structures and its common intelligence assets.

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At the same time, the inclusion of the discussion on China in the summit’s agenda can be considered as the key success of American diplomacy. Since the beginning of the 2010s, the PRC has been considered by Washington as a principal opponent. The Donald Trump administration has significantly heightened the confrontation with Beijing, increasing pressure in the trade and technological sphere, as well as military activity in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Washington has also stepped up its coordination with its Asian allies and partners, which are involved in a China containment front.

Meanwhile, the European NATO members have no prerequisites for such serious concerns about China as their overseas ally. They agree with Washington that Beijing’s success is adversely affecting the attractiveness of their liberal democratic model. They also suspect China of exploiting internal differences within the European Union. At the same time, geographical remoteness reduces the immediate risks associated with the rise of the Chinese colossus, and the promises of large scale financial injections by Beijing introduce significant ambivalence into their strategic calculations.

However, the growing US-Chinese confrontation has had an ever-increasing impact on the North Atlantic alliance. Along with the symbolic reflection in the final declaration that the rise of the PRC poses challenges to the security of the alliance, an important signal of the past summit was the intensification of coordination on the development of telecommunications infrastructure, including 5G networks. Thus, NATO is joining the American campaign to curb the technological development of Beijing. At the same time, during the London summit, there was no special discussion about the intensification of the participation of individual European states (primarily France) in contesting the territorial claims of the PRC in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, it is hardly worth expecting the cessation of this activity. On the contrary, we should expect an increase in the number of passages of warships of NATO member states (and not only the US) in that area.

As a result, behind the hype about disagreements within the Western community, the discussions at the anniversary jubilee NATO summit and the decisions made during it envisage another step towards a new bipolarity. They push European states to further aggravate relations with China. At the same time, the consolidation of the united Western front creates new incentives for Moscow and Beijing to seek even closer rapprochement. And this, in turn, accelerates the divergence between Russia and its European partners in different camps, where a bloc world is emerging.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.