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Transatlantic Take

How to Deal with China and Russia Will Dominate the NATO Summit

5 min read
Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com
The coming NATO summit will be a collective sigh of relief. The alliance has survived the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency—some were not sure if there would be another summit if he had been re-elected.

The coming NATO summit will be a collective sigh of relief. The alliance has survived the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency—some were not sure if there would be another summit if he had been re-elected. Leaders meeting in Brussels on Monday will want to put behind them the talk of NATO being obsolete or suffering from brain death. They will want to, and will need to, show the alliance’s political unity, military dominance, and vision for the future. Yet, under this calm surface, there are divides among the allies about two fundamental challenges to be addressed: What should NATO do (and not do) about China? How to deal with a revanchist and increasingly aggressive Russia?

President Joe Biden’s goal for his first foreign trip to Europe is to rebuild the United States’ alliances and rally fellow democracies in a struggle with autocracies, predominantly China. At the NATO summit, his message will be that the United States is indisputably back and is committed to Article 5, and that once again the alliance is united politically and strong militarily.

Leaders will also launch the long-awaited process of renewing NATO’s strategic concept. The last one from 2010, which talks about Russia as a potential partner and does not mention China, has become deeply outdated, especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Since then, the alliance has adapted effectively to the greater threat from the east, something that the new concept will codify. The new strategic concept will also chart NATO’s way forward in dealing with emerging threats of cyberattacks and information warfare. It will also have to prepare the alliance for the new geo-strategic reality of great-power competition between the United States and China. New partnerships with like-minded countries like Australia, Japan, and over time perhaps also India will be crucial in that respect.

But behind a strong summit communiqué, no-drama deliberations, and calm pictures of NATO leaders, there will be deeply political and often divisive debates among allies. Perhaps the most important one will be over the alliance’s role in addressing China’s threat. Even though European opinion is becoming more hawkish toward the country—in the recently released Transatlantic Trends survey 52 percent of respondents from the continent say they see China as a rival—and the EU has labeled it a strategic competitor, European countries are concerned with getting on board with an overly confrontational U.S. approach.

The Indo-Pacific is also outside of NATO’s area of operation, and any European military presence there would be under national flags rather than the NATO. That said, China is increasingly present in Europe and its neighborhood, mainly through its investment in critical infrastructure, but also in military terms with its navy present in the Mediterranean and occasionally in the Baltic Sea. The NATO summit will serve as a beginning of a difficult transatlantic conversation on China, with quite a gap to bridge between the United States and many European countries, especially France and Germany.

Russia is another issue that will be hotly debated between NATO leaders, especially given the meeting between Biden and President Vladimir Putin that will follow the summit. The allies agree that defense and deterrence are absolutely key in dealing with Russia. Since 2014 NATO has gone through its biggest adaptation in the post-Cold War era, increasing its military presence on its eastern flank. Yet, during this time Russia has become more brazen, more aggressive, and more militarized. Given its increasing aggressive and well-resourced military posture far outnumbers NATO’s military presence on the eastern flank, it is critical to continue further adaptation to order to strengthen the alliance’s collective defense.

Where the NATO leaders agree much less is on what role dialogue should play in relations with Russia. Some leaders, like France’s President Emmanuel Macron, have sought careful, and so far fruitless, engagement with Putin. Others, especially the leaders of countries on NATO’s eastern flank like Poland, Romania, or the Baltic states, are much more skeptical about this approach given Russia’s recent buildup of forces on its border with Ukraine, its aggressive behavior directly on its border with NATO—including an increase of air-space violations over the Baltic states—and the repression of opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny.

The biggest factor in this context is Biden’s meeting with Putin. If Biden clearly communicates that the United States will not tolerate Russia’s foreign adventures and its human-right abuses, while aiming at more predictable and stable relationship, then the trajectory of relations between NATO and Russia will not change significantly. On the other hand, several allies in Central Europe worry that the United States is sleepwalking into a de facto reset with Russia. That worry has been worsened by the Biden administration’s decision to stop sanctions against Nord Stream 2 and its lack of any significant consultations with allies ahead of the president’s meeting with Putin.

Next week’s NATO summit will certainly be less dramatic than the previous one in May 2018 that felt almost as an alliance near-death experience due to Trump. There will be no drama and in all likelihood it will be judged a success. The leaders will be like swans on a river: calm, maybe even majestic above the surface, but paddling really hard under it to stay together against difficult currents.