Written by Adam Twardowski.
How will an alliance originally conceived to deter the Soviet Union from invading Western Europe stay relevant in this Asian Century? The question appears straightforward at first glance. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggressive military probing have spooked NATO allies while provoking calls for the alliance to get back to its basics – deterrence through more defence spending, more military exercises, and a clear-eyed understanding of Russia’s intentions and capabilities. But this won’t be enough. To stay relevant in an era where the center of geopolitical power is shifting to Asia, NATO must make an effort to contribute to tackling the growing security challenges in Asia or risk, in the long-term, slipping into irrelevance.
NATO is a military alliance, but its political character is a vital dimension of its identity. Accordingly, NATO could deepen intelligence sharing and security cooperation with democratic partners in Asia, from India to Australia, while devoting resources to conducting at least occasional major exercises with them.
It is necessary, but not sufficient, for NATO to think of itself as a bulwark against Russian aggression. Russia is unquestionably a threat to NATO’s eastern flank and its capabilities should not be underestimated. The unexpected election of Donald Trump, who questioned NATO’s relevance during the campaign, led to a period of much-needed reaffirmation by senior national security officials of the United States’ commitment to the alliance’s aim of deterrence. But developing a strategy for U.S. national security requires taking into consideration longer term trends in addition to more immediate concerns. Russia’s population is shrinking, its economy is stagnant and oil-dependent, and endemic corruption suffocates reform and growth. Recall this surprising fact: Russia’s economy is smaller than Italy’s or Canada’s. By contrast, the world’s economic center of gravity has long been shifting from the North Atlantic deep into the heart of Eurasia, led by China and India whose combined population comprises nearly 40 percent of the world’s population. The security and economic vitality of the North Atlantic cannot be divorced from this reality.
Some critics of this view contend that NATO should focus on its core competency – the security of the North Atlantic, which is, after all, in its title – while leaving the business of managing security problems in Asia to its key member, the United States, which already has a deep web of ties there. Within NATO, apart from the United States, only France and the United Kingdom maintain any ability to deploy significant military assets into the Asia Pacific, while most alliance members are only in the process of making sorely needed steps to modernize and grow their forces. But NATO has already shown that it can take a leading role in operations outside the European continent. It currently leads Resolute Support, which provides training advice and assistance to Afghan security forces following its leadership of the International Security Assistance Force from 2003 to 2014. That was NATO’s most significant operational commitment ever, demonstrating that the alliance has the political will and the institutional capacity to lead major military efforts deep in Eurasia.
But how could NATO play a greater role in Asia? For starters, as Philip Shetler-Jones has suggested, it could open a liaison office or appoint a Special Representative to the region while elevating political ties through a partnership with ASEAN. NATO is a military alliance, but its political character is a vital dimension of its identity. Accordingly, NATO could deepen intelligence sharing and security cooperation with democratic partners in Asia, from India to Australia, while devoting resources to conducting at least occasional major exercises with them. Even as NATO works to promote much-needed interoperability of forces on the European continent itself, it could do the same with key Asian partners, such as India in the maritime domain. Finally, and perhaps most critically, NATO could share best practices and promote cooperation in new domains of warfare, such as the cyber and information realms, where Russia and China have devoted significant resources to honing asymmetric advantages over the United States and other Western states.
There are already signs of growing interest among key Asian states in a wider role for NATO in Asia, as Shetler-Jones notes. In 2013, then-Secretary General Rasmussen signed a joint political declaration with Japan and later an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme. Australia has already devoted considerable resources to NATO missions, especially for the mission in Afghanistan. South Korea participates in NATO’s summits, and in 2012, signed an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme with NATO, with a particular focus on maritime security, cyber security, and nuclear issues. These are just a few examples of burgeoning ties between NATO and Asian partners.
The bottom line is that NATO must find ways to reinvent itself even as it reassures allies against traditional threats such as a resurgent and revisionist Russia. NATO rediscovered its mojo, so to speak, in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and ongoing reckless submarine and aerial forays near NATO territory. But the greatest political risk facing NATO in the long term is that it will lose popular support for its existence, a worrisome sentiment that reared its head during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and continues today in several European states. However, an alliance that tackles new problems and finds new ways to leverage its members’ considerable resources and experience is more likely to engender broad-based political support than one that is content to do what it has always done.
When the Obama administration announced it would rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward Asia, many European states expressed alarm, fearing that Washington would diminish the importance it placed on their security. Although the Trump administration claims that it has abandoned the terminology of rebalancing to Asia, the inevitable logic of China’s rise dictates that the United States, a Pacific power, will devote more and more of its resources and strategic attention to the Asia-Pacific even after Trump leaves office. What better way for Europe to keep Washington’s long-term strategic attention than by proactively joining the United States in becoming a key stakeholder in Asia through an existing security structure that is in need of updating?
Adam Twardowski is a Washington-based national security analyst currently pursuing his MA in Security Studies at Georgetown University. He previously worked at the Center for a New American University where he co-authored a report on US-Russia relations. He tweets @TwardowskiAK. Picture Credit: CC by NATO.