Transatlantic relations appear to be facing another rift in 2016.
NATO, the Cold War military alliance that institutionalized US and Europe’s security ties, is increasingly under fire as an aggressive and autocratic Turkey becomes a liability and continues to damage the brand name of the “value-based” alliance. Additionally, the timing of the EU presenting a new China strategy around the time Britons opted for Brexit was unfortunate. An EU without Britain—which is still a NATO ally as well as a permanent member of the UN Security Council—may become less of a coherent partner for the US on transatlantic issues.
Will that lead US-EU relations to face a calm demise?
Perhaps not, and an unlikely actor may actually be a catalyst to strengthen transatlantic relations—China.
With the threat of terrorism in the Middle East increasingly merging with the need to protect China’s citizens and interests abroad, a unique diplomatic opportunity has presented itself for the US and EU to engage China. And the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) may be the answer.
In 2011, Beijing had to evacuate 36,000 Chinese nationals when NATO began bombing Libya, and in 2015 it conducted two more evacuations in Yemen when the US/Saudi Arabia began their bombing campaign. With an estimated five million workers abroad and outbound tourists reaching 109 million in 2014, protecting Chinese citizens is a dire challenge for Beijing. As the Middle Kingdom begins to adopt a more robust security posture overseas, it could become an important security partner for the US and EU in Eurasia.
“East vs. West” legacy institutions
Given that legacy institutions from the Cold War have built-in bias (e.g. NATO has a tendency to be suspicious of Russia, and China still harbors distrust of NATO due to the 1999 bombing of its embassy in Belgrade) the OSCE may be a timely alternative paradigm for global engagement between the West and rising powers.
This is especially important with an EU post-Brexit and NATO as an exclusive military alliance ill-equipped to address new security challenges such as counter-terrorism, refugee crises, conflict prevention and resolution. In contrast, the OSCE is an inclusive dialogue and confidence-building mechanism with 57 members including the EU, Britain, US, Russia, and countries across Eurasia. Its explicit mandate on security could stimulate a structural dialogue with China, especially with the 2017 Austrian Chairmanship’s priority on counter-terrorism that converges with China’s foreign policy focus.
During the Cold War, NATO took center stage to address conventional warfare and OSCE was in a supporting role. However, in the post-Cold War 21st century environment of unconventional warfare and new security challenges, it is important to have a paradigm shift so that now OSCE should take center stage with NATO having a supporting role. Dialogue, confidence building, and crisis management—rather than military power—should lead modern diplomacy. Only when diplomacy via OSCE fails should the west than resort to NATO.
Unless the EU and especially the US learn to adapt to changes and not get stuck in legacy institutions and anachronistic paradigms, the transatlantic rift will widen. Indeed, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier penned an article in August calling for the OSCE to take a role in launching a dialogue with the Russians to reduce tensions, with NATO itself issuing an article in November on the same notion for crisis management.
After sixteen years of slumber, the OSCE seems poised to take the center stage as the new vehicle to strengthen transatlantic relations and a new platform to engage not only Russia, but also China.
“West and Rising Rest” institutions
In an increasingly multi-polar world, this could also mean a multi-partner world to address new security challenges. As such, rather than viewing China’s rise as a security actor through a cold war mentality of “East vs. West,” this can be changed to a narrative of aligning “the West and the rising rest” against a shared civilizational threat by international terrorism. In this light, Syria could present a good test case and laboratory for dialogue and realignment in the Middle East, given current US support for anti-Chinese militants in the Syrian opposition is a potentially explosive issue in Sino-US relations.
Since Sino-US relations are a key pillar of any future global system, but continue to be plagued by underlying competition, German-led EU and Austrian Chairmanship in OSCE can perhaps play an important mediating role between the US and China. OSCE is also a timely platform to help reduce current tension between Russia and the West—as it was initially conceived as a forum to mitigate tensions between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
In addition to engaging China on security issues, the OSCE can also facilitate Eurasian connectivity via the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiatives. Indeed during the 2016 German chairmanship, Berlin invited a Chinese delegation to attend the OSCE business conference in Berlin on 18-19 May to promote connectivity on the OBOR. The 2017 Austrian chairmanship offers the prospect of further dialogue with China regarding counter-terrorism on the OBOR.
The rise of unconventional challenges requires “out-of-the-box” thinking for solutions. As China rises as a security actor in the Middle East, this could provide a unique opportunity for transatlantic cooperation with new and unconventional partners.