NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg gives a press conference during a NATO summit at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels on June 14, 2021. Photo: AFP / Olivier Hoslet / Pool

United States President Joe Biden has called America’s defense of Europe under NATO a “sacred obligation.” For that, he received kudos from the 29 other members of the alliance at this week’s Brussels summit.

In part, his words reflected an effort to make a clear break from predecessor Donald Trump. Early in his administration, Trump dismissed the idea of defending Europe, though he reaffirmed the duty later several times.

Formally, under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, all alliance members are obligated to defend each other in the case of an armed attack.

Rather than focus on defining NATO’s mission, Trump made repeated demands for increases in military spending. He suggested that others were free-riders on US largesse.

But the funding concerns were not mentioned at this year’s summit. Biden used his debut in Brussels to turn NATO’s concerns toward two countries: Russia, NATO’s original big enemy, which was labeled a “threat;” and China, which was designated a “challenge.” 

Not everyone was on board. If it is hard enough to get unanimity on what to do about Russia, it’s far harder to get it regarding China. 

It is easier for NATO, and especially its eastern European members, to view Russia as a direct threat, in the way they once viewed the Soviet Union. Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, has invaded both Georgia and Ukraine, backed rebels in each and formally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Its military jets occasionally buzz NATO aircraft and overfly alliance territory. Last Friday, two Russian Su-30 jets violated Danish air space, flying over the island of Bornholm. The Danes have asked Moscow for an explanation.

Putin, for his part, delights in announcing the creation of new, scary weaponry. Russia also stands directly accused of cyber-sabotage and of tolerating cyber-criminals operating on its territory.

Everyone signed on to labeling Russia a threat. However, Russia’s economic clout is small, even if the Europeans rely on Russia for fuel including natural gas.

Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron have a conversation ahead of the NATO summit in Brussels on June 14, 2021. Photo: AFP / Dursun Aydemir / Anadolu Agency

China was a bridge too far

China’s perceived dangers, on the other hand, are mostly far from Europe, at least for now.

It has carried out intimidating military maneuvers around Taiwan, which it claims as its own province, has established naval outposts on disputed shoals in the South China Sea, claimed an island that Japan considers its own, and clashed with Vietnamese boats near disputed reefs.

Beijing, too, is under suspicion of waging cyber-warfare.

Its human rights record is abominable. China has massively persecuted its Muslim Uighur minority and stripped Hong Kong of its democratic autonomy and jailed democracy activists, all of which offends the West’s self-declared values.

However, using NATO as a tool to confront China does not seems to be on the minds of some. French President Emmanuel Macron downplayed even the elevation of China as a key concern of NATO. 

China, he said pointedly, “must not divert us from the heart of NATO’s tasks. China is not in the North Atlantic.”

China is “much broader than a purely military topic,” he added. “It’s economic, strategic, about values, and technological.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that it was important to deal with China’s potential threat, but advised against overdoing it.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg as they pose for photos at the NATO summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels, June 14, 2021. Photo: AFP / Patrick Semansky / Pool

“If you look at the cyber threats and the hybrid threats, if you look at the cooperation between Russia and China, you cannot simply ignore China,” Merkel told reporters in Brussels. “But one must not overrate it, either – we need to find the right balance.”

While NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg put Chinese threats on Europe’s doorstep, he downplayed what NATO should do about it.

Europe’s wariness

“China is coming closer to us. We see them in cyberspace, we see China in Africa, but we also see China investing heavily in our own critical infrastructure,” he said, also citing allied concern about “China’s coercive policies” and growing nuclear arsenal. But he said the answer was the “need to engage.”

Michal Baranowski, who heads the German Marshall Fund think tank office in Poland, placed NATO hesitancies in the context of Europe’s wariness about expanding the alliance’s area of operations.

“Even though European opinion is becoming more hawkish toward China, European countries are concerned about getting onboard with an overly confrontational US approach,” he said.

Of all the NATO allies, only the United Kingdom and to a lesser extent The Netherlands have followed the US lead in confronting China with action. Britain dispatched an aircraft carrier group to the South China Sea to symbolically challenge China’s dominance of the area. The Netherlands sent a frigate in tow.

There is a long history that may also explain European reluctance. As far back as the administration of US President Bill Clinton, American foreign policy officials pressed NATO to act as a global military actor.

“Out of area or out of business,” was a phrase used to press the unenthusiastic alliance to take a hand in ending Balkans wars. Now, the phrase is being applied to take on China. 

Even before Trump came on the scene, a series of US-led military failures has made NATO cautious about following Washington’s lead: the long and inconclusive war in Afghanistan; the disastrous occupation of Iraq; the promiscuous use of airpower and drones to bomb Yemen. A European-led NATO foray into Libya, which led to the overthrow of Muammar Ghaddafi, left chaos in its wake.

A US Army soldier from NATO and an Afghan policeman are seen at a checkpoint during a patrol against Islamic State militants at the Deh Bala district in eastern Nangarhar province in Afghanistan. Photo: AFP/ Wakil Kohsar

Uncertainty about the US

Even on the continent, the European public seems ambiguous, at best, about its own responsibilities. A Pew Research Center poll last year came up with what seemed to be a contradictory result, given the presence of an aggressive Russia close by.

Asked whether their countries should defend an ally against a potential attack from Russia, “a median of 50% across 16 NATO member states say their country should not defend an ally,” the Pew report said, “compared with 38% who say their country should defend an ally against a Russian attack.” 

Instead, they shifted to a belief that the United States would uphold Article 5. “A median of 60% say the US would defend an ally against Russia, while just 29% say the US would not do so,” Pew reported.

Imagine what the European public might say if NATO was asked to defend Taiwan?

Biden will have to look elsewhere for allies to confront China. One embryonic possibility in the works is exploiting the so-called Indo-Pacific strategy Biden inherited from Trump. It was developed from an idea that dates back to the George W Bush administration.

So far, the US has gathered India, Australia and Japan in the Quad, which is an informal association designed to counter China’s influence, economic clout and perhaps at some point, its military strength. Members of the group have held occasional military maneuvers, moves that have irked China.

Washington would like to draw in other democracies – South Korea and the Philippines, for instance – but they are wary. The rest of East Asia would have to balance antagonizing economically important and militarily powerful Beijing against the sometimes unreliable US.

A new NATO in the East? The Quad’s a long way from becoming that. But transferring NATO responsibilities over to policing Asia is a non-starter.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.