Mr Blinken comes to town: bearing which gifts and new expectations?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

This week has seen even more diplomatic flurry in Brussels than usual. In between an EU foreign ministers meeting on Monday and an EU Summit on Thursday and Friday, NATO has held its first meeting with the new US Secretary of State Tony Blinken. Before leaving town he also dropped by the EU to consult with the EU leadership, in particular Ursula von der Leyen at the Commission and High Representative Josep Borrell at the EU External Action Service. On Thursday President Biden was due to dial in to the EU summit, the first time a US president has met with the EU as an institution since 2009. It has been many years since we have witnessed this level of intensity in the transatlantic security dialogue.

Moreover, Blinken came in person vindicating Woody Allen’s famous dictum that 80% of success in life is just showing up. As a result, the other NATO foreign ministers came in person too so that the formal NATO Council sessions could be complemented by a whole series of bilateral meetings between Blinken and his allied counterparts. After the tearing and lacerating of the Trump years, the transatlantic relationship is being rebuilt as ministers learn again to talk to each other and spend the time and effort to get to know each other personally. Relationships built on trust and the avoidance of unpleasant surprises does not solve every international dispute, but they go a long way towards creating the atmosphere in which solutions based on give and take become at least possible.

As might be expected, the NATO foreign ministers wanted first and foremost to exorcise the ghost of the Trump years. They issued a statement pledging their loyalty to the alliance and their commitment to its Article 5 mutual defence clause. This was in marked contrast to Trump’s questioning of this commitment, particularly when it came to defending allies that, in Trump’s view, were not meeting their financial obligations to NATO. The US also pledged to consult its allies systematically on all major security issues – again, in contrast to Trump’s proclivity to inform allies of his decisions by tweet, as in withdrawing US forces from Syria or cutting them by half in Afghanistan. To those allies in eastern Europe who were anxious that the US focus on the systemic challenge from China would be at the expense of US engagement in NATO’s defence posture in the Baltic and Black Sea regions, the language on Russia clearly identifying it as the main threat to the alliance would have been reassuring. In this respect, Biden had already rescinded Trump’s decision to cut 12,000 troops from the US contingent in Germany. On the other hand, the US will have welcomed that part of the text which reaffirmed the need for equitable burdensharing among allies.

It is time for the US and its allies to move on from the repetition of renewed marriage vows

Here the Trump legacy lives on in that no European ally will dare to abandon the target of 2% of GDP for its defence budget which Trump has durably established as the yardstick for NATO’s vitality and utility. Last week NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg published his Annual Report which showed that three more allies reached the 2% target last year, bringing the total to 11. It is not spectacular progress but still a creditable effort by the allies given the COVID-induced economic downturn. The UK in its Integrated Review of security and defence published just a few days ago even pushed its defence spending to 2.2%. So Blinken was spared the need to give the allies a Trumpian pep talk on defence economics. Still he made the point that the more they spend, the more they will have influence in Biden’s Washington.

Since Biden’s inauguration, the US has overwhelmed the allies with its professions of loyalty to multilateralism and its rejection of Trump’s America First, go-it-alone approach. Given the traumas provoked in NATO by Trump’s harangues and threats to withdraw from the alliance or to deal with Putin over the heads of the allies, a therapy of soothing reassurance was probably necessary to calm frayed nerves and restore trust. Alliances are built on psychology as much as on the formal wording of treaties. Yet several weeks have now passed since Biden declared “America is back” at the Munich Security Conference. NATO has now held two ministerial meetings with both the new US Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. It is planning a summit with Biden in Brussels this June to launch a new Strategic Concept for the alliance. Yet if this summit is to be successful, it is time for the US and its allies to move on from the repetition of renewed marriage vows, as pleasant as they sound to the eyes of dyed-in-the-wool liberal internationalists, and get down to work to sort out the most urgent security challenges on NATO’s agenda. As always with the transatlantic relationship, these challenges are numerous and become contentious quickly once we scratch below the surface.

The first issue is Afghanistan. As the NATO defence ministers meeting last month did not take a decision on the way ahead for NATO’s Resolute Support Mission (which is due to leave the country with the remaining US forces on 1 May), the expectation was that Secretary of State Blinken would come to Brussels with the future US strategy for Afghanistan in his briefcase. This would help the allies decide if they should stay after 1 May or leave, although as Biden has himself acknowledged the later course is now virtually impossible given the imminence of the 1 May deadline. Blinken is trying to rally a new coalition of regional powers to put pressure on both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban to form a transitional unity government. Turkey has offered to host an international conference in coming weeks, under UN auspices, to negotiate such a power sharing agreement. Yet neither Afghan party seems interested. The Taliban does not want to join such a government but it has little meaning if they are on the outside. Moreover, the Taliban refuses to commit to reduce the violence. Meanwhile President Ghani has come up with his own alternative plan to hold new elections which he hopes to win, thereby trying to force the Taliban to abide by the existing, democratic Afghan constitution. This is a recipe for another prolonged stalemate. As the NATO countries rightly do not want to abandon the Afghans to renewed Taliban rule, they will have to keep their troops in the country for a while longer. Yet the questions remain – for how long, in pursuit of which strategy and ultimately which Afghan government?

Resolve is of little use if it is not supported by specifics

Biden said this week that the US forces could stay for a little while longer; that could be long enough to have more US casualties but too short to change the military situation on the ground which currently favours the Taliban insurgency. In my view, NATO will need to stay for at least one more year to buttress the Afghan army and leave more time for diplomacy to foster a viable power sharing agreement. To cut and run now would undoubtedly lead to the loss of all the hard won gains that the international community has achieved in terms of basic freedoms, as well as education and health development.

Blinken, however, did not provide much clarity on Afghanistan this week. He said he had come to listen and solicit views, repeating the well known NATO mantra of “in together, out together”. To this has been added the extra imperative of “adjust together”. The US is thinking of leaving special forces in Afghanistan to conduct counter-terrorism operations against ISIS; but this does not make much sense if NATO does not also continue its own training mission to upgrade the Afghan forces. Yet resolve is of little use if it is not supported by specifics. NATO needs an Afghan strategy if only to allow the troop-contributing allies and partner countries to take measures to protect their soldiers against renewed Taliban attacks.

The second agenda item is Russia. Although Biden prolonged the START II nuclear arms control agreement between the US and Russia for a further five years, US-Russia relations have taken a nosedive since. Biden even described Putin as a “killer” in his interview on ABC, an utterance that led Moscow to recall its ambassador to Washington. Biden, in his telephone call to the Russian leader, gave an explicit warning against further Russian interference in US elections and more large scale cyber attacks like that which penetrated the Solar Winds software management system. Yet when it comes to constraining Moscow, there is little room for NATO to depart from its traditional policy of deterrence and strong defence balanced by dialogue. That is where the consensus lies in the alliance as the Europeans do not want to break the communication links with the Kremlin. Stoltenberg himself proposed a revival of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) to discuss greater transparency in military activities, risk reduction measures and arms control. Yet Moscow has so far rejected NATO’s invitations to meet in the NRC, arguing that NATO is not ready for serious dialogue and that the alliance uses these meetings mainly to castigate it for its actions in Ukraine and hybrid warfare campaigns.

Russia sees closer cooperation with China as a way to resist Washington’s pressure

At the same time, two new policy areas have been added to deterrence and dialogue in dealing with Russia. One is resilience against Russian cyber attacks, disinformation activities, shady business, financial dealings and espionage. This week, Bulgaria rolled up a Russian spy ring in the country and expelled two diplomats. In Brussels, Blinken discussed with both the NATO allies and the EU’s Borrell how the transatlantic partners, with the EU and NATO working more closely together, can give a coordinated response to these hybrid threats, including Russia’s military posturing. This pushback in the security realm is gong hand in hand with greater criticism of Moscow’s more aggressive crackdown against the political opposition in Russia, civil society and the shrinking space for free media and expression. In the case of the recently re-imprisoned opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, this crackdown has led to US and EU sanctions against a number of senior Russian state security officials.

This said, the key unresolved question is whether the allies will add more punitive countermeasures to a strategy that up to now has been largely focused on anticipating hybrid attacks, mitigating their impact through resilience measures and recovering as quickly as possible. Hitting back, however, has so far been limited to the expulsion of diplomats, travel bans and asset freezes on a small number of officials. The US now seems to want to go further. It has publicly declared an intention to employ retaliatory cyber attacks and restrict Moscow’s access to the foreign debt market and perhaps the Swift bank clearing house mechanism. Blinken was also highly critical of Germany’s cooperation with Russia in building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Even though the pipeline under the Baltic Sea is over 95% complete and Germany regards it as a commercial venture rather than a security issue, the US (backed by many of its European allies) would like to see Nord Stream cancelled in order to reduce Europe’s dependency on Russian gas and maintain Ukraine, Poland and other European states as important gas transit countries able to benefit from transit fees. Germany has so far resisted the considerable pressure from both the Trump and Biden administrations.

That raises the larger question of how far the allies will be prepared to go in following more robust US countermeasures against Russia where the risks of escalation and further retaliation are less calculable. In Brussels, Blinken spoke of his hope for a “stable and predictable” relationship with Moscow. This has certainly been impossible in the past seven years since the Kremlin annexed Crimea. Let’s see if adding resilience and targeted countermeasures to the mix produces better results. Certainly Russia sees closer cooperation with China as a way to resist Washington’s pressure. While Blinken was in Brussels, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was meeting his counterpart, Wang Yi, in Beijing to discuss how they can both trade outside the dollar-dominated international financial and trading system using their own or alternative currencies, making themselves less vulnerable to US extra-territorial sanctions.

The US needs to clarify what it expects from its allies when it comes to the challenge from China

China inevitably is another tricky issue. Blinken called for alliance unity to face China’s rise. With Borrell, he discussed the relaunch of a US-EU bilateral dialogue on China. Mindful of the reality that, as with Moscow, European allies wish to continue to trade with Beijing and cooperate where they can (China conducts a 17+1 annual economic dialogue with the countries of central and eastern Europe), Blinken made clear that Washington would not confront the allies with a black or white “us or them” choice. Indeed Washington has met a couple of times with Beijing on climate change issues in the last month and wants more dialogue on health security as well. Yet Blinken unveiled the outlines of a new alliance policy on China in two parts.

One is to respond in a coordinated way to China’s human rights abuses against its own people, particularly the Uighurs and the Tibetans. An example of this occurred this week when the US, UK, EU and Canada simultaneously imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials and two state security agencies implicated in the running of the internment camps for Uighurs in Xinjiang province. China responded aggressively, imposing sanctions on ten European lawmakers and academics, as well as four European think tanks that have been in China’s crosshairs for their critical reporting on developments inside the country. For Beijing, no perceived interference in its domestic affairs can be tolerated. Beijing’s over-reaction only risks complicating the approval of the EU-China trade and investment agreement by the European Parliament. This agreement, concluded last December, has already had a lukewarm reception in Washington as the US prefers a common approach of the global democracies in dealing with Chinese economic coercion.

Blinken in Brussels proposed that the allies all support each other against Chinese actions, such as the ban on Australian foodstuffs after the Australian prime minister had suggested an international enquiry into the origin of the COVID-19 virus in Wuhan. Moreover Blinken talked about Western economies reducing their interaction with China, focusing instead on how they could integrate more with each other. This presupposes of course that the US would rediscover its appetite for transatlantic and transpacific free trade agreements, which Trump abandoned at the start of his presidency. The US would also need to be willing and able to solve its trade disputes and disagreements over data handling and taxation on social media and tech companies with the EU and other Western partners. More specifically, regarding NATO, the US needs to clarify what it expects from its allies when it comes to the challenge from China: a military commitment in the Indo-Pacific on a rotational basis or for frequent multilateral exercises, notably in the maritime area, versus a focus mainly on containing the Chinese challenge in Europe itself through reducing dependency on Chinese value and supply chains or regulating Chinese tech and infrastructure investments. Here too the upcoming NATO summit will need to provide a clearer sense of the direction of travel.

It is in coming together on the specifics and on the action plans that the strength of the transatlantic security relationship will be tested

In fourth position comes Turkey, an ally not an adversary. The EU postponed a discussion on Turkey’s behaviour in the eastern Mediterranean and other regional crises until June, giving Ankara more time to hold out olive branches to Brussels. The Turks have recently resumed bilateral negotiations with Greece over their territorial disputes and share of the energy resources in the Aegean. Despite Erdogan’s erratic and at times provocative behaviour (for instance, pulling Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention on the prevention of violence against women this week), neither side of Brussels wants to deepen the rift with Ankara at the present time. Its cooperation on Libya and Syria, hosting the international conference on Afghanistan, let alone containing the flows of migrants into the EU, is still too valuable to be squandered. Meanwhile the Turks have proposed the creation of a working group to discuss their bilateral issues with Washington, particularly over the Turkish procurement of Russian S400 missiles. The US has not responded so far but Blinken spoke of keeping Turkey close to the West. This de-escalation in the political atmosphere could help bring Turkey closer to the EU and NATO, but the particular strategy to engage Erdogan in a more “stable and predictable” relationship (to use the phrase already used vis-a-vis Russia) remains to be defined.

Finally, all these major challenges for the transatlantic security community need to be taken up and clarified in a future NATO Strategic Concept. There was no decision in Brussels this week to formally launch this process or define how it will be carried out or in which timeframe. Nor was a date set for the next NATO summit, although June is the month most mentioned in this connection. This said, the allies responded positively to some of the ideas that Stoltenberg has advocated in his NATO 2030 report. They endorsed a report on the security implications of climate change, which sets the alliance up to define its own role in responding to climate change induced events and scenarios later this year, ahead of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. Allies also seem to like Stoltenberg’s ideas on enhancing political consultations in NATO; but we must still see what they think of his other ideas on more common funding in NATO and the establishment of a new command to conduct training and mentoring programmes, as well as expanding partnerships with the Asia-Pacific democracies. As the alliance takes on ever more roles dealing with ever more challenges, the new Strategic Concept will need to find the essential balance and coherence. That is a debate for tomorrow.

In sum, Secretary Blinken flew out of Brussels on Thursday undoubtedly satisfied that he had reassured the allies and completed stage one in rebuilding the transatlantic relationship. He certainly proved that the US, and he personally, can be a good listener; he sketched in broad brush terms some of the directions that the US wishes to take. Yet the devil is always in the details and it is in coming together on the specifics and on the action plans that the strength of the transatlantic security relationship will be tested.

What about EU Strategic Autonomy and the rebalancing of roles and responsibilities between the US and the EU so dear to President Macron? As everyone rushed to embrace the return of US multilateralism, this topic hardly featured in the discussion. Yet it will be an unavoidable part of NATO’s new global strategy. Clarifying this issue and putting the flesh on the bones of all the others, will be the task of Mr Blinken’s boss when he makes his first presidential visit to the capital of Europe in the summer.

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