NATO's European members, too, should pivot to Asia

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Karl-Heinz Kamp
Karl-Heinz Kamp

President Obama’s “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific region is much more than an attempt by a U.S. administration to leave behind it a lasting political legacy. It is a strategic necessity that results from at least two major developments. There’s the post-Cold War dream of a Europe whole and free that has largely come true, and leaves much less “unfinished business” on the European continent. Developments in Russia or further uprisings in the Arab world may require fresh American attention, but probably at a much reduced level than in years past.

The Asia-Pacific region, by contrast, has become the most dynamic in the world and will be the economic powerhouse of the 21st century. Yet at the same time it’s prone to crises and to conflicts with potentially global repercussions. There are five nuclear powers in Asia – China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Russia – and all are at odds with each other. China is about to become a regional hegemon with increasing military capabilities for long-range power projection. Its historical heritage keeps stereotypical threat perceptions alive, and various disputes over islands and zones of influence could easily escalate to armed conflicts. This means that devoting a large part of its attention to the region is imperative for Washington if it wants to preserve its superpower status.

Despite the dramatic implications of the power shift to Asia, however, most European NATO members are having difficulty in coming to grips with the fact that the leading member of the Atlantic alliance has changed its political priorities. Some of these allies in Europe could imagine NATO reaching out to Asia, whereas others want it to concentrate on their own territorial defence once the combat mission in Afghanistan has come to an end. The old debate of a Euro-centric versus a global NATO seems firmly back on the agenda.

Should a war in the Middle East prompt Iran to block the Straits of Hormuz, NATO couldn’t remain passive just because none of its members suffered a direct attack

But such a dichotomy was always an artificial one. Even if NATO were to stick to its traditional role as a self-defence institution, it could never be Euro-centric. A missile attack by North Korea on Alaska (and, given the waywardness of the regime in Pyongyang, that’s hardly a far-fetched scenario) would be just as certain as, say, a Syrian attack against Turkish territory to trigger the military response stipulated in Article 5 of NATO’s Washington Treaty.

Even beyond these questions of collective defence set out in Article 5, immediate action of some sort to protect vital interests could well become necessary. For instance, should a war in the Middle East prompt Iran to block the Straits of Hormuz, NATO couldn’t remain passive just because none of its members suffered a direct attack. The same would hold true of a blockade of the Straits of Malacca which controls the sea link between Asia and the Middle East and Europe and which carries more than 50,000 merchant ships every year, or 40% of world trade. In both cases, NATO interests would be so threatened that the alliance would have to act, even without an armed attack against any of its members.

The relevance of the Asia-Pacific and the implicit challenges to the Euro-Atlantic community make it plain that NATO’s European members must do more than passively take note of the U.S. reorientation, and should therefore actively support it. Europe is as critically dependent on maritime trade routes to and from Asia as the U.S. economy, and the danger of regional conflicts escalating to global threats is relevant to both sides of the Atlantic. European key nations are already players in the region; France sees itself as a “Pacific power” because of its overseas territories, the United Kingdom has a military presence in Brunei and Germany arguably has the largest influence of all the Europeans in China. NATO has itself developed a dense network of partnerships with countries far beyond Europe’s borders, and some of its most supportive and politically likeminded partners include Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea.

The Europeans members of NATO cannot escape the need to devote more attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific region. And the interesting question is how should they do so? Only the United States has the political and economic weight and the military capabilities to act globally and to be taken serious as an Asia-Pacific “power of order”. By contrast, the outreach of NATO’s 26 Europeans members extends at best to the European neighbourhood, with only France and the United Kingdom possessing long-range power projection capacities.

Even if in terms of power politics the European Union is a toothless tiger, it nevertheless has influence in regions where scepticism over Washington’s superpower attitudes is strong

Europe – and particularly the European Union – has the political and economic assets needed to influence international developments. Although EU sanctions against China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 have not prevented Beijing from beefing-up its military power, they have certainly had some effect. China would not otherwise still be so keen to have these sanctions lifted. Also, the EU embraces most of the European members of NATO, so even if in terms of power politics the European Union is a toothless tiger, it nevertheless has influence in regions where scepticism over Washington’s superpower attitudes is strong.

Having said that, NATO-Europe’s capabilities to act in the region are not only limited but are certain to decline further as a consequence of the financial cuts in almost all European countries. Coping with the eurozone crisis already consumes almost all the political energies of Europe’s national governments, leaving hardly any room for other projects. The result is an even more parochial approach to foreign policy in many European capitals.

NATO nevertheless has the potential to demonstrate that there is a European awareness of Asia’s importance, and to signal to partners in the region that their interest in close co-operation could fall on fertile ground. At least four concrete steps could be taken, and all of them could be realised within the limited budgets now available.

Europe is as critically dependent on maritime trade routes to and from Asia as the U.S. economy, and the danger of regional conflicts escalating to global threats is relevant to both sides of the Atlantic

The first would be to show the NATO flag in Asia and demonstrate a true interest in the region. For many years, NATO has had liaison offices in Moscow and Kiev to maintain a presence and to correct misperceptions of NATO, both among the general public and in decision-making circles. Tokyo, Seoul, and Canberra would be ideal locations for more liaison offices of this kind. They would undoubtedly yield an important political pay-off for a relatively small price tag.

A second option for sending a strong signal of interest to the region would be the physical presence of NATO representatives on a regular basis. Visits shouldn’t be limited to occasional trips to individual countries by the NATO Secretary General or other top representatives, but should include the regular participation of NATO leaders in important regional meetings like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

Third, NATO should evolve its partnerships with the Asian-Pacific countries. To do so, it urgently needs to improve its capabilities for consulting closely with key partners in the Asia-Pacific region. There is currently not even a forum or a permanent body in which such consultations could take place. Whereas in Europe or Northern Africa NATO-institutions like the “Partnership for Peace” or the “Mediterranean Dialogue” exist, NATO meets Asia-Pacific countries only in the context of their engagement in Afghanistan.

After this year’s withdrawal of NATO’s ISAF forces from the Hindu Kush, these meetings will no longer take place. Because NATO needs a table to sit at and consult regularly with Asian-Pacific partners, it should create a new forum for those that are particularly close to the alliance. Today, Australia and Japan could, like Austria, Sweden and Finland, be called “almost members” as they share NATO’s values, contribute to NATO operations and are involved in alliance deliberations. Collecting them together into a single format for regular consultations – regardless of their geographical location – would allow NATO to include its most advanced partners as far as possible in its own decision-making processes.

This sort of privileged treatment of like-minded partners would not preclude contacts or partnerships with such Asian countries as Pakistan, China or Mongolia. But relations with these countries would involve a much lower level of inclusion in NATO’s affairs. Potential criticism that this would create a “red carpet lounge” for specific countries, or would re-establish the political “West” seem of little consequence because there is nothing wrong or offensive in the idea that a democratic and value-based alliance, which emphasises the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law, should treat politically like-minded partners in a privileged manner. Co-operating closely with some countries doesn’t exclude less binding but nevertheless fruitful partnerships with others.

Only the United States has the political and economic weight and the military capabilities to act globally and to be taken serious as an Asia-Pacific power of order

Fourth, NATO-Europe doesn’t just have to send the right signals to Asia; it needs to communicate to the United States its readiness to share the burden of new global challenges. Washington, too, is struggling with budgetary shortcomings, so the Europeans could do more to free American resources for duties in the Asia-Pacific. A number of NATO’s European members now provide naval forces for anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, and these could be permanently deployed in the Indian Ocean to show a European flag and to function as an immediate response capability.

All limited yet wholly feasible measures would constitute a first and very relevant attempt to react to the new Asia-Pacific realities of a region that has become both a strategic challenge and an opportunity. Not just for the United States, but for Europe, too.

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