NATO needs to work harder in a fast-changing world

NATO is increasingly treating Russia and China as a potential single, unified threat.

No stranger to a world in flux, the West’s alliance has grown since the Cold War. It has fresh challenges from an old foe and a new global power to address.
Ewan White
No stranger to a world in flux, the West’s alliance has grown since the Cold War. It has fresh challenges from an old foe and a new global power to address.

NATO needs to work harder in a fast-changing world

When the Cold War ended in the 1990s, NATO lost the main reason for its existence: a clear and powerful opponent in the Soviet Union.

It meant the West’s main military alliance had to redefine itself in a fragile global security environment marked by strategic competition and challenges from many new directions. It identified its core tasks as: deterrence and defence, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security.

Decades later, NATO is still there. It is the world’s longest-surviving and most effective defence alliance. To a significant extent, this shows its ability to adapt while also sticking to the idea at its core – set out in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which founded it — that an attack on one member nation is an attack on all.

The 31-member group’s guiding document – the Strategic Concept – is updated every decade or so and was last redrawn in 2022. It shows that NATO’s culture of compromise is working after the Cold War. Here, we look at how it has adapted and the challenges it faces, starting with a summary of its main characteristics:

1. An open-door policy: The number of members has grown from its 16 original members

2. Deterrence and defence: Troops are kept at very high levels of readiness regardless of any changes to its command structure or troop numbers

3. Burden-sharing: The United States has insisted other members contribute more to costs

4. Russia & China: Russia remains identified as the biggest single threat. China is also on its list of top concerns as posing a systematic challenge to security in the Euro-Atlantic region.

5. Terrorism: Terrorism is defined as the most direct asymmetric threat to the security of NATO citizens

Enlargement and opposition

Relations between Russia and the West have been volatile. Even during better times, Moscow has been consistent in opposing NATO expansion, viewing it as a plan to encircle the country.

Despite its concerns, Russia has had to accept nations formerly within its sphere of influence joining the alliance, including countries on the Baltic and from eastern and central Europe.

A line ahead of modern Russian military naval battleships warships sail in the Baltic Sea.

Read more: Will the Baltic Sea become a new arena for confrontation between Russia and the West?

When the Cold War ended in the 1990s, NATO lost the main reason for its existence: a clear and powerful opponent in the Soviet Union. It meant the West's main military alliance had to redefine itself.

But Moscow has since drawn a red line.

At a summit in Bucharest, NATO leaders backed Ukraine's and Georgia's ambitions to join. A joint declaration that "these countries will become members" was issued in 2008.

The Kremlin has had strong objections to that ever since. It most recently made them clear at a November meeting of foreign ministers held by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Its representative, Sergey Lavrov, walked out, citing "NATO's reckless expansion to the east" as justification for Russia's war on Ukraine.

Kyiv did not sign a formal application to join NATO until 2022. It is all but certain not to proceed – not least due to Article 5's implications during a live war – leaving relations to the existing
NATO-Ukraine Council.

But since Russian tanks rolled over the border, NATO has expanded elsewhere.

Membership applications from Finland and Sweden are best known for the controversy over Turkey's approval for the move as an existing NATO member.

This latest expansion is more relevant for its geopolitical implications, and the new flashpoints created by more borders shared between NATO and Russia.

Burden sharing

Defence is expensive, and the bill for NATO has not been evenly split through the alliance. Much of it has been paid by the United States.

That has caused political tension — especially when Donald Trump was in office as US president. He put allies under pressure to make a bigger financial contribution.

In 2014, allies agreed that they would strive to allocate an annual 2% of their Gross Domestic Product – the overall size of their economies –  for defence spending. At 2023's summit in Vilnius, they upgraded their commitment by setting 2% as a minimum spending target — only 11 members have spent more than that.

While NATO is behind on its targets, its members are spending more despite tough economic times. 

Leaders of major NATO countries during the joint declaration about support for Ukraine during the NATO summit in Vilnius on July 12, 2023.

Russia and China

Moscow has justified its actions in Ukraine via the so-called Karaganov Doctrine. It claims that the country must protect the rights of ethnic Russians in former Soviet territories, intervening as necessary.

The West warns that this doctrine could be used to start similar conflicts in the future, possibly involving NATO members, including the Baltic states. And so, the alliance has assisted Kyiv in the war.

During the conflict, Russia has suffered 300,000 casualties and erosion of its military hardware, but it has persevered even after expectations of a speedy victory proved misplaced. The country has a high tolerance to withstand losses and suffering — a characteristic which has long defined it.

Read more: Why Putin is in no rush to negotiate end to Ukraine war

Defence is expensive, and the bill for NATO has not been evenly split through the alliance. Much of it has been paid by the US. When he was president, Trump pressured allies to contribute more financially.

Strategic and economic factors

Russia has faced economic difficulties arising from sanctions imposed by the West. Markets are lost, and hundreds of foreign companies have left or scaled down their operations in Russia.

But it has some natural advantages. In an energy-hungry world with fierce geo-strategic competition, there are always alternative markets and buyers for Russian gas and oil exports.

The tension between NATO and Russia — made more visible by the war in Ukraine — has emboldened China to flex its political and military power.

NATO believes China is seeking to undermine what the alliance calls "the rules-based international order" and is concerned over Beijing's growing relations with Russia.


Read more: Food for thought: Why Russia-China grain pact is a big deal

This creates a concern that any outbreak of conflict between NATO and Russia could soon involve China. Any such clashes would be of much greater magnitude, involving the world's largest economies, nuclear powers, UN Security Council permanent members and the largest producers and consumers of natural resources.

US, Russia and China relations are at the forefront of world geopolitics. Russia and China may have their differences and be competitors in some respects, but they have become much closer in recent years, reaching a point of strategic partnership. 

This has included frequent top-level meetings, deeper economic ties, joint military manoeuvres, and strongly worded commitments over joint cooperation. It comes amid dislike and distrust of the US and a perceived threat to the West.

Mutual suspicion

Moscow and Beijing are deeply suspicious of what they regard as Western support for anti-government protests in many countries and are concerned that they could become targets themselves.

The West's sanctions on Russia led to a boom in economic relations between Russia and China, with trade volumes reaching almost $200bn. 

This means NATO is increasingly treating Russia and China as a potential single, unified threat. At the alliance's latest summit held this year in Madrid, leaders emphasised their recognition of this increased link between the Indo-Pacific and European regions.

Capitalising on existing bilateral relations, NATO is building new regional partnerships in the Indo-Pacific area. AUKUS – Australia, the UK, the US – and the Quad, or the quadrilateral security grouping of the US, India, Japan, and Australia – are already in place.

Like-minded and allied nations of Southeast Asia have become regular invitees to NATO summits.

NATO is increasingly treating Russia and China as a potential single, unified threat. 

Infrastructure for influence

The geo-strategic shifts closely watched by political and military leaders are bound up in moves underway to reshape global trade.

China's Belt and Road Initiative — a network of land routes and sea lanes for trade — has been responded to by alternatives sponsored by the West, including the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

However, Russia and China are cooperating to break the US's dominance of international trade. And some new alliances and groupings offer new forums.

Among them are the BRICS, initially comprised of Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa. Membership is expanding, and there has been talk of the group setting up its own currency.

Significant ties remain between the two protagonists amid this complex and shifting picture. The total trade value between the US and China is $690bn, even if Washington claims Beijing runs "unfair trade policies, non-market economic practices and punitive actions against US firms".

When Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met recently in California, Biden was clear in his commitment to defending allies in the Indo-Pacific and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight in the South and East China Seas. But he did not shut the door for the possibility of better relations under certain conditions.

Perception problems

As global alliances shift, an international reputation for reliability is vital.
The US has more of a problem in this respect and in some regions than Russia and China.

Washington remains caught in the shadows cast by its invasion of Iraq and its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Its support for Kurdish groups in Syria strained relations with NATO ally Turkey. And then came backing for Israel's devastating war on the Gaza Strip, despite widespread global condemnation of the campaign on humanitarian grounds and calls for a ceasefire.


Read more: Gaza war reminds of history's tactical military victories-turned-strategic defeats

The NATO alliance has significantly more international credibility than the US itself and brings some stature to Washington in this respect.

NATO's Chinese whispers

The alliance is more united on how to deal with Russia than it is over China. There are also disagreements over NATO's so-called "area of responsibility".

Proponents of a wider approach argue that challenges and threats, as defined in the Strategic Concept, mean that NATO must look beyond its core area in the Euro-Atlantic region.

There is under a year until the next NATO summit in Washington in July 2024. Until then, there will be much discussion over all these issues, and the West's main defence collective must again respond to a world order in flux.

font change

Related Articles