A revived transatlantic relationship stands as the background for NATO’s new Strategic Concept. After four troublesome years during Donald Trump’s presidency, the Biden administration has actively tried to relaunch the US-Europe dialogue, with partial success. The 2021 NATO summit in Brussels on June 14th was generally regarded as a constructive one, confirming the positive impression of the previous G7 summit in Carbis Bay and paving the way for the US-EU summit on June 15th. The situation worsened following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last August and the AUKUS agreement with Australia and the UK on September 16th. In particular, AUKUS led to tensions with France and the EU that, on the same day, was presenting its Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Despite harsh remarks from Paris and Brussels, suggesting a potential diplomatic crisis, tensions fully resumed by late October, with the joint US-French statement signed at the G20 summit in Rome. Russia’s rising military activism along Ukrainian borders fostered the rapprochement. The invasion on February 24th led to the emergence of a unified transatlantic front, with Washington taking the lead in the response and Brussels assuming an equally active posture, despite different sensibilities at the national level.
Sustaining this momentum will be one of the challenges for the Concept. If the invasion of Ukraine contributed to strengthening the transatlantic relationship and restoring NATO’s sense of purpose, the ramifications are yet to be seen. In the long run, supporting a shared strategy against Russia could prove quite divisive for European countries, especially those more dependent on Russian supplies or with stronger ties to Moscow. Doubts are also emerging in the US around the soundness of President Biden’s current strategy. With declining approval rates and the November midterm elections looming closer, the White House could partially revise its posture, especially if the war draws out. In turn, this could impact European attitude and deepen the US-Europe cleavage. A possible Republican success in November is another element to take into account. The GOP’s attitude towards NATO seems to be changing, with a sizeable minority of the party sporting increasingly neo-isolationist and anti-NATO positions. A Republican majority in Congress (and, possibly, a future Republican administration) might focus more on developing bilateral relations with key partner countries than on supporting integration within the Alliance, as it did in the past during the George W. Bush administration.
Developing a common China strategy will be another challenge. China’s importance in NATO’s eyes has grown since 2019, parallel with Beijing’s more active attitude on the international stage. However, it is still unclear which posture NATO as an alliance might assume. Though Europe has grown more cautious about Beijing, Chinese companies are currently involved in several European infrastructural projects and already manage several. Moreover, a number of NATO countries still regard Beijing as a potentially significant economic and political partner. China’s position vis-à-vis the invasion of Ukraine could partially affect this perception. However, a possible trade-off remains between NATO’s adoption of a more global approach to security — in line with the US position — and the interests of Central and Eastern European allies, which are more focused on strengthening the Alliance’s deterrence and defence leverage. A similar aspect revolves around aligning NATO’s and the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategies. While the two bodies have well-defined spheres of interest, potential overlap and risks of duplication persist. Finally, the AUKUS affairs highlighted the differences between US and European approaches to the region’s security, which could reverberate across the NATO level and influence its action.
In any case, an increasingly militarized security environment like the current one makes the US essential to NATO. Despite the EU’s efforts, a credible European military identity will take time to materialize. Moreover, since 2016, the US has enhanced its military footprint in Central and Eastern Europe. However, the transatlantic relation should not be limited to a purely military dimension. NATO has always been a political forum where the US and Europe negotiate common positions. It is essential that the Atlantic Alliance keeps playing this role in coming years. To do so, it needs more balanced US-Europe relations. In the last months, in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, several countries consistently increased their defence budgets. If the trend continues, it could help reach the Celtic Manor targets and partially soothe the long-lasting problem of ‘sharing the burden’ between the two shores of the Atlantic. But the financial aspect is just one part of the problem. Despite growing convergence, threat perceptions and security priorities still differ among European countries. Some of them cannot sever – at least in a short time – their ties with Russia and its supplies. Such a state of things increases NATO’s vulnerability and makes consensus more fragile.
US leadership has traditionally been one of NATO’s main assets. During the Cold War, Washington’s willingness to mediate kept the Atlantic Alliance together despite its centrifugal tensions. With the end of the Soviet threat, willingness gradually declined, sometimes giving way to open rivalry and fuelling Europe’s ambitions of greater strategic autonomy. Today, the situation seems to resemble the past, with Russia and China replacing the ‘old’ Soviet threat and the Biden administration keen to play the traditional American role of ‘primus inter pares’. However, the new balance is an unstable one. On the one hand, the US seems no longer interested in acting as the ‘world’s policeman’ or ‘NATO’s shepherd’. On the other hand, European allies have increasingly detached themselves from the US, not only in times of tensions but also during ‘better times’, such as under the Clinton and Obama administrations. From this perspective, it would be naïve to think that a post-2022 NATO could benefit again from a stable, ‘Cold War-like’ US-Europe relationship. On the contrary, although the current wave of transatlantic enthusiasm will contribute to the allies’ consensus around the new Strategic Concept, the risk is that transforming its guidelines into actual strategies could push their divisions back to the surface.