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NATO’s new Strategic Concept definitively announced a new era of great-power rivalry

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Jürgen Wagner,

The NATO Summit took place in Madrid, Spain in June 2022. Many people from all over Spain and Europe travelled to participate in anti-NATO demonstrations. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

It is fair to say that with the adoption of its new Strategic Concept at the Madrid Summit in late June 2022, NATO definitively proclaimed the dawning of a new, in the words of Ursula von der Leyen, “era of rivalry between major powers”. While the previous Concept from 2010 still presented Russia in a predominantly positive light and made no mention of China at all, a noticeable shift has taken place over the past few years. The recently adopted Strategic Concept thus represents the preliminary culmination of developments that have been looming on the horizon for quite some time.

Jürgen Wagner directs the Information Centre on Militarisation (IMI) e.V. in Tübingen, Germany. 

Translated by Hunter Bolin and Joel Scott for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

For years, there have been increasingly urgent warnings about the danger of a potential war between the major powers, with NATO on one side and Russia and/or China on the other. However, the new NATO Concept has made it abundantly clear to anyone reads the document that these concerns are no longer mere hand-wringing. What is particularly worrying is that the aforementioned rivalry between the major powers is no longer confined by long-standing regional and functional boundaries, and, at least for the time being, there are no viable exit strategies from this increasingly dangerous crisis.

Rekindling the Great-Power Rivalry

The preliminary work on the new Strategic Concept began in November 2019, when considerable tensions began to emerge between then-US President Donald Trump and the European allies, especially with France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who had declared NATO “braindead”. As a result, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appointed a group of ten experts co-chaired by former German Defence Minister Thomas de Maizière to develop parameters for a revitalization of the alliance and a new Strategic Concept.

One of the most important points of the “NATO 2030” report, which this group passed by consensus in November 2020, was that the alliance must make serious changes to its position vis-à-vis Russia and now also China: “NATO must update the 2010 Strategic Concept. ... NATO must adapt to the demands of a more challenging strategic environment shaped by the return of systemic rivalries, a relentlessly aggressive Russia, the rise of China, and the growing importance of new technologies.” In keeping with this, the communiqué from last year’s NATO Summit in June 2021 toughened its stance towards Russia and China, and the alliance’s most key strategic document to date now echoes this sentiment.

One of the mainstays of any such strategy document has always been to describe political-economic power struggles as conflicts between forces of “good” and “evil”. NATO’s new Concept is no exception: “Authoritarian actors challenge our interests, our values and our democratic way of life. ... These actors are also at the forefront of efforts to deliberately undermine multilateral norms and institutions and promote authoritarian models of governance” (paragraph 7). After launching a war of aggression against Ukraine, it should come as no surprise that the main adversary identified in the very next paragraph of the Strategic Concept is none other than Russia: “The Russian Federation is the greatest and most immediate threat to the security of allied countries and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region” (paragraph 8). As already indicated, the new Strategic Concept names China as a serious threat to the alliance for the first time. The country is described as a “challenge”, which seeks to “undermine the rules-based international order” (paragraph 13).

Dividing Up the World

What is most alarming is the now complete dissolution of geographical and functional boundaries underlying this new rivalry between the major powers, which is a battle NATO perceives as being fought out at every conceivable level.

In geographical terms, for example, the “Western Balkans and the Black Sea region” are mentioned as being of “strategic importance” and in need of support “against malicious interference and coercion by third parties” (paragraph 45). The Concept also lists the “Middle East” as well as “North Africa” and the “Sahel region” as further spheres of “strategic interest to the alliance”. It warns that conflicts in these regions could enable the declared adversaries Russia and China to gain influence: “NATO’s southern neighbourhood, particularly the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel region face political challenges related to security, demographics, economics and politics, all of which are interdependent. These are exacerbated by the effects of climate change, weak institutions, health emergencies and food insecurity. This situation provides fertile ground for the proliferation of groups of armed non-state actors, including terrorist organizations. This allows strategic competitors to more easily interfere in a destabilizing and coercive manner” (paragraph 11).

The first-ever mention of another region in a NATO Strategic Concept could only be directed at one country: “The Indo-Pacific region is important to NATO because developments in this region can have direct implications for Euro-Atlantic security. We will strengthen dialogue and cooperation with new and existing partners in the Indo-Pacific region to address inter-regional challenges and pursue common security interests” (paragraph 45).

Also mentioned are the so-called “hybrid threats” in the “political, economic, energy, and informational spheres”, all of which would typically be considered to exist below the threshold of classical warfare. From NATO’s point of view, however, such “hybrid operations” could be just as “serious as an armed attack” and lead “to the North Atlantic Council invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty” (paragraph 27). It was also necessary to ensure “access to outer space” (paragraph 16) and the ability to “operate effectively in cyberspace” (paragraph 24).

Preparing for War

For years, NATO’s planning was dominated by questions of how to win military engagements against small or, at most, medium-sized adversaries. As the alliance’s most important document now confirms, this is no longer the case: “We will individually and collectively provide the full range of forces, capabilities, plans, resources, means, and infrastructure needed for deterrence and defence, including for high-intensity inter-dimensional warfare against evenly-matched opponents armed with nuclear weapons” (paragraph 22).

Apart from the sober but nonetheless extremely worrying finding that NATO is now preparing for wars with major powers, the most “interesting” element here is the use of the plural, which suggests that this passage is not just directed at Russia, but at China as well. At the same time, the Concept emphasizes the goal of gaining military superiority over these opponents by investing in new technologies: “Emerging and disruptive technologies carry both opportunities and risks. They are changing the nature of conflict, gaining greater strategic importance and themselves becoming decisive theatres of global competition. Technological supremacy increasingly determines success on the battlefield” (paragraph 17).

Despite its own limited resources, the fact that the budget for the NATO Security Investment Programme (NSIP), about 16.3 percent of which is made up of German contributions, was significantly increased in the course of the NATO summit, is particularly important in this context, as Wirtschaftswoche writes: “Figures indicate that the civil and military budgets are to be increased by 10 percent each year from 2023 onwards, and as much as 25 percent for the NSIP security and investment programme. According to NATO calculations, almost 45 billion euro would then be allocated for the period from 2023 to 2030. Without the increase, this figure would have remained as low as 20 billion.”

However, the NATO Concept reminds us that ensuring technological superiority primarily depends on the efforts of individual states and requires considerable investment on their part. Just in time for the start of the summit, NATO published new figures on the military spending of its member states, which had risen significantly from 895 billion US dollars in 2015 to 1.19 trillion in 2022. Nevertheless, spending needs to be increased even further to “ensure that our nations fully meet their commitments under the Defence Investment Pledge, so that the full range of means required can be delivered” (paragraph 48). By comparison, the most recent edition of The Military Balance shows military spending of 207 billion dollars in 2021 for China and 62 billion for Russia.

China vs. the World?

The Concept also clearly emphasizes that although nuclear disarmament would be desirable, it is out of the question for the foreseeable future. After all, the “strategic nuclear forces of the alliance” — above all those belonging to the US, but to some extent also those of the UK and France — are “the supreme guarantor of the security of the alliance” (paragraph 29). And for this reason, the Concept unequivocally upholds nuclear sharing. Under the current arrangement, US nuclear weapons are stored in five European NATO countries, including Germany, and could be flown to their targets by local pilots in the event of an emergency.

In the meantime, nuclear sharing has become quite controversial in Germany, even if critics have largely fallen silent in recent years, especially since the Russian attack on Ukraine. Nonetheless, the Concept reiterates once more, just to make it clear: “Of central importance to NATO’s nuclear deterrence mission is that individual nations continue to contribute aircrafts with dual operational readiness” (paragraph 29). Furthermore, it complains that the “Russian Federation is modernizing its nuclear forces” (paragraph 8) while deliberately overlooking the fact that the US is currently “modernizing” the nuclear weapons stored in Europe to B61-12 bombs, which will make them more accurate and more powerful — in other words, more dangerous.

NATO’s bias on this matter is by no means accidental: “The People’s Republic of China is rapidly expanding its nuclear weapons stockpile and developing ever more advanced delivery systems without increasing transparency or making a good faith commitment to arms control and risk reduction” (paragraph 18). Here, again, there is of course no mention of the fact that the US is currently carrying out a plan to “modernize” its domestic nuclear arsenal just as it has done with its tactical weapons stored in Europe — at a cost of over 630 billion US dollars in the coming years. There is a case to be made for the position that the expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal is a reaction to these measures by the US government, since otherwise Beijing’s second-strike capability would seem increasingly questionable.

Furthermore, NATO will ensure that the “systemic challenges” posed by China are confronted. What exactly is meant by this, however, remains rather vague. The Concept becomes somewhat more concrete in this regard only in one place: “we will stand up for our common values and the rules-based international order, including the freedom of navigation” (Paragraph 14). This passage refers to the highly explosive territorial disputes, especially those in the South China Sea, where China has laid claim to a number of islands and thus, in effect, to the rights of passage in the region as well. The West justifies its rejection of these territorial claims by referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and enforces its interpretation of the law by making increasingly frequent manoeuvres which are technically protected by the Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) principle.

These FONOPs are highly risky, since there is a considerable chance that they could lead to confrontations and spirals of escalation. Some time ago, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs warned: “Such operations, however, always carry the risk of a counter-reaction and can be the cause of incidents at sea and in the air. ... The ‘freedom of navigation’ missions regularly carried out by American ships for decades have, especially in recent years, come to function as outward displays of American power on China’s doorstep in the context of emerging rivalries between major powers in the Indo-Pacific.”

From the Chinese perspective, the military manoeuvres undertaken by Western states are considerably overstretching what can be interpreted under the Freedom of Navigation principle. Therefore, such exercises constitute playing with fire, since China reacts with measures that further increase the risk of confrontation, as US political scientist Michael Klare warns: “The Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), usually responds to such provocative manoeuvres by the US Navy defiantly, by sending its own ships and aircrafts. ... Frequently, the Chinese side sends one or more of its own ships to escort the American vessel — to make matters as civil as possible — out of the area. These encounters have sometimes proved extremely dangerous, especially when the ships got close enough to each other that there was a risk of collision.”

It is unclear whether future FONOPs will be conducted not only by various individual states but also under the official umbrella of NATO. In any case, it is concerning that the following passage in the Strategic Concept may very well suggest this: “Maritime security is crucial to our peace and prosperity. We will develop our capacities and situational awareness to provide deterrence and defence against all threats in the maritime domain, to preserve freedom of navigation, to secure maritime trade routes, and to protect our main communication routes” (paragraph 23).

In the preface of the Strategic Concept, NATO already makes clear that it sees itself as a “bulwark of the rules-based international order”, which it intends to defend tooth and nail. However, there is something distinctly unconvincing about Western states — and now possibly NATO as a whole — claiming that their manoeuvres will enforce the Convention on the Law of the Sea and thus the rules-based order. After all, the main actor, the US, has not even ratified the Convention because it goes against US interests in other parts of the world.

Meanwhile, the second-most-active Western state in this regard, the United Kingdom, is blatantly violating the widely invoked rules-based order — with the support of the US and Germany, among others — by refusing to implement the ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that requires it to return the Chagos Islands — where the Diego Garcia military base is located, which is central to the projection of Western power in the Indo-Pacific — to Mauritius.

A Bulwark against Multipolarity

Way back under Barack Obama’s presidency, there were discussions on transforming NATO into a kind of “alliance of democracies”. The current Concept also contains passages that point in this direction: “We will intensify our relations with partners who share the values of the alliance and, like the Alliance, have an interest in preserving the rules-based international order” (paragraph 44). Countries such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea are repeatedly mentioned as possible candidates.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that more and more countries do not want to join the “bulwark of the rules-based international order”. This was most recently seen at the G7 meeting in Elmau, which took place shortly before the NATO summit, when Argentina, India, Indonesia, Senegal, and South Africa more or less openly refused to follow the West.

The driving force behind the new rivalry between the major powers is the dramatic power shifts in the international system: while China’s share of global gross domestic product (GDP), adjusted for purchasing power, skyrocketed from 2.27 percent in 1980 to 18.56 percent in 2020, according to Statista, the US share of the GDP pie shrank from 21.41 to 15.98 percent over the same period. The decline was even more pronounced for the European Union, where it plummeted from 26.02 to 14.90 percent.

Against this backdrop, the rising powers — first and foremost China — are demanding more of a say, something the West continues to deny them. It continues to insist on a “rules-based order” in which the West determines what these rules should be and, above all, who can and cannot break them with impunity. However, this simply no longer corresponds to the realities of politics between major powers, and if NATO’s Strategic Concept complains about the “increasingly close strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation” and their “mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order” (paragraph 13), it has itself to blame for a large part of this development.

There are no good actors in this struggle for power and influence — not the West, not NATO, and not Germany, but certainly not Russia and China either. There are, however, entirely justified demands that can be made on the German government to do everything it can to ensure that the conflicts between major powers do not spiral further out of control.

It has completely failed in this regard so far, as has NATO as a whole, and the new Strategic Concept gives little reason to hope that this will change in the foreseeable future. There is a lot in the Strategic Concept about how NATO intends to equip itself for global rivalry between major powers — but unfortunately, how it intends to get out of it remains completely unclear.