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NATO Targets the ‘3 C’s’: China, Cyberattacks and Climate Change

NATO Targets the ‘3 C’s’: China, Cyberattacks and Climate Change

Friday, 18 June, 2021 - 03:00

It may seem surprising that the most important summit I attended during my time at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was not in Europe but in Chicago, hosted by President Barack Obama in May 2012.

Downtown was cordoned off, the sirens of motorcades dominated the Windy City, and around the table were the leaders of the (then) 28 nations of the alliance. My job as supreme allied military commander was to brief leaders on NATO’s global operations.

Back then, some issues were roughly the same as we saw at this week’s summit in Brussels: unease about a resurgent Russia, which had invaded Georgia a couple of years earlier; Afghanistan, where 150,000 troops were deployed in a counterterrorism and training mission; unrest in the Balkans, where the alliance maintained 15,000 soldiers keeping the peace; and piracy off the coast of East Africa.

I walked the leaders through the options to deal with each of challenges, and received their guidance. In addition to Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was particularly forceful.

Yet far more has changed than stayed the same in the intervening decade, including every leader save Merkel. Three new key issues have emerged that are likely to set the course for NATO as the 21st century unfolds. What does the Brussels summit — Joe Biden’s first as president — tell us about the alliance?

The atmospherics were almost joyful. Biden did his signature jog up to the platform before doing an elbow bump with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. There was lots of warm engagement in the public settings and by all reports a cordial, collegial tone behind closed doors — a far cry from the denigration the alliance suffered at the hands of then President Donald Trump.

Beyond the “America Is Back” message Biden projected successfully (and it was warmly welcomed), three topics dominated the agenda: China, climate change and cyberattacks.

During the 2012 summit, China simply wasn’t on the radar. Most foreign policy observers viewed NATO’s role as confined to the traditional geographic zone of the North Atlantic with occasional “out of area” operations such as Afghanistan and counterpiracy, both considered direct threats to the alliance.

In this summit, China’s role in the world loomed large. The communique issued after the meeting bluntly stated that “China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address … We will engage China with a view to defending the security interests of the alliance.”

This is largely at the behest of the US, which is looking for a strong transatlantic partnership to balance Beijing. Europe is waking up to the dangers of China’s sweeping claims of territory in the vast South China Sea; of efforts to dominate neighbors, including Taiwan; aggressive behavior toward India (a potentially vital Western partner in the Indo-Pacific); unfair trade and tariff practices; intellectual property theft; support of North Korea; and offensive cyber-operations.

The growing diplomatic condominium between China and Russia — coordinating their militaries and international policies from the North Pacific to Middle East to the eastern Mediterranean — is also a concern.

Over the coming months, the US will press on NATO allies to “put their ships where their mouth is,” i.e., deploy maritime forces to the Pacific for operations alongside US carrier strike groups in the South China Sea. The British are already sending a formidable force centered on their brand-new 65,000-ton carrier, the Queen Elizabeth. The French and Germans have also shown commitment, and there is serious discussion of a NATO standing maritime task force in the Pacific (one already exists for the Mediterranean).

Cybersecurity was likewise a central topic. Most notably, after dithering on the definition of an “attack” for much of the past decade, NATO has now formally said that a cyberattack will be considered under Article V of the treaty, meaning it could trigger a response from all 30 nations in the alliance. Biden was at pains to underscore how strongly the US feels about the Article V commitment — another contrast with the Trump administration — calling it a “sacred obligation” that now extends into cyberspace.

Third, an issue that simply wasn’t part of the Chicago conversation was climate. NATO will elevate the security dimension of rising temperatures on its agenda and respond both across the alliance (in its many command centers and forward operations) and individually. Each nation will score its emissions, seek to reduce its military’s carbon footprint, and coordinate policy on the environment.

Given that the nations collectively spend more than $1 trillion on their defense establishments; operate 28,000 military aircraft and 800 capital warships; and have seven million troops (active and reserve) under command, this will be significant.

The summit also hit some lingering issues as well, with plenty of discussion about Russian aggression, particularly against NATO non-member partners Ukraine and Georgia; Afghanistan, where the withdrawal from that 20-year mission will require more financial and diplomatic support; and effective missile defenses on both sides of the Atlantic.

But the real thrust of the 2021 summit could be summarized as the three C’s: China, cybersecurity and climate. The times are changing, and NATO is changing with them.


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