Alexander Moens: What Challenges do China and Russia Pose to NATO Cohesion?

An Interview with Alexander Moens

What Challenges do China and Russia Pose to NATO Cohesion?

In your opinion, what were the key lessons from NATO’s experience in Afghanistan? How might these lessons be applied within the framework of the 2022 strategic concept?

I think the key lesson was that democracy building, as part of crisis management operations, is a very challenging task that NATO would unlikely take on as it did in Afghanistan, or even Libya. This is because a crisis management operation, if it includes democracy-building, should be within the EU-NATO geography. NATO has seen considerable success in the Balkans, as well as Eastern Europe, with the enlargement of both NATO and the European Union.

While it is not possible for NATO to renounce democracy-building as a goal, given NATO’s preamble, NATO is always hoping to establish rule of law, individual liberty, and democracy. We can expect future crisis management operations to be more limited in scope—both geographically and in objective/ambition. Other than that, I think the lessons learned at the operational level, for example, about inter-allied peacekeeping, counter-insurgency operations (COIN), logistics, and so on, will have a real impact on how NATO does business. In that sense, Afghanistan will not be seen as a negative per se—rather it is at the strategic level, the ambition of democracy-building while you do crisis management

At the Riga ministerial, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that “e are an Alliance of North America and Europe, but this Alliance, this region, is faced with global threats and challenges and the rise of China is one of them,” during a keynote presentation entitled ‘NATO’s outlook towards 2030 and beyond.’ Although diplomatically ambiguous, it appears that there is, at least to some extent, an implicit recognition that the rise of China represents a potential threat to the rules-based international order. At the same time, the Secretary General very clearly stated during the Q&A period that NATO does not consider China to be an adversary. Moreover, a clear distinction was made between NATO taking a global approach to the Asia Pacific through greater cooperation with partners in the region, from that of a global alliance. What might we expect NATO’s approach to the Asia Pacific to look like in the near future? How can NATO manage the national interests of member states in a manner that enables consensus?

There is no consensus in NATO to call China a threat, therefore the Secretary General would never use that word explicitly. That gives you a good introduction to the sensitivity of the topic. We know that China was never mentioned in a NATO communique until London 2019. It was mentioned very vaguely and indirectly. The rise of China is mentioned as a growing challenge to the rules-based international order, which of course, is not the same as collective defence, nor the same as the territorial integrity of NATO members. NATO’s approach to China and the Asia Pacific is likely to be very incremental, and deliberately so.

For example, the beginning of NATO’s reach into the Asia Pacific, and the Indo-Pacific, was entirely through the formula of cooperative security. That is the third of the three core concepts of the Alliance’s Strategic Concept of 2010. Cooperative security means some diplomatic interaction, some possible cooperation on very low-key, soft security matters, and some discussion of norms and principles—not much more. Increasingly, with the very adamant, very competitive, very adversarial actions on the part of China, several of NATO’s global partners, specifically Japan, Australia, and to an extent, South Korea, are trying to get NATO to move out of its narrow, cooperative security box vis-à-vis China, and begin thinking about a more global approach. That could include more direct cooperation beyond cooperative security with key Asian partners. However, there is no consensus within NATO, and this is a very critical thing. One could see after the AUKUS arrangement was made public, and considering France’s strong registration of protest, that France would likely not make NATO more helpful in the Asia Pacific. It goes back to a very old theme of France’s policy in NATO, that NATO does not simply become a passive follower of U.S foreign policy and that France demands, and expects from the U.S, more consultation and transparency about the defence of the allies, and all NATO matters.

The Secretary General has talked about the reach of China coming into Europe and has talked about the challenge of China coming closer to the national interests of Europe’s NATO members. I see a degree of leadership on the Secretary General’s side in trying to move the Alliance further towards identifying the considerable risks of China’s behavior to NATO. But, by virtue of its need to move by consensus, the alliance as a whole is going to move incrementally, and very slowly at that. It is a gigantic undertaking to consider China an adversary. The consequences of such an approach for Europe, as we consider the same thing in Canada, are huge because the economic, political, and military future of China is rapidly moving towards world power status—possibly world hegemon.

To identify your relationship with such a power as adversarial is not a decision to be taken lightly. At the same time, if you look at the threat that China increasingly poses to NATO’s global partners, NATO is going to find itself in a bit of a dilemma, and the need that these global partners have is not for mere cooperative security, but rather, substantial security cooperation. Therefore, the demands on NATO will continue to increase. A wise Secretary General will try to move NATO more into dealing with those real risks, but the alliance will move very incrementally. Of course, the United States and Britain to some extent, already anticipated and saw this kind of reluctance and therefore, moved towards AUKUS. There is some risk that the alliance may face internal cohesion threats if the United States were to push too fast. However, if France, perhaps with the support of Germany, were to hold the Alliance back too long, there would also be some cohesion challenges.

In summary, what NATO will do vis-à-vis China is its most important question, medium, and long-term. Arguably, its most important question in the short to medium run is how to deal with Russia, particularly Russia-Ukraine, Russia-Baltics, and Russia-South. In the medium-long term, the grand question is: will NATO play a role in the international constellation of powers, vis-à-vis China, or not? NATO wants to deal with this question as slowly as possible, but circumstances may not allow that.

In a recent Atlantic Council publication, the Ukrainian defense minister argued that “Europe’s future will be decided in Ukraine, and that Western leaders must demonstrate the resolve to resist Russian pressure while strengthening Ukraine.” He also dismisses the notion that the West should do everything it can to avoid provoking Russia. What is NATO’s strategy for balancing diplomacy and deterrence with respect to the current situation in Ukraine?

Consider the build-up of Russian military, deployable and usable forces on the eastern flank of Ukraine, pretty much all the way from the northern area all the way down to the Black Sea. If one considers, at the same time, the record of Vladimir Putin’s actions since 2008, when Russia militarily intervened in Georgia—one would have to realize that the United States and NATO leaders face a real conundrum. On the one hand, Russia is becoming genuinely capable of a rapid military incursion, that would be nearly impossible to stop, and would be nearly impossible to reverse. On the other hand, there might be much reason for Putin to use a type of coercive diplomacy, rather than engaging in a kinetic conflict with Ukraine. It is not easy as a decision-maker to decide which course of action Putin is taking.

From the perspective of the Ukrainian defense minister, the risk of invasion is far greater than the risk of coercive diplomacy. However, on the U.S-NATO side, any miscalculation can have very serious consequences. The United States and NATO have already indicated that they do not plan military activities, should Ukraine be invaded. Instead, they would apply, in President Biden’s words, ‘the gravest economic sanctions that Russia has so far, not ever experienced.’ If you look at the history of warfare, and the history of political relations and competition, no number of economic threats would ever address a military threat that is undertaken for the vital national interest of Russia. If Putin, the Russian military-political elite, and the Russian public at large feel that this is the window of time to stop the West once and for all from ever allowing Ukraine to go in the direction of the European Union and NATO, then no economic actions will persuade them.

The gravity of that threat is very real. However, the gravity of the threat is not the same as the certainty of the action. The stakes are also greater than Ukraine, although Ukraine itself is great enough. So, presumably, a diplomatic session that could defuse the real highest level of risk that Putin may contemplate—to invade—could be worth a lot. After all, if the West was able to just park the whole thing for ten years, that could be beneficial, because by that time, President Putin may no longer be playing this particular game—if in power at all—and it may give us time. I’m very cautious about this because I think that Russia is trying to signal that Ukraine represents a vital national interest, and statements like the defence of Russia without Ukraine is not really possible, and the claims about the gradual build-up by Ukraine is essentially making the Russian window of opportunity for invasion smaller and smaller.

It’s a little bit like the reverse of Taiwan, where China is building while the window of real defence for Taiwan is closing fast. Regardless of what NATO decides, if this goes wrong, then I think we will experience a kind of crisis in Europe and of NATO, on all levels, the likes of which we have not seen in a long time. This is very worrisome because, in such a confrontation, the risk of miscalculation by the Great Powers is huge.

Is the Ukraine-Russia crisis affecting NATO cohesion presently?

There is no secret at all, that several Central European and Western European countries realize that they must coexist with Russia. Russia will not cease to be a great power, if only by virtue of its nuclear and cyber capabilities. The emphasis for them is very much on coexistence, as peaceful as possible. However, this is now no longer the dominant or only theme in Western Europe and Central Europe, because there is a ream of Eastern European states that do not want NATO to signal any weakness to Russia and want the West to be robust in its defence.

Another immediate uncertainty is the nature of the new German government, which has sent a signal of continuity with the Anglo-American government, and at the same time is representative of a much less robust military outlook than the CDU/CSU. You have to expect that this German government is eventually going to find more reason to defuse tension with Russia and that this German government will look for cooperation with France to do so.

The sad thing is, all of this could easily come at the loss of Ukraine, in the sense that the Ukrainian people could be put back into a type of buffer zone, which increasingly they have indicated they want to move away from. Remember, in 2014, or earlier 2012, it was the European Union Association agreements that the people in Ukraine, with a great majority, wanted to achieve. It was not NATO membership, per se. For fifteen years, Ukrainians have said we would want to belong to the West, more than be a state kept in the Russian sphere with Russian expectations. That would be a real tragedy if that was lost to some grand scheme of diplomacy, that could keep Germany and France happy for the next year. That would also risk this idea of Eastern European states inside NATO tightening more with the U.S-British approach, and others tightening more with an EU-France-Germany approach. There is always a current underlying all NATO issues between Europeanism and Atlanticism, of staying united in one Atlantic Alliance or having it specialize in some things Atlantic and other things European.

Threats to NATO cohesion are not new, but it’s clear that how it deals with China and whether it’s able to keep the integrity of Ukraine without armed force is a key long-term challenge. How do you keep the integrity of Ukraine? How do you park the Russian threat?

Final Thoughts…

I hope that Canadians, especially Canadian political leaders, increasingly realize that, like some European partners, our policy vis-à-vis, both Russia and China, is rather uncertain, vague and, unfinished. Although we are not a major player in NATO, like the United States, we are hesitating at the political level about what our position is vis-à-vis China in the long run, and Russia in the short run. This is taking place at great tension with Canadian public opinion because as we know, we have more than one million Canadians of Ukrainian heritage. We have two hundred plus Canadian soldiers in Unified Protector in Ukraine, which have been very helpful. It is not that Canada has been absent in Ukraine, but Canada’s stake in Ukraine is so high that two hundred soldiers may not quite do it. We need to think about how we can be more influential. We need clear strategic direction on what our Canadian security and defence policy in the Indo-Pacific and the Asia Pacific is. I think the military is waiting for that kind of direction.






Alexander Moens


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