By William Tucker
Maintaining an alliance comprised of multiple nations is something akin to herding cats. Each member state has its own interests, and at times, must belay those interests at the behest of other alliance members to serve the greater mission. Not every nation is willing or able to table the pursuit of certain interests and such conflicts can lead to friction within the alliance.
In some instances, alliances are used to constrain the activities of a member state so it cannot pursue an independent agenda lest the other members of the alliance engage in coercion to ensure strategic cohesiveness.
The first General Secretary of NATO, British General Hastings Ismay, famously stated that the purpose of the new alliance was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” That statement came at the formation of the NATO alliance in the 1940s. By the 1990s the Russians had been kept out, the Americans were still in, but Germany was unified and hardly “kept down.”
Though NATO’s stated mission was accomplished, the alliance has continued. But its existence has proved problematic. As the threat from what was the Soviet Union diminished, despite the Kremlin’s aggressive posturing, European members of NATO began cutting back their military, and with it their financial contributions to the alliance.
The United States, however, largely maintained its military forces and budget to protect Europe as it has since the 1940s. This support has continued despite the fact that the combined gross domestic product (GDP) of the European Union rivaling that of the U.S. During the Obama and Trump administrations, Washington pushed its European allies for greater contributions to their overall security. After all, the Europeans could now afford to provide for their own defense.
The Trump administration was overtly blunt about European military spending shortfalls and took measures to punish the alliance members economically until a deal could be reached using Trump’s tactic of coercion.
On his first trip to Europe as chief executive, President Biden took a different approach, offering economic cooperation in exchange for following the U.S. drive to contain China.
Biden’s approach is not unprecedented, but the economic issues between the EU and the U.S. will need addressing at some point. For now, Biden got what he wanted from the Europeans, yet the next challenge for confronting China goes through Moscow.
While he was in Europe, Biden met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for a brief summit, though little came of their meeting beyond articulating some red lines and acknowledging national interests both where they conflict and where they are complementary.
Earlier in the year, the Biden administration removed sanctions targeting Russia and Germany over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Perhaps that was an olive branch for future negotiations despite the economic harm the removal of sanctions does to the U.S. and the threats the pipeline poses to Eastern Europe. Whether this concession will help is speculative, but again, such moves are normal when pursuing greater challenges.
NATO and Russia are both unlikely to assist the U.S. in any meaningful way in confronting China in the military realm. But getting Europe to reconsider its economic ties with China goes a long way toward mitigating potential Chinese economic growth that is fueling its military buildup. That would also remove NATO and the EU as potential roadblocks to U.S. strategy in the Pacific.
Russia is still a wildcard. Moscow will constantly look to throw a monkey wrench into the works if Putin feels he can gain further concessions from Washington. Ultimately, Biden wants a free hand while Washington shores up its allies in the Pacific and formalizes a strategy to confront China.
There are a lot of moving parts, but it appears that there is also some strategic thought in play, though there is no guarantee how it all will play out.