Democracies under threat: new coalitions and where will NATO fit?

In a new era of strategic competition, with economic might as a major instrument of power, NATO must adapt if it is to remain as the central component of its members’ security. The key to doing that – to “future proofing” the Alliance - is hiding in plain sight.

Wake-up calls

Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014 was a wake-up call to the world’s democracies, which removed any lingering doubts about President Putin’s willingness to defy international laws and norms.  Indeed, President Putin has declared that liberalism is obsolete, and Russia’s efforts to undermine liberal democracy are well known and documented.

China’s behaviour during the Covid-19 pandemic has provided a similar wake-up call.  Before that, China had seemed more focused on economic pragmatism than political ideology, and most nations broadly welcomed China’s re-investment of the proceeds of its huge exports, even when that allowed China to buy access to key strategic industries and infrastructure.

The pandemic, however, revealed critical dependencies upon China for an extraordinary range of manufactured goods.  And at the same time, China became more assertive in flexing its economic and (un)diplomatic muscles in pursuit of its strategic and political goals.

This has been especially evident in its own neighbourhood, where China has become far more assertive over its many territorial disputes.

But coping with the security challenges posed by China will be no mean feat

Competition and interdependence

In the first place, its already huge economic muscles are still growing.  China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy in 2010 and is set to become the world’s largest economy before the end of the decade.

China is also well integrated into the world economy.  Indeed, it is sometimes described as “the world’s factory”, exporting a vast array of manufactured goods.  At the same time, it is an enormous market for certain manufactured goods and equipment, as well as primary products, such as raw materials, fossil fuels, and agricultural produce.

This interdependence makes relations between China and the liberal democracies a difficult balancing act, made all the more complicated by interests which conflict in some areas but converge in others, such as climate change, preserving biodiversity, countering international terrorism, threats to global health, and economic stability. 

New “Coalitions of Democracies”?

So, what could and should be done about China and its autocratic fellow travellers, and – just as importantly – who should be doing it?

There is no shortage of candidates for groupings of liberal democracies which could work together in some form of “coalition of democracies”.

UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has proposed the “D-10” – the G-7 democracies plus Australia, India and South Korea – as a possible framework for (among other things) developing alternative sources for crucial manufactured goods, discussing strategic economic matters, strengthening resilience against future pandemics, and championing shared values.

US President Joe Biden has called for a Summit for Democracy “to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World”.  This will “bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values”.

Strategic Vulnerability isn’t just about defence…

On 24 February 2021, US President Joe Biden signed an “Executive Order on America’s Supply Chains”.

This order, while not referring to China, directs a swathe of government departments – Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, and Health and Human Services – to examine the risks to supply chains for critical and essential goods.  Urgent assessments are to be conducted for pharmaceuticals, minerals such as rare earths (where China is the world’s dominant supplier), semiconductors, and large-capacity batteries.  Other areas to be reviewed within a year include information and communications technology, the defence industrial base, the energy sector, agriculture, and food.

As other, like-minded nations look at their own supply chain vulnerabilities, it makes sense to compare notes, ideas and possible solutions.  But where should that be done?

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“the Quad”) – Australia India, Japan, and the United States – might also play a role as it strives for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.

There are also efforts to expand the role – and possibly the membership – of the intelligence-sharing “Five Eyes” alliance – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States – although not all its members seem willing to see it take up a more active political role.

And there are proposals such as those from the prestigious US Atlantic Council and the Alliance for Democracies, a foundation led by former NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.  The Atlantic Council, for instance, has produced a quite detailed proposal for a “Transatlantic Coordination Council on China” which would include the members nations of NATO and the European Union.

And what about NATO’s own thinking?

NATO and a New Strategic Landscape

At their London Summit in 2019, NATO’s leaders  recognized that China’s influence and international policies ought to be addressed by the Alliance, and the recent report by a NATO expert Reflection Group underlined China’s growing strategic influence and agenda.  Indeed, the Reflection Group stated that NATO “must devote much more time, political resources, and action to the security challenges posed by China – based on an assessment of its national capabilities, economic heft, and the stated ideological goals of its leaders”.  NATO should therefore “consider establishing a consultative body to discuss all aspects of Allies’ security interests vis-à-vis China”, and the Reflection Group also proposed several steps that NATO should include in a “political strategy for approaching a world in which China will be of growing importance through to 2030”.

Among those steps are more information sharing, building resilience to cyber attacks and disinformation, assessing the development of China’s technology capabilities, and identifying (with the EU) the vulnerability of key supply chains.

Broadening NATO’s Agenda

All this sounds very sensible – because it is – but it is far bolder than it might appear, because it very carefully and diplomatically suggests that NATO should be able to discuss certain economically-related matters which have hitherto been off limits.

However, for NATO to remain as the cornerstone of its members’ security, it surely must be allowed to consider the key security challenges they face.  And as the Reflection Group noted, “China has an increasingly global strategic agenda, support by its economic and military heft.”

And it is that economic “heft” which poses the main strategic challenge to NATO’s members.  Yet, although NATO’s members themselves also wield considerable “economic heft”, NATO’s deliberations stay clear of how they wield it, beyond the rather narrow area of defence budgeting and spending.

Consultation Beyond Defence and Foreign Affairs….

“Grey zone” competition takes many forms below the threshold of conflict, and it demands a “whole-of-government” response, a case made very strongly in the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy.

NATO’s scope is defined by the Washington Treaty, and it simply cannot do “whole-of-government”.  Escorting World Food Programme aid deliveries through dangerous waters around Somalia is one thing, but no-one expects NATO to coordinate its members’ agricultural policies.

But it is increasingly recognized that political consultation and discussion within NATO should be broader than it has been in the past.

National security advisers met for the first time in 2019, and the NATO Reflection Group suggested that the frequency of ministerial meetings should be increased, and the format expanded.  “On a case-by-case basis, when circumstances require, the format could include other Ministers.”.  One example cited was the inclusion of Interior Ministers on discussion related to terrorism.

 There are also other precedents, although not recent ones.

The Meeting of the North Atlantic Council in September 1951 included Foreign, Defence, and Finance Ministers, as did a similar meeting in February 1969.

If NATO is to consider the resilience and diversification of crucial supply chains, for instance, the reappearance of Ministers of Finance might be overdue.

That goes against long-standing orthodoxy, but – judging from the Treaty – NATO’s founders wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.

NATO and China: Asymmetric Competition

In other words, strategic competition between NATO and China is highly asymmetric.  While NATO has impressive political, diplomatic, and analytical capabilities, its central mandate is in the domain of defence, which is of limited utility in neutralizing the main, economic components of China’s strategic challenge to NATO’s members.  Tanks, aircraft, and ships are not an appropriate response to China’s enormous economic leverage; they cannot counter punitive trade barriers nor financial inducements being used to press a political or strategic agenda.  Nor can they help to diversify sources for essential goods or thwart systematic efforts to acquire and control strategic technologies and infrastructure.

“All” means “All”

But how can NATO discuss “all aspects of Allies’ security interests” – which implicitly includes the economic dimension – without violating the NATO “theology” that economic concerns – outside defence economics – are just not NATO’s business?

As with any theological debate, it helps to look back at the sacred texts, in this case the Washington Treaty.

“They [the Parties] will seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them”.

That isn’t a sentence in the founding document of the “D-10” or some other “coalition of democracies”.  It’s in Article 2 of the NATO Treaty.

Back to Basics

NATO did just that after the Cold War, and the result was renewed emphasis on the often-mentioned first sentence of Article 2, which underlines that NATO is founded upon common principles – democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law – which are spelt out in the Treaty’s preamble.

Article 2 has a second sentence, however, which is mentioned far less: “They [the Parties] will seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them.”

In fact, the Treaty itself does not prevent or even restrict discussion of economic matters that are strategically relevant to NATO.  Indeed, that sentence from Article 2 would not look out of place in a founding document for the D-10.

That does not mean that NATO should itself seek to become the “coalition of democracies”; some of its own members would baulk at that idea, let alone some of the potential non-NATO nations in a broader “club”.


The Washington Treaty – Article 2

“The Parties will contribute toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, by bringing about a better understanding of the principles upon which these institutions are founded, and by promoting conditions of stability and well-being. They will seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them.”

NATO’s Essential Perspective

But, NATO’s members should have the capacity – as they certainly do have the right – to consider collectively the full spectrum of security challenges that they face, and the ability to ensure that NATO has a voice in whatever bodies or coalitions are created or adapted to address the challenges to the liberal democracies. 

Joining the dots with other organizations…​

There are good precedents for the NATO’s Reflection Group call for NATO to hold “intra-Alliance consultations ahead of meetings of other international organisations”.  Included in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s recommendation for the 2010 Strategic Concept was that “members of the Alliance should strive to co‑ordinate their positions on relevant issues in other international organizations in which they participate.”

And back in 1956, a previous NATO reflection group – The Committee of Three – noted that although NATO members should not form a “bloc” in other bodies, there should be “consultation in NATO when economic issues of special political or strategic importance to NATO arise in other organisations”.

Perhaps the time for this idea has come. At the very least, it would provide an objective for the broader political consultation within the NATO that is being called for.

So, how would NATO interact with those bodies?

The Reflection Group proposed a mechanism: “NATO should institute a practice of intra-Alliance consultations ahead of meetings of other international organisations. The Group notes the value that Allies derive from speaking with one voice on global affairs. It calls for consultations in the areas described in the North Atlantic Treaty before or informally on the margins of meetings of e.g., the United Nations, G-20, and other fora.”

Add to that list any new “coalitions of democracies”, and NATO could come to the fore as the crucible of ideas and the centre for situational awareness regarding the strategic competition between autocracies and liberal democracies.

NATO would bring to bear a crucial strategic and security “mind set” which no other organization can match.

NATO 2030 and NATO 1949

A profound, seismic shift is taking place in the strategic landscape, with democracies and autocracies at odds with each other in all domains short of armed conflict.  For evidence of that shift, look no further than the Reflection Group’s observation that NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept made no mention of China.  In contrast, China gets 82 mentions in the NATO Reflection Group’s report; Russia gets 96.

To remain as the central foundation of its members’ security in the coming decades, NATO must be able to discuss the actual strategic challenges that its members face, and have the means to engage partners directly and indirectly to help develop a shared vision and a common approach.  That will mean reconsidering some long-established traditions and make some creative innovations. But NATO has done it before, and it can do it again.

It’s just a matter of taking advantage of the comprehensiveness and flexibility which NATO’s founders wisely built into the Washington Treaty.

The key to NATO 2030 is there, hiding in plain sight.

ATA UK 10 May 2021