NATO faces day of reckoning amid Afghanistan withdrawal, China’s rise

The West’s inglorious exit from Afghanistan has sparked a long-awaited reckoning for NATO and has fueled major questions about the role the alliance is capable of playing in the 21st century — and to what degree it can rely so heavily on U.S. leadership and U.S. military assets.

With NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg making his first visit to Washington this week since the fall of Kabul in late August, alliance watchers see a deep sense of unease across Europe. High-stakes issues rose to the surface in a matter of months and threatened some of NATO‘s cohesiveness and core tenets.

President Biden’s decision to pull all American troops from Afghanistan immediately forced other NATO nations to do the same, confirming that the alliance cannot conduct major military and intelligence missions without Washington in the lead. The chaotic, deadly exit also shook Europe’s faith in America’s steadiness and reliability, potentially chipping away at the foundation of the trans-Atlantic partnership that has stood since the early days of the Cold War.

On the heels of the withdrawal, Australia’s decision to cancel a major submarine contract with France and forge a security partnership with the U.S. and Britain underscored a global shift in security priorities toward the Pacific and China. How a defense pact with “North Atlantic” in its name fits into the Asian power puzzle is an unanswered question.

Mr. Stoltenberg, a Norwegian whose term as secretary-general expires in September 2022, met Monday with Mr. Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and other top administration officials. They discussed the alliance’s path ahead and its role in global economic and military competition with Beijing. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with French officials Tuesday in an effort to mend fences after the submarine contract cancellation.

But specialists say the series of meetings Monday and Tuesday may not be enough to change the perception that the U.S. relationship with NATO is changing rapidly and that Mr. Stoltenberg and other alliance leaders haven’t figured out exactly how to adapt. Mr. Biden, Europeans say, says the right things, but the first 10 months of his administration have been unexpectedly rocky for trans-Atlantic ties.

“You’ve got this unease in Brussels and in NATO capitals that the U.S. is kind of unpredictable,” said Jim Townsend, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration. “We’ve had four years of [former President Donald] Trump, which was a roller coaster. And Biden said, ‘We’re back.’ But some one-off things have happened that have tested theory. Is the U.S. on an arc where they’re really not so interested in Europe? They don’t know on the arc of history where America really stands.

“You say ‘America is back,” but it doesn’t feel that way,” he said.

Mr. Townsend said the Afghanistan withdrawal served as an eye-opener for NATO nations.

“They couldn’t stay there on their own two feet and in some capitals that concerned them,” he said.

U.S. leaders made clear that they expect NATO to revamp its approach. In readouts of conversations with Mr. Stoltenberg, the White House and State Department stressed the importance of the alliance’s Strategic Concept, a landmark document expected to be released next year.

“President Biden reaffirmed his strong support for NATO and the importance of bolstering deterrence and defense against strategic competitors and transnational threats,” the White House said. “President Biden also conveyed our full support for the NATO agenda agreed by leaders in June, including ensuring the alliance is fully equipped and resourced to address the modern threat environment and developing a new Strategic Concept.”

Questions across Europe

But the failure in Afghanistan and the U.S.-U.K.-Australian defense pact have some in Europe, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, dusting off plans for a European Union fighting force that would not need American support or approval to take on missions relating to European security.

In London, some officials have openly argued that it’s time for Britain and other European nations to bolster their own national security prowess to avoid scenarios in which U.S. decisions dictate NATO moves.

In Paris, leaders are trying to gauge the fallout from the lost submarine deal, which sparked a diplomatic standoff between the U.S. and France that Mr. Blinken will try to break this week. More broadly, French leaders say, the situation should serve as a wake-up call. A top adviser to Mr. Macron told Reuters that Mr. Macron will use a speech Tuesday to push the message that Europe can and must play a vital role on its own in confronting China.

“We could turn a blind eye and act as if nothing had happened. We think that would be a mistake for all Europeans,” the Macron adviser said. “There really is an opportunity here. … We don’t want to push Europeans into making a sort of binary choice between partnership with the U.S. or Europe turning inward.”

Perhaps nowhere are the questions more pressing than in Germany. The ambiguous outcome of the country’s recent parliamentary elections surely will impact the direction of NATO and overall European defense spending.

The coalition of German parties that will ultimately take control of the Bundestag is being negotiated, but no one disputes that the longtime reign of center-right Chancellor Angela Merkel, a proponent of NATO and of a robust role for Germany in the alliance, has come to an end in Berlin.

Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party came in second in the Sept. 26 election. Germany’s Social Democratic Party won the biggest share of seats in the Bund and is now seeking to form a ruling coalition with either the country’s Green Party or the pro-business Free Democratic Party.

This matters, analysts say, because neither the Greens nor the Free Democrats are keen to back a more robust NATO led by the United States.

“A CDU-led government would have largely guaranteed the continuation of the old-style U.S.-European relationship, centered around NATO and relying on German participation in collective defense and political arrangements,” said Ulrike Franke, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, where she focuses on German and European defense.

Ms. Franke did, however, assert that the coalition in Germany could end up as “good news” for a new trans-Atlantic alliance focused on the U.S. and Europe “countering China together.”

Ms. Merkel’s CDU coalition was dubious of the confrontational drift of the U.S.-Chinese rivalry, particularly given the importance of the Chinese market for German exporters. Germany was the primary driver of an EU-Chinese investment pact last year that was negotiated despite the clear disapproval of the incoming Biden administration.

Berlin’s attitude could shift significantly if Germans form a coalition without Ms. Merkel’s party, Ms. Franke said.

“The two smaller parties that will make or break any German coalition — the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) — are inclined toward a stronger stance against China,” she wrote.

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