The NATO Summit in Madrid has left a trail of declarations, analyzes and opinions. From the obvious description of the Summit as “historic”, through the words of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Government of Spain comparing the importance of the meeting with the fall of the Berlin Wall to those who repeat that the war in Ukraine is the trigger for the new strategic concept of NATO or even of a change in the world order.
Undoubtedly, the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine is having an impact on the world economy, exacerbating existing structural problems and adding new challenges to the global agenda. It also marks changes with clear geopolitical implications since it is not the United States of America (USA), but one of its main hegemonic challengers, who initiates a war of aggression against another territory located, moreover, in Europe itself. But only from myopia or absolute ignorance can it be affirmed that the international system has changed due to the war in Ukraine or that NATO updates its strategic concept due to Russian aggression. To affirm it is to confuse consequences with causes, removing from the analysis the movements that have been taking place in recent years in world geopolitics.
The war in Ukraine surely explains why NATO has gone from “brain death”, as French President Emmanuel Macron said in 2019, to a territorial expansion accompanied by a revitalized political role where all the member countries seem to assume, without fissures or glimpses of criticism, the geostrategic interests of the US. But the war does not explain how antagonistic blocs have been formed, justified under propagandistic discourses on values reminiscent of the times of ideological polarization of the Cold War, although there is not such a clear opposition of economic models as then. It is the confrontation between powers, expressed unequivocally in the NATO Strategic Concept 2022 emanated from the summit, which leads to the creation of antagonistic geopolitical blocs. Without this antagonism, which responds to interests of economic and political expansion a priori incompatible, it is not possible to understand the existing wars and those that -surely inevitably- are yet to come.
The mention at this summit of China as a country that poses “systemic challenges”, despite being an actor that is outside the territorial scope of an alliance created for the defense of the North Atlantic, gives clues about those geopolitical movements that are shaping a new order. At the same time, it shows how NATO is actually an alliance at the service of US geostrategic interests. The idea of China as a threat is present in all the National Defense Strategies of the latest US administrations, also in the advance of the still unpublished of 2022, which characterize China as a “strategic competitor” that must be “dissuaded”. By adding it to the new strategic concept, NATO makes it clear what is at stake in this world order in geopolitical transition. It is about the struggle between the US and China for hegemony in the international system. The US resists that China could become the superpower that displaces it from its role as hegemon, which would completely disrupt the international order emanating from the Second World War. NATO’s own Agenda 2030 in 2021 pointed out how the rise of China was radically changing the balance of power. NATO, that is, the US, has long accused China of “undermining the rules-based international order” and going “against our values and interests.” As we well know that neither the US nor NATO have respected the rules when it came to defending their geostrategic interests in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, to give just a few recent examples, surely the problem of the US (and now also of NATO) with China lies in interests displaced by Chinese dominance in 5G, critical infrastructure, strategic materials, or supply chains.
We don’t know how power will be shared in the world system of the future, but we do know that the US will not easily resist losing its dominance. In fact, behind many conflicts, invasions and coups in recent times we find the US refusal to accept a multipolar order where it has to share real power with other emerging powers with economic, commercial, military or demographic projection. A new order that is expressed in the shift of world power to the Asia Pacific region, the New Silk Road promoted by China, the existence of the BRICS, the creation of regional coordination mechanisms, such as the Community of Latin American States and Caribbean (CELAC), which act as a geopolitical counterweight to US organizations, or the multiplication of South-South alliances. But that is also seen in the refusal of most of the countries of the Global South to bow to the vision of the world and the interests of the United States within the framework of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations. It is no coincidence that one of the highlights of the 2030 Agenda that NATO presented in 2021 was to deepen and broaden the mechanisms for political consultation among its members to reach the United Nations Assembly or the G-20 with common positions. It is about building an increasingly political profile of NATO that serves to bring together views among its members and act as a block within the framework of other organizations.
The use of NATO that we have seen these days to reinforce an Atlanticist geopolitical bloc leaves little hope for those who yearned for a Europe that could play a leading role, as an independent geopolitical bloc, in the process of geopolitical transition in which we find ourselves. The member countries, and the European Union (EU) as a whole, seem to have abandoned, if it ever had one, the idea of strategic autonomy. No one remembers Charles de Gaulle removing France from NATO in 1966, nor the subsequent proposals to defend the continent’s sovereignty, such as those of France or Germany, which until recently advocated building parallel to NATO membership a architecture of security and self-defense, under the logic of European interests. Far away is also the Sinatra doctrine proposed by Josep Borrell in 2020, with the commitment to a Europe that will not end “imprisoned in the conflictive relationship between the US and China” what happened was to increase the strategic autonomy of the EU, hand in hand with the US, yes, since it assumed the concept of a systemic rival to designate China despite classifying it as a strategic partner. A dissociation worthy of study.
Today most of the EU countries belong to NATO and, after this latest summit, they have clearly positioned themselves in the Sino-American clash of titans to unequivocally support the strategy of strategic competition with China led by the Biden administration. With this, they have sent an undiplomatic message to their main trading partner, China, which is essentially treated as a systemic rival, forgetting that it is a strategic partner with which it is necessary to negotiate. It does not seem like a very smart move if we take into consideration that one of the premises of trade is good relations between the parties. And it seems even less intelligent for a Europe that is economically weakened and without energy sovereignty to do so, as the war in Ukraine is showing. Russian “blackmail” is not the only culprit in the energy supply crisis faced by countries like Germany, as it should be remembered that the US has been pressing for years to prevent this country from being supplied from Russia through the Nord Stream II gas pipeline, something that Germany has finally accepted, at the expense of their interests. An eloquent expression of how to take on the US agenda does not necessarily imply benefits for European countries.
Now that the NATO Summit in Madrid has made it clear that alliances in the international system will increasingly follow a binary logic that goes back to conduct seen during the Cold War, it is worth remembering some ideas of one of the fathers of the doctrine of the contention against the Soviet Union, George Kennan, on the importance of knowing how to accurately identify the adversary. Kennan warned of how the US was wrong to attribute objectives and intentions to the Soviet leaders that they did not have, provoking hostilities that ended up being self-fulfilling prophecies. It would be good if the leaders of the Atlantic Alliance took note of Kennan’s reflections and looked in the mirror. Perhaps in this way they would realize that for the majority of the world’s population the threat is not China but Western domination, in which the Europeans are proving to be nothing more than a sidekick.