Biden Connects NATO to the China Challenge

Biden Connects NATO to the China Challenge

Original Orbis piece: “How NATO Manages the “Bear” and the “Dragon”: Elbridge A. Colby and Ian Brzezinski in Conversation with Nikolas Gvosdev,” Orbis, vol. 65, no. 1 (Winter 2021)

Initial Takeaways: Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development Elbridge Colby and Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Policy Ian Brzezinski discussed how the transatlantic alliance would need to pivot to cope with the emerging challenge of China, not simply as a great power in the Indo-Pacific region, but increasingly as a presence in the Euro-Atlantic zone and as a rising global power.

In this discussion, conducted prior to the 2020 election, Ian Brzezinski noted, “A key priority of the next U.S. administration should be to forge this emergent transatlantic consensus on China into a comprehensive political, economic, and military strategy designed to both deter aggression from China and to foster a more cooperative relationship,” while Elbridge Colby predicted, “This growing convergence will allow a greater degree of collective action among the United States, Europe, and like-minded countries, such as Japan, India, and Australia.”

Relevance of Their Arguments: New U.S. President Joseph Biden became the first sitting American president to address the Munich Security Conference (on February 19, 2021). In this forum, one of the most important opportunities for dialogue among the nations of the West, President Biden declared, “We must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China. How the United States, Europe, and Asia work together to secure the peace and defend our shared values and advance our prosperity across the Pacific will be among the most consequential efforts we undertake. Competition with China is going to be stiff. That’s what I expect, and that’s what I welcome, because I believe in the global system Europe and the United States, together with our allies in the Indo-Pacific, worked so hard to build over the last 70 years.”

On the same day, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III took part in his first NATO ministerial conclave. In his remarks following the meeting, Secretary Austin observed that the NATO chiefs of defense “were joined in some of those conversations by representatives from some of our most capable partners, including Finland and Sweden and the European Union, and we appreciated their unique perspectives, especially about China. Indeed, I applaud NATO’s work on China and I made it clear that the United States is committed to defending the international rules-based order, which China has consistently undermined for its own interests. We here at the Pentagon and the Department of Defense view China as our primary pacing challenge and we believe NATO can help us better think through our operating concepts and investment strategies when it comes to meeting that challenge.”

So, the new U.S. administration is moving along the lines outlined by Brzezinski and Colby to forge a common transatlantic approach—one that could also expand to encompass American allies in Asia. Yet, as the new national security team conceptualizes the requirements, there are several pieces of advice that Brzezinski and Colby offered in their contribution to Orbis that are quite relevant.

Colby notes that, in developing a common Western approach, “The United States also should be realistic. China remains very distant from Europe, so European threat perceptions will be more muted than those of Asian states and the United States, which was a Pacific power before it was a European one. This reality means that the degree of policy convergence between the United States and its Asian allies and partners on the one hand and Europe on the other is not a foregone conclusion.”

Brzezinski observes, “To effectively marshal their unmatched political, economic, and military power in a coherent transatlantic China strategy, the United States and Europe should more effectively address the divisive dynamics that currently undermine their own unity and cohesion. Greater effort will be needed to ensure more equitable burden sharing among allies, a more equitable trading relationship, and a recommitment to defend the values that distinguish this community of democracies. And, both sides of the Atlantic have to contribute to the political, economic, and military dimensions of a joint China strategy.”

The Biden administration has now laid out the broad parameters of its approach. What now remains to be seen is how these general principles will be translated into specific policies.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.