The NATO Summit: Front for Democracy or Return to the Cold War?

Last Monday, NATO held its yearly summit in Brussels, where heads of state and Foreign and Defense Ministers gathered to discuss the general outlines of the alliance’s common policy. Precisely on that morning, I crossed a digital poster in the metro station of Brussels-South. "NATO works to protect our future," the message read. A hula-hooping girl in the background of the poster did offer little as to what NATO is protecting its members against more than 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Instead, this question was subject to heavy debate on the summit itself. The United States wanted to elevate China to the same level of Russia on the alliance’s priority list, but the European member states argued for a more nuanced positioning against the upcoming communist powerhouse. In spite of a "constructive" meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, the state of American-Russian relations meanwhile keeps on deteriorating apace.

A NATO poster in metro station Brussels-South, a couple of miles from where Western leaders gathered on Monday.

‘Article 5 is sacred’

The NATO summit coincided with Biden’s first official journey abroad, which took him consecutively to a meeting of the G7 in the United Kingdom, the headquarters of NATO and the EU in Brussels and a bilateral meeting with Putin in Geneva. The overarching message of the new American president, at least to his allies, was unequivocally clear: "America is back." The era of his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, who once claimed that NATO was "obsolete," was an intermezzo in an otherwise unbreakable partnership between the United States and Europe.

To drive home this point, Biden stressed during a press conference after the summit that article 5 of the North-Atlantic Treaty remains "rock-solid" and "sacred" 72 years after its adoption. Article 5 obliges all thirty member states to consider an attack on one of the allies as an attack on all of them. Yet, NATO invoked it only once in its history, and this in support of the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Following this invocation, many allied troops joined American forces in their war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan over the course of the last two decades. Not much remains of the former, but even the united effort of the worlds’ most powerful army and mightiest alliance was not able to roll back the Taliban in what became the longest war in American history. Thus, in an accordance with a settlement negotiated under the Trump administration, Biden gave the order for commencing withdrawal in May, a process that is said to be completed before the twentieth anniversary of 9/11.

In a way, the mission in Afghanistan was not an isolated phenomenon, however. It fitted the reinvention of the alliance after the implosion of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Since its intervention in the Yugoslav Wars in the 90s, NATO transformed itself into a self-proclaimed expert in "crisis management" outside of the sovereign territory of its member states. Yet, like the war in Afghanistan, this does not always lead to good publicity. For instance, after the NATO mission in Libya in 2011, which guided the removal from power and brutal murder of longtime dictator Muammar Al Qadhafi, the North-African country descended into a spiral of violence and chaos that reverberates around the region until today. In 2017, the resurgence of open slave markets became international news, although much of the media tried to downplay the fact that this was an indirect consequence of the NATO intervention.

Moreover, a year earlier a report from the British House of Commons found that the main justification for the bombing campaign, that Qadhafi was about to perpetrate a "massacre" in Benghazi, was unfounded. Additionally, the claim of NATO spokesmen that the operation did not produce any collateral damage among civilians was soon debunked as well. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the New York Times all documented NATO air strikes that killed scores or innocent civilians.

Undeterred, the alliance keeps on expanding into new directions, however. The final communiqué of the present NATO summit underscored that article 5 can now also be invoked as a reaction to aggression in space and cyberspace. This latter area is a novelty and comes after years of American claims that the Kremlin facilitated Trump’s 2016 election through an expansive cyber offensive. The last accusation in this series came in December 2020, when American officials claimed that Russia was responsible for the hacking of the software firm SolarWinds, which affected several American governmental agencies as well as services of NATO and the European Parliament. While the outgoing president claimed that China was behind the attack instead, the new president employed the hacking to slap new sanctions on Russia and expel several Russian diplomats.

A fight for democracy

In recent years, with the end of the war in Afghanistan in sight, the NATO countries seem to have shifted attention back towards big power confrontation under the guise of these alleged cyberattacks. In the last strategic concept of the alliance, which dates from 2010, China was left unmentioned, while Russia was still described as a partner. In December 2020, the same month as the SolarWinds hacking, the alliance came up with a report that proposed a new vision for 2030, however. In it, both Russia’s "aggression" and China’s "assertiveness" were identified as "systemic challenges" for NATO.

Yet, it bears mentioning that the immediate cause for the report was internal in nature. One year earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron called the Atlantic partnership "brain dead" because of its lack of intra-alliance coordination but also out of frustration of the EU’s diminishing influence in world politics. Macrons comments fitted in the age-old French flirtation with the creation of a European army as an addition to – perhaps even replacement of – NATO. No wonder then that the 2030 report is drenched in arguments for the need of unity, solidarity and cohesion between the member states.

The encouragement of this unity, in the form of the continuing and guaranteed American military coupling to Europe after the unpredictable Trump era, was ostensibly at the heart of Bidens visit to the United Kingdom and Belgium. At the same time, however, he took advantage of the opportunity to try to elevate China as just as formidable of a threat as Russia in NATO’s forthcoming 2030 vision. On the eve of the summit, Biden argued that democratic values underpinned "the most successful alliance in world history." He made this argument in an op-ed in the Washington Post, which, fittingly, still carries the Trump-era banner "democracy dies in darkness" on its website. According to the president, these shared values are to rally the world’s democracies around NATO, thus posing a powerful alternative to authoritarian states like China and Russia.

This Wilsonian rhetoric did not sit well with Washington’s allies in Europe. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson quickly clarified that the West does not want "a new Cold War with China." A couple of weeks ago, a British aircraft carrier nonetheless set sail along an American destroyer and Dutch frigate for military drills in the South China Sea. France does not participate in this mission, however, perhaps because Macron argued in Brussels "not to conflate the goals" of NATO. He forcefully maintained that the alliance’s focus must remain on the Euro-Atlantic area and that China’s challenge should only be looked at in strict military terms as far as NATO is concerned. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, too, emphasized that "Russia, above all, is a major challenge," although she agreed that the alliance "cannot negate the increasing role of China," especially in the Indo-Pacific region. Finally, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo, host of the summit, reflected a common European sentiment by welcoming free trade with China on the basis of reciprocity: if China is allowed to invest in Europa, the rights of European companies in the communist country must be respected also.

This European pushback against Biden’s rhetoric is evident from the final communiqué of the meeting. While the 2030 report had put Beijing on the foreground along with Moscow as a "systemic rival," China here is only mentioned in paragraph 55 – after local flashpoints such as North-Korea, Iran, Syria and Belarus. Following Macron’s emphasis on the military aspect of the newfound Chinese threat, the attention was drawn mostly to Chinese involvement in Russian military exercises and the increase of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal. Yet, no mention was made of the fact that the nuclear stockpile of both the United States and Russia are orders or magnitude higher than that of China.

But multiple European leaders also stressed the need for cooperation with China during the summit. The communiqué therefore underlined the necessity of a constructive dialogue on mutual problems, such as climate change for instance. For the time being, if Beijing aligns itself with the rules-based international order, it appears that NATO will keep its main focus on its longtime foe: Russia.

A new Cold War?

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Norwegian secretary-general, did not beat around the bush at the opening of the summit. The relationship with Russia was "at its lowest point since the end of the Cold War," a condition which he attributed to "Russia’s aggressive actions." With that statement, Stoltenberg echoed the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Some weeks ago, Lavrov went one step further than the NATO chief, claiming that American-Russian relations are currently worse than during the Cold War, because back then there was at least mutual respect. This begrudging sentiment is shared by Putin, who as recent as last week claimed that the West "spat on our interests" in the period after the demise of the Soviet Union – that is, when the understanding between Russia and the West was in fact friendly.

In particular, the Russian president referred to two developments of which he has made mention several times over the last few years. First of all, Moscow deems the ongoing eastward expansion of NATO as major threat to its national security. In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, American and West-European officials assured the Soviets multiple times that NATO’s border would not move "one inch" to the east. Yet, by 2004, all former Eastern bloc countries as well as the three Baltic states and several Balkan countries had become members of the anti-Russian military pact. The accession of the former Soviet republics Georgia and Ukraine, too, is under discussion. After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had claimed last Monday that NATO had given him the green light, however, Biden clarified that Ukraine first had to do more in terms of fighting corruption before his country could join.

The real reason for this pushback is the fact that Ukraine and Georgia are red lines for Moscow. Documents from the American State Department leaked to WikiLeaks make clear that the United States were aware of these redlines as far back as February 2008. In a cable from the American embassy in Moscow, diplomats noted the warning of experts that the accession of Ukraine could culminate into a civil war between the pro-Russian East and pro-European West. In that case, "Russia would have to decide whether to intervene; a decision Russia does not want to have to face." Still, only two months later NATO welcomed the aspiring membership of both Georgia and Ukraine. The final communiqué of the summit in Bucharest left no doubt that "we agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO."

A couple of years later, at the beginning of 2014, a civil war indeed interrupted in Ukraine after a revolution in Kiev unseated the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. The interim government, led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, soon signed an associate agreement with the EU that Yanukovych was wavering on, thus taking a more Western course. As the American experts had warned the State Department six years earlier, the Western course in Kiev was met with resistance in the south and east of the country. On the wave of this protest, Russia consequently annexed Crimea, a longtime strategic asset of Russia because of its naval base in Sevastopol. Later in 2014, Russian troops crossed the border in the Donbass, where it helped separatist forces to set up the independent republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Moscow defended these maneuvers as reactions to the regime change in Kiev, which it called an illegal coup d’état. The West, for its part, maintained that what took place was a democratic revolution, however. In any case, a leaked phone call between Barack Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and the American ambassador in Kiev revealed that the Americans were already trying to "glue" the transfer of power by putting their favored politicians, included Yatsenyuk, in office two weeks before the government takeover. Additionally, Nuland said in the phone call that a visit from Biden, at the time vice president, would help "midwife this thing." Some weeks after the regime change, Biden indeed traveled to Kiev, where he offered moral support to Yatsenyuk, who in the meantime had become prime minister.

The second development criticized by Putin on the eve of the summit is the armed encirclement of Russia, especially with NATO’s anti-ballistic missiles (ABM). These weapon systems, once a pipe dream of Ronald Reagan, were installed in Romania and Poland in the last two decennia after President George W. Bush pulled the United States out of the 1972 ABM Treaty in December 2001. NATO argues that the missiles are not aimed at Russia, but Putin claims that they could be used offensively and can reach Russian targets in just 15 minutes.

This is only a couple of minutes more than the Pershing II, a nuclear intermediary-range missile that was installed in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1983 and had the capability of striking Moscow in six to eight minutes. That deployment took place as a result of NATO’s 1979 Double-Track Decision, which also rubber-stamped the stationing of nuclear cruise missiles on West-European soil. Incidentally, the first wave of the deployment of this new generation of nuclear weapons in the fall of 1983 coincided with NATO’s "Able Archer" military exercises. This caused a war scare in Moscow, where some believed that NATO was about to launch a first strike on the Soviet Union. That war scare, and the subsequent heightening of Soviet nuclear preparedness, in turn played a major role in Reagan’s embrace of a renewed détente in 1984.

This renewed détente paved the way for the 1987 INF Treaty, a far-reaching arms control agreement between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev under which all ground-launched nuclear intermediary missiles (including NATO’s Pershing II and cruise missiles as well as the Russian SS-20) were destroyed. In the 90s the former Cold War foes went as far to eliminate 80% of the global strategic nuclear stockpile under the 1991 START Treaty. Further, more modest reductions were agreed to in the New Start Treaty, signed by Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010.

In spite of the fact that Trump was often criticized for being soft on Putin during his presidency, it was he who pulled out the United States out of both the INF and Open Skies Treaty. The latter was an important tool of confidence building between the 36 signatories since its adoption in 2002, because it allowed for unarmed air inspection under certain conditions. As icing on the cake, Trump even allowed Obama’s New Start Treaty to lapse in 2020.

A "constructive" bilateral

Sven Biscop, a professor in strategic studies and foreign policy at the University of Ghent, exemplified the European distrust of Biden’s "alliance of democracies" in an opinion piece in a Belgian newspaper last week. According to Biscop, the American posture might contribute to the return of "rival power blocs." Indeed, an unnamed senior official of the Biden administration told Politico this week that Russian-Chinese relations are evolving more and more towards a "quasi-alliance." Yet, Biscop warned that it is in the West’s interest to avoid seeing "dark conspiracies" where there aren’t any. The United States and Europe have to act against illegal actions by Beijing and Moscow, he argued, but their authoritarian political system in and of itself should not hinder cooperation and free trade. After all, the West often works together with friendly authoritarian states.

It is at this important crossroads that the first meeting between Biden and Putin took place in Geneva. Both emphasized that the talks took place in a constructive atmosphere, but the statesmen did not make much headway to ease tensions. Biden, who in March had agreed that his counterpart was a "killer," warned for "devastating consequences" if the opposition figure Alexei Navalny would die in the Kremlin’s prisons. Both also renewed their mutual accusations of cyber warfare.

Yet, there was also some progress. The two presidents agreed to reinstall their ambassador to each other’s capital, who had been recalled after Biden’s "killer"-comment. They also reached compromise over the commencement of negotiations on the next round of New START, which Biden already in the beginning of his presidency had renewed, thereby rectifying Trump’s negligence. Finally, the first section of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany was finished last week. After years of American opposition, the Biden administration lifted sanctions on participating companies, considering them now "counterproductive" in light of Biden’s goal to revivify relations with the EU.

How the East-West relations will evolve from here on forward is difficult to predict. A lot will depend on the European position. After all, it was because of European resistance that China was not elevated to the status of a Russia-like foe by the NATO at this week’s summit. And it is because of the firmness of Merkel that the construction of Nord Stream 2 continues unabated. This project promotes the interdependence of Germany and Russia, who fought the twentieth century’s most deadly battle in Stalingrad during World War II.

The idea that dialogue and free trade can stimulate peace was also at the forefront of the European détente strategy during the 60s and 70s. Just like Biden today, so did his predecessor and fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter vacillate between détente and an aggressive human rights campaign in the second half of the 70s. This human rights campaign came forward out of the best of intentions, but it also cast the first stone in the unraveling of the détente tissue – a process that European statesman had forcefully warned the Americans about.

The progressive deterioration of détente interfered with, and ultimately made impossible, Carter’s additional goal of eliminating nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, finally, the United States gave up détente in its entirety, after which the world descended into a "second Cold War." Just like Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, so did many interpret the Soviet incursion as part of a wider regional domination plan instead of a desperate protective measure to maintain its sphere of influence. As a reaction to this widespread reaction, the United States announced the Carter Doctrine, which set the stage for the long-term – and ongoing – American presence in the Middle East.

In the 80s, after a long period of peaceful coexistence, the West alternated between détente and confrontation. Which of the two gave the decisive blow to the Soviet empire is still a matter of fierce dispute among historians. Perhaps that’s why NATO keeps alternating between belligerency and dialogue. This time around, however, we do not have the benefit of hindsight, and we must not forget that all sides have nuclear weapons with the ability to kill all life on earth. Only the future can tell how this saga will unfold.

Bas Spliet is a historian and investigative journalist. He received two bachelor’s degrees in History and Arabic and Islamic Studies from the University of Ghent, where he will soon also receive his master’s in History. Follow him on Twitter at @BSpliet or contact him via