NATO should not go to the Indo-Pacific

Drawing away European military capabilities is risky, organizational demands are excessive and the Alliance’s track record on democracy promotion is poor

Davis Ellison & Paul van Hooft

NATO has begun to sink time and resources into ‘strengthening dialogue and cooperation with its partners in the Indo-Pacific region – Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand.’[1] More specifically, and NATO officials deny this officially, the European members are edging incrementally towards joining the U.S. containment policy against China. But the alliance has little to gain and much to lose by including the Indo-Pacific as one of its core missions, especially at a moment when the Alliance should be more focused than ever on a single challenge, Russia.

At its core, the difficulty lies with treating NATO as the all-purpose tool for all transatlantic coordination, rather than more narrowly as the political-military alliance for the protection of Europe that it was intended to be. To illustrate, according to the U.S. permanent representative to NATO Ambassador Julie Smith during a North Atlantic Council visit to Tokyo and Seoul in 2023, this engagement is focused on ‘combating the hybrid toolkit that countries such as the PRC and Russia both use to undermine the rules-based order and sometimes undermine the unity across the NATO Alliance.’ Such phrasings sound uncomfortably close to rhetoric about ‘monolithic communism’ that collapses a clear threat – Russia – with a pressing challenge – China – even though the two states are on different and non-complementary trajectories. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has indeed doubled-down on this language, saying NATO faces an ‘authoritarian alliance’ between Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea.[2]

Indo-Pacific partner countries visit NATO HQ, april 2023. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg with Manaia Mahuta (Minister of Foreign Affairs, New Zealand) and Do Hoon Lee (Second Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea) (Photo: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

This is an unproductive and distracting policy. The United States is already struggling with how to manage competition with two peer (or near-peer) rivals, both in the conventional and nuclear domains; NATO’s European member states do not have the capacity or capability to act against both Russia and China, especially not when they are struggling to reinforce their conventional deterrence and increase their defense-industrial production. China is also likely to perceive it is being ‘ganged up on’ while many regional states, especially the ASEAN members, will not be reassured.[3]

Out of the ‘post-Cold War’ mindset

It cannot be overstated how limited are the European military capabilities that are sufficiently mobile to be moved to the Indo-Pacific, while also simultaneously being fungible assets for deterrence. More importantly, precisely the type of assets that are meaningful in the Indo-Pacific would be in high demand in the Euro-Atlantic to defend European security. Two such assets would be 5th Generation airpower – such as F-35s – and attack submarines. Whether for deterrence or warfighting, the stealthy and networked nature of F-35s would present a considerable asset that could bypass China’s integrated air-defense network. However, NATO’s airpower represents its primary advantage over Russian forces. During a contingency or mounting crisis in the Indo-Pacific, which is likely to absorb U.S. military resources from Europe to Asia, Europe’s 5th generation airpower would be in even higher demand to deter and possibly defend against Russia.

Similarly, European NATO members like France and the UK have attack submarines with land-attack cruise missiles that are mobile and fungible for a crisis in the Indo-Pacific. Yet, here too, these assets would be in high demand in the Euro-Atlantic area to deter and defend against Russian submarines that could attack NATO Europe’s ports and staging area. Attack submarines would be needed to fulfil NATO’s antisubmarine warfare tasks, precisely because these are Russia’s best assets to attack targets further west in Europe. Other mobile assets such as NATO Europe’s surface ships – including Dutch air and missile-defense frigates – would be both in demand in Europe as well, but vulnerable when deployed so far from home in a region where they would potentially face China’s advanced anti-access area-denial capabilities.[4] The Russian threat is the much more proximate and existential threat to Europe.

NATO needs to get itself out of the post-Cold War mindset where practically anything was possible and come to terms with a world where it faces – or could potentially face – major or great powers. While Europe’s current military capabilities may perhaps be high-end, they are few in numbers and the supporting logistical and defense-industrial support is limited and brittle. Moreover, these assets are needed in Europe, precisely because the U.S. commitment to Europe is much more in doubt than it was before, both due to domestic disagreement over the future of that commitment, sparked by Donald Trump but not limited to him, or due to the very U.S. shift to the Indo-Pacific that is triggering these discussions within NATO. In fact, the United States itself has doubts it can manage two major powers in Europe and Asia simultaneously.

No institutional capacity

NATO has and continues to face what has been referred to as the Alliance’s ‘treadmill of problems.’[5] NATO’s three core tasks — deterrence and defense, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security — are only the tip of the iceberg. Within these three core tasks, the Alliance’s list of tasks has continued to proliferate. At present, NATO is expected to train forces in Iraq, counter climate change, deal with Russian propaganda, manage global partnerships, coordinate defense-industrial policy, assist with refugee flows, promote innovation in investment, and – by the way — plan for major conventional and nuclear war in Europe. All of this with a skeleton staff of approximately 9,000 civilian and military staff spread across NATO Headquarters in Brussels and various military commands across Europe and North America. For reference, the Dutch Ministry of Defence has roughly 21,000 civilian staff alone.[6]

Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee, attended the 24th annual Indo-Pacific Chiefs of Defence Conference in Australia (Photo: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

The Alliance’s civilian and military staff already face a lack of mass in expertise on basic regional and functional areas. One would be hard pressed to walk through NATO Headquarters and find a fluent Russian or Mandarin speaker for instance. Indeed, those staff from NATO nations who might have the most relevant and productive language and political skills to deal with Russia, the three Baltic states, make up only slightly more than 1% of the NATO civilian staff in Brussels. In nuclear affairs, the former director of the NHQ nuclear policy directorate Jessica Cox routinely warned about how low NATO’s ‘nuclear IQ’, or basic knowledge of nuclear issues, is. For any given issue, the average state of affairs is that the Alliance is ‘one person deep’, i.e. that only one single staff officer has both detailed knowledge and longevity in office.

For NATO, adding comes easier than subtracting. Bureaucratic inertia interacts with Alliance politics in such a way that new topics and issues are simply never removed from agendas. There are dozens of NATO committees, hundreds of working and ad hoc groups, and an untold number of smaller, informal project teams on more issues than any single mission or office can even be aware of. NATO Headquarters has led a continuous reform effort for nearly 15 years to revise the committee structure and remove institutional barriers that prevent task discretion.  From one author’s experience, this has not made much headway.

The challenge therefore is not simply a material one; NATO simply does not have the intellectual and organizational bandwidth to add China to its endlessly expanding list of activities. It is, rightfully, too busy with Russia’s renewed threat to NATO in Europe and its neighboring states and needs to maintain a firm focus on the development of its own capacities there. If the past offers any clue, once China is on NATO’s agenda, it will also not come off. There will still be staff officers developing reports that take months and years to develop and negotiate in committees on China in twenty years if it becomes a priority issue for NATO. Such was the case of NATO pursuing partnership with Russia as an explicit policy goal until right after February 24, 2022. Right when NATO’s institutions need to focus, the organization seems hell-bent on distraction in the Pacific.

The Yuan Wang 1, a tracking ship used by the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for tracking and support of satellite and intercontinental ballistic missiles, representing China’s globally reaching naval capabilities (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Misaligned for core tasks

Proponents of a NATO role in the Indo-Pacific would – rightly – point out that there is no discussion so far of playing a military role; however, there is a long historical record of mission creep within NATO. The Alliance does not have a strong record of splitting its attention and trying to form and maintain forces across multiple tasks; moreover, the current discussion on the Indo-Pacific brings to mind the debate in the 1990s on whether NATO should go ’out of area, or out of business‘. That thinking led to a transformation of NATO’s armed forces away from conventional defense and deterrence in Europe towards lighter, expeditionary forces suited for crisis management. It was a mode of thinking that culminated in NATO’s most significant fighting mission in Afghanistan, which lasted almost exactly twenty years, and in the Libya campaign.

As of writing, the defeat of all of NATO’s objectives in Afghanistan is less than three years old – though barely mentioned in NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept. Libya remains stuck in political chaos and cycles of violence that can be tied directly back to NATO’s 2011 Operation Unified Protector. Furthermore, the further force adaptations NATO nations made to support their efforts in Afghanistan left them misaligned for their core tasks in Europe. NATO has shortfalls in tanks, infantry brigades, and missiles. There are no serious fortifications defending the eastern flanks. There are not enough ships to defend the Black Sea, eastern Mediterranean, and the key sea lines of communication in the Middle East.

One of the major challenges that NATO has yet to fully embrace and understand is that the weaknesses on display in Afghanistan are inherent to its structure. They still exist today. There is an assumption that in a NATO-Russia war that there would be some kind of washing away of the Alliance’s internal political issues and all would band together in solidarity. Underpinning all of this, NATO requires unanimity of decision on all issues. This includes the most extreme scenarios in which forces would need to be deployed and employed. Different allies would have caveats on how their forces could be used by NATO commanders, just as they did in Afghanistan. If NATO thought it was difficult to hold together a coalition in Kabul, they will be in for a very rude surprise in a NATO-Russia war.

These difficulties will be as applicable in the case of engaging in the Indo-Pacific. NATO has no common ‘China policy’ and it is unlikely to have one, as many European member states are trying to find a way between addressing the China challenge and still engaging with it as an economic partner. The effort to build one, and to actually supply any activities with real forces and resources, would quite likely be more politically damaging than it is worth. NATO’s already waning political capital in the wider world should not be spent on the pursuit of a quixotic Alliance-wide pursuit of a common China approach.

NATO’s ISAF forces patrol the roads in the mountains of Afghanistan in armored military vehicles, Ghazni, Afghanistan, 2010 (Photo: Shutterstock / Ryanzo W. Perez).

Slow death in the Hindu Kush

NATO has yet to embrace the other major lesson from its Afghanistan experience, one that is on full display over Indo-Pacific engagement, namely a hubris towards the rest of the world that its activities can somehow shape the region into a desired direction for the Atlantic powers. This is reminiscent of the post-Cold War euphoria that drove much of NATO’s policy towards becoming a ‘global NATO’, what former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder and James Goldgeier described as a necessary effort to support a ‘global community of democracies.’[7] This optimism died a slow death in the Hindu Kush, though like many things in NATO, it refuses to be polite enough to stay dead.

NATO cannot play the games of power projection or democratic/economic values promotion for one clear reason: it is simply not good at this. At its core, NATO is a political-military alliance designed to deter and defend against the Soviet Union/Russia, maintain stability within Europe, and provide an institutionalized role for the United States. NATO Allies’ own democratic records are often complicated at best and actively authoritarian at worst, especially during the Cold War: witness the Portuguese dictatorship, the recurring Turkish and Greek military coups, France’s inelegant transition from the Fourth to the Fifth Republic. Out of military necessity, West German officers who had participated in atrocities during the Second World War found their way into senior NATO military command in the early decades of the Cold War.

Other NATO members fought brutal conflicts of de-colonization. The record of the most important member of that ’community of values‘, the United States, was not great either; its support for right-wing authoritarian regimes in the developing world contradicted its proclaimed role as defender of democracy, as did the struggle over civil rights for its African-American citizens that lasted into the first decades of NATO’s existence. Donald Trump was not a particularly committed defender of democracy either, and may be less so should he perhaps again get the chance. This is hardly an advantageous position from which to take on a world-spanning campaign for democracy that aims to counter Chinese autocracy, which is why NATO needs to keep its eye on its core purpose.

NATO is a military alliance with the self-proclaimed goal of deterrence and defense in the Euro-Atlantic Area. The bar of what that means needs to remain high and it needs to be focused on Russia. Chinese investment in European infrastructure or its hacks into NATO or its members are nothing compared to the horror that a full-scale war between NATO and Russia would bring. Conflating issues of war and peace with every-day-political issues of economic competition and technology policy is hugely distracting for Western defense establishments, NATO included. NATO should do what it says on the label: deter and defend against Russia, while managing the transatlantic and European relationships.

Davis Ellison is a strategic analyst at HCSS specializing in security and defense affairs. His primary focus areas include deterrence, civil-military relations, and strategy.

Paul van Hooft is an expert on great power politics and grand strategy at HCSS. His research focuses on American strategy, European defense and security, transatlantic relations and power competition in the Indo-Pacific.