Language : English 简体 繁體

NATO’s Collective Security Myth

Jul 12, 2022
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

The NATO summit in Madrid that ended in June was taken by some commentators as a historic occasion on which the multilateral security of Europe was consolidated.

NATO will increase the size of its high-readiness force by sevenfold — from 40,000 to 300,000. The United States will create a new permanent army headquarters in Poland and send 5,000 additional troops to Romania. U.S. President Joe Biden called the summit “history-making.” Finland and Sweden were offered membership at the summit. NATO also formulated a new strategic concept, a once in a decade blueprint, branding Russia as “the most significant and direct threat.” The organization also invited Asia-Pacific nations, including Japan and South Korea, to participate for the first time, and it defined China as a “systemic challenge to Euro-Atlantic security.”

The massive military buildup, the northern expansion and the doubling on its eastern flank are considered to be a reinforcement strategy of NATO that will allow it to gain more collective security. Nonetheless, I think NATO’s self-cognition as a multilateral security mechanism is misleading. It is typical pseudo-multilateralism. Such a security myth can hardly bring collective security; instead, it may result in a new round of collective insecurity.

First and foremost, the core of multilateralism is inclusiveness. Although NATO’s eastward expansion is interpreted as a sign of openness and inclusiveness, the so-called collective defense military alliance has never shaken off parochialism, antagonism and exclusiveness.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), one of Europe’s security frameworks, was once seen as the core of the continent’s collective security in the post-Cold War era. However, the OSCE, built on dialogue and trust, has repeatedly been accused of being useless and unreliable. In contrast, NATO’s quantitative indicators — planes, tanks, vessels and military expenditures — are propagandized as reliable and trustworthy. Hence, NATO has become a security organization that has a strong form of deterrence.

After the end of the Cold War, each and every NATO expansion, as we can see, has amounted to marginalizing the OSCE — that is, preventing a truly inclusive multilateral security mechanism from taking root in Europe. In the meantime, the deterrence policy NATO follows has once again proved futile, though this was attributed to delayed action and slow expansion.

In the case of the Ukraine crisis, some complain that NATO was not fast enough in expanding eastward, saying that Russia wouldn’t have launched military action if Ukraine had been a NATO member. Some others claimed that Russia believed NATO to be weak because many of its member states failed to contribute 2 percent of GDP to defense spending. (NATO countries agree to commit a minimum of 2 percent of their GDP to the military budget.) Under such logic, Europe can only stay safe through an ever-expanding NATO.

In the second place, the core of security multilateralism should be the indivisibility of security. Indeed, NATO’s past documents mentioned the principle of “indivisible security,” which, however, was limited to its members. NATO formulated each of its security strategies based on an imagined enemy. From using humanitarian intervention to returning to a Cold War mentality, NATO has never stopped seeking an enemy.

Moreover, it seems that NATO’s coupling of Asia-Pacific and European security constitutes an extension of multilateralism. But it’s actually a kind of spreading pseudo-multilateralism. As analyzed above, NATO recognizes itself as the only useful, feasible and reliable regional security framework of Europe, an assumption it has never reflected on whenever an incident or a crisis happened. Instead, it attributed the reason to not being powerful enough.

This cognition is now making its way to the Asia-Pacific, with some believing that Asia will be more fragile without NATO. They’ve even compared Taiwan with Ukraine and frequently listed China as an imagined enemy. In line with such logic, Asian nations must form smaller multilateral mechanisms when they can’t build NATO-like multilateral military alliances. Hence AUKUS, the Japan-U.S.-Australia trilateral strategic dialogue, and the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral ministerial meeting, have sprung up over the past few years. NATO said it would follow closely that Asia-Pacific security satiation while Washington reiterated support for this pivot in its Indo-Pacific Strategy released earlier this year.

In the decades following the end of Cold War, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, has developed into a mature community. It emphasizes trust-building, preventive diplomacy and common security. But with the increasing hype of regional tensions come more arguments that Asia can only be safe when relying on a NATO-like military grouping featuring live ammunition. The ASEAN-centered multilateralism is thus put at risk of being marginalized.

Whether in Europe or in Asia, we must prevent such pseudo-multilateralism from spreading in the arena of security. 

You might also like
Back to Top