NATO’s irresponsible Afghan pullout signals decreasing legitimacy
Published: Jul 19, 2021 05:26 PM
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Following US President Joe Biden's decision to bring US forces in Afghanistan home, NATO also started withdrawing its own mission from the country. Twenty years after the war in Afghanistan began under former US president George W. Bush, the US-led NATO pullout is leaving a devastated, broken and backward Afghanistan behind. 

In May, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, "As we end our military presence, we are opening a new chapter." It can be argued that NATO has not played its due role in Afghanistan. NATO is withdrawing irresponsibly, regardless of the security risks Afghanistan faces. This shows differences in the strategic demands among NATO countries, and may threaten the legitimacy and effectiveness of NATO as an international organization. 

Political differences among member states on economic and trade affairs and international hotspot issues have weakened the cohesion of NATO. In terms of the focus of NATO's policy, some countries think that it should be more active combating terrorism. Some believe that the rise of China brings new security threats to NATO. In fact, they even regard China as a rival or even an enemy. 

Some think that NATO needs to defend global rules and regulations and especially formulate new norms and standards in cyberspace. This also entails new technology and other fields. In terms of military expenditures, the US and some countries suggest that 2 percent of GDP should be used for defense spending. But most European countries are not meeting this goal. Combined with the impacts brought by the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy, NATO countries will have fewer incentives to increase defense spending. If the budget problem is not properly addressed, NATO's capacity will be reduced. 

As the pandemic further changes the nature of threat perceptions within NATO, its members are having different opinions when it comes to the degrees and source of threats. The logic of NATO's collective defense is based on external common threats. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the security threats to member states. The pandemic also triggered a debate over priority of NATO's mission - economic recovery or military spending. Moreover, NATO has to achieve a balance between expeditionary and domestic missions. Third, amid the pandemic most NATO countries are relying on their own national actions rather than collective moves to battle the coronavirus. 

At one point in time, the combination of extremism and technology, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction were the most serious threats to the US-led NATO mission. But now, comprehensive strategic competition among major powers has become the primary concern of Washington and NATO.

This means NATO's transformation is imminent. For example, in June 2021, the NATO summit in Brussels adopted the NATO 2030 agenda. This defines the mission and direction NATO will take in the next decade. One of the important tasks is to forge a stronger consensus. The first step to achieve a broad consensus is to make NATO a platform for political consultation, rather than purely military cooperation. 

Given that NATO cannot be replaced by other international organizations, and that security will continue to be the foundation of transatlantic stability and prosperity, the organization will continue to be influential as an important mechanism. One of the key moves NATO will make involves going beyond traditional transatlantic spaces. It will turn to a broader global stage. In fact, NATO will work more closely with other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. 

Asia has become an important link in the interaction and coordination of NATO countries amid new changes in international power dynamics and the escalating all-round strategic competition between China and the US. It also closely entails the implementation of the Indo-Pacific Strategy by the US and the involvement of the EU in Asian affairs. 

With NATO's Afghanistan pullout, the security situation from Kabul and across all Central Asia and South Asia may change accordingly. 

China cannot unilaterally fill the strategic Afghan security vacuum left by the withdrawal of NATO. In this delicate context, NATO and China can maintain a strategic balance of power in Asia, plus avoid large-scale military conflicts and maintain minimal cooperation. Against the backdrop, NATO has its calculations - compressing China's strategic space and continuing to maintain an effective deterrent against Beijing. 

Although transatlantic relations have returned to the track of cooperation since Joe Biden came to power, Biden and his allies need to find a balance in their strategic objectives, and resolve internal disputes within NATO, especially the source and allocation of funds in the post-pandemic era. NATO's military power will inevitably shift to other regions and countries. Europe's periphery area and the Indo-Pacific region will be the focus of NATO's strategic deployment for years to come. 

In order to maintain the strategic superiority of the West and bridge strategic differences between Europe and the US, the two may formulate a global strategic division under NATO, which may be the future path of a global NATO.

The author is a research fellow with the Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The article was translated by Zhang Yuzheng of East China Normal University.