This year is in many ways "back to the future" for NATO. As during the Cold War, the Alliance’s greatest challenges in 2012 will come not from the risk of attack but from the extent and consequences of shifts in the nature of global power.
The story is a familiar one. For most of NATO’s existence, the Alliance has been dominated by the economic, military and cultural power of one country: the United States. But the last couple of years have seen the much-discussed political emergence of new economic giants, such as China and India, as well as new actors such as Brazil or Indonesia.
2012 will be the first time the consequences of the shift will be genuinely felt; and the scope of the powers of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) will be tested. This matters to NATO Allies, who will find themselves (during financial restraint and reduced popularity of military force) more reliant on others to manage a range of threats and challenges. Already today, China has more blue helmets UN peacekeepers worldwide than other UN permanent Security Council members.
And though NATO Allies succeeded in Libya both diplomatically and militarily, China and Russia have managed to block decisive action against Syria, despite its government’s violent crackdown on protesters. Dealing with Iran, an issue of major concern to NATO Allies, also requires the support of China, Russia and India.
But in 2012 the West’s need to work with rising powers like China and India will move from a focus on “issues of choice”, like how to handle Syria, to “issues of necessity”, such as propping up the Euro. This may not feel like a NATO issue per se, but it is one that should concern NATO Allies.
Already in 2011 the EU asked for Chinese support for the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), created by the Euro area member-states to prop up the single currency. This year, NATO Allies that use the Euro may need to go to China, Russia, Brazil and India again to ask for funds. What these rising states will require, in non-financial terms, for their support is unclear.
But the novelty of the situation cannot be underestimated: a range of NATO Allies may depend economically – and, by extension, for their defence budgets – on non-NATO states. And with this dependence, comes risks. If these EU states get Chinese support, what room for manoeuvre will NATO Allies have for example if there were a conflict between the United States and China in the South China Sea?
The rise of the “Rest” does not, however, mean a handover from the West to China, or even to the BRICs, as there was a de facto transition from Europe to the United States after World War II. True, international systems designed to maintain the post-World War II balance of power may have little attraction to the rising powers of the “Rest”. But the power structures that would be more attractive to China and the other BRICs is not clear.
The BRIC nations are torn internally between accepting the status quo, for example in the UN Security Council, only if their power in the institution is increased; or trying to fashion a new system altogether. China is becoming increasingly involved in global police work, such as in the Mekong Delta, but is reluctant to take the full step towards superpower responsibility.
In addition, the “Rest” are increasingly divided amongst themselves on a range of issues. For example, while European leaders rallied around French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde to be the new IMF chief, the BRICs dithered and disagreed on who they would like to see in the top international job.
Only one thing seems certain: old powers (like the US and Europe countries) are losing their ability to lead, and new powers (like China and India) lack the willingness or wherewithal to take responsibility. So the ‘supply’ of international cooperation to tackle global problems like climate change, scarcity of food, or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is decreasing while the ‘demand’ remains higher every day.
But the situation may be even more problematic. For as China, India and Brazil have grown – and the world become more reliant on their growth – so have the fissures within these states. Many of the BRICs will face considerable challenges both internally but also externally in their efforts to extend domestic prosperity and external influence.
China faces political and financial problems: its economy could overheat and is based on an unsustainable level of government-led investment. The demands placed on the Communist system, in the throes of a tricky succession process, by a growing middle class also presents risks.
India, in turn, faces domestic pressures, but also the risk of conflict with both Pakistan and China.
As much of the world relies on the BRICs to power global growth, the extent to which these states can sidestep the problems normally associated with rapid modernisation – including a tendency to miscalculate internationally – and address long-standing socio-economic and regional problems, remains unknown.
As 2012 progresses, the days when counting tanks and conflicts may seem to NATO like a halcyon period. As the power and resources of the West wane, the “Rest” face a difficult and reversible rise. And the scope for international cooperation – so vital to address a range of security challenges – will become more limited. Welcome to the gridlocked world. Happy New Year.