President Biden continued his European tour on Monday by visiting the headquarters of the organization his predecessor despised, NATO, where leaders gathered to discuss how much the alliance should pivot to countering China and how to rebuild after the Trump era’s divisions.
For the alliance’s battered leaders, meeting with a US president who, unlike former President Donald Trump, was not threatening to pull out of NATO on the spot was already a victory. However, deep disagreements remained about how much emphasis should be placed on Beijing, as well as concerns that Biden’s unilateral approach to the Afghanistan withdrawal was similar to Trump’s.
The idea of shifting NATO’s focus to China extends the theme of Biden’s European trip, after he attempted to sharpen China-related discussions at the Group of Seven summit in Britain. Biden has repeatedly framed the current generation’s existential struggle as one between democracies and autocracies like China and Russia, and he reiterated that concern at a news conference in the United Kingdom on Monday before departing for Brussels.
Although NATO leaders were expected to approve a plan to shift the organization’s focus more toward China, disagreements remained about the best role for a group that has traditionally focused on Russia and direct threats to NATO countries, such as terrorism.
Just a few years ago, there was almost no mention of Beijing at NATO. Raising the issue in NATO corridors was frowned upon, with some members fearful that doing so would revert relations with the country to a Cold War-era framework of superpower rivalry.
However, China has become more assertive on the global stage, and Washington has become more hostile to Beijing. Trump pushed the organization to be more confrontational. Biden has continued the effort, and even accelerated it.
However, not every NATO member supports a more forceful response to China. Some countries, such as Hungary, have friendly relations with China and seek Chinese investment. Others, such as Germany and other major European powers, believe there is a middle ground between the need to collaborate with Beijing to combat climate change and the need to rein in Beijing’s global ambitions.
The question of how forcefully to call out China remained a source of contention at the G-7 summit, with Germany, Italy, and Japan expressing reluctance to go as far as the Biden administration hoped. And, in the past, NATO’s front-line countries, those bordering Russia, have been concerned that focusing elsewhere would divert attention away from what they see as the alliance’s primary mission of defending against Russia, though many are increasingly coming around to the necessity of responding to both.
Leaders are also expected to agree on a plan to increase funding for NATO’s central operations modestly, in an effort to move beyond the angry rhetoric about defense spending that characterized Trump’s presidency. The decision will raise the amount that each of NATO’s 30 members contributes to common efforts such as training and support for Afghan and Iraqi security forces.
The decision is intended to demonstrate solidarity with the United States, which spends more on defense than any other country. Nonetheless, the increase in NATO’s annual budget, which is currently around $2.5 billion, pales in comparison to the many billions of dollars at stake if countries met their commitment to spend 2% of their GDP on defense.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tried to put the best face possible on the Afghan withdrawal on Monday, admitting it “was not an easy decision.” According to some analysts, it is only a matter of time before the Taliban retake the country. Before the day of meetings began, Biden and Stoltenberg had a brief meeting that was not announced on the president’s public schedule.
Biden reaffirmed the US commitment to Article 5 as a “sacred obligation,” and outlined the new challenges confronting the alliance: “We have Russia, which is acting in a way that is inconsistent with what we had hoped, and we have China,” he said.
And Biden reiterated a sentiment that has become something of a mantra for him on his first foreign trip as he seeks to reassure allies in the post-Trump era. “I want NATO to know America is there,” he said.