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A renewed collective defense bargain? NATO in COVID’s shadow

  • 01 Oct. 2020
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  • Last updated: 01 Oct. 2020 08:54

NDC Policy Brief 16-20


The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a tectonic shift in world politics: China’s rise and an erosion, if not a decline, of Western power. Where Western Allies squabble, China acts with confidence. NATO’s timorous decision of December 2019 to discuss China’s “growing influence” now seems quaint one year on, or at best a preamble to the preeminent question of our era: is NATO sufficiently cohesive to confront change?

NATO has rightly responded to COVID-19 by deepening certain policy competencies in hybrid warfare and societal resilience.1 However, policy cannot rescue NATO; only politics can. Worryingly, COVID-19 has magnified political fractures within an Alliance that has struggled for visibility.2 The Allies have clashed on travel restrictions, medical supplies and vaccines. The G7 Summit, an ostensibly ideal forum for advancing strategic thinking among liberal powers, failed to take place over the summer because of a disagreement over how to sanction China for encroaching on Hong Kong’s autonomy. Subsequently, a US decision to weaken its military footprint in Europe aroused anxiety on the US commitment to NATO;3 intense conflicts of interests in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey, Greece, France, and Italy belied their status as close Allies; and within the United Nations Security Council, the Allies were unable to coordinate any meaningful approach on Iran sanctions.



* (back) Professor and Vice-Dean for Research at the University of Southern Denmark, and Non-Resident Associate Fellow at the NATO Defense College.

1 (back) N. K. Gvosdev, “The effect of COVID-19 on the NATO alliance”, Foreign Policy Research Institute, 23 March 2020; M. Ozawa, “NATO and Russia in the time of Corona: countering disinformation and supporting Allies”, in T. Tardy (ed.), COVID-19: NATO in the Age of Pandemics, NDC Research Paper No.09, 2020, pp.21-29; M. Rühle and C. Roberts, “NATO’s response to hybrid threats”, in M. Ozawa (ed.), The Alliance five years after Crimea: implementing the Wales Summit pledges, Research Paper No.07, NATO Defense College, Rome, 2019, pp.61-70.

2 (back) T. Tardy, “COVID-19: shaping future threats and security policies”, COVID-19: NATO in the Age of Pandemics, NDC Research Paper No.09, 2020, pp.13-20; D. H. Chollet, M. Baranowski, and S. Keil, “Where is NATO? And where Is Trump?”, Defense One, 13 April 2020.

3 (back) R. Gramer and J. Detsch, “Trump undercuts Pentagon over Germany troop withdrawal”, Foreign Policy, 29 July 2020.

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