Not so quiet on the eastern front

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Founded in response to unease with the USSR, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has gone through years of wilderness since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. There was no shortage of challenges to the prevailing world order in the next three decades, but the alliance struggled for relevance 

During his presidency, Donald Trump openly criticised America’s NATO allies for failing to honour their spending commitments and floated the idea of pulling the US out. But the seeds had been sown well before, especially in post-9/11 America as foreign policy turned increasingly to the Pacific region. 

The other members of the alliance have been trying to catch up with this shift in global equilibrium and find a new reason for existence. The 2021 summit with President Joe Biden signalled that NATO may have finally found its guiding star again. 

Russia was an important part of the discussion and the alliance’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, declared that NATO would firmly address cyberattacks with links to Moscow. But the major threat looks to have moved further east and China was a bigger theme in the conversation. 

The communique at the end of the meeting took aim at Beijing’s growing influence on the world stage and, without hiding any sense of threat, allies promised to do everything to defend each other’s interests in this new scenario. 

Members raised concerns about China’s lack of transparency and questioned the communist country’s willingness to honour international commitments. Wary of the expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal and the government’s assertive tone in world affairs, the NATO joint statement pledged total support for a rules-based international order. 

Visiting the memorial to the September 11 attacks at NATO’s headquarters, President Biden called the mutual defence pact a “sacred obligation”, doing his best to reverse the scepticism adopted by his predecessor. 

At 72 years, the alliance finds the world in a completely different place from when it was established. But European and North American countries feel a sense of déjà vu as global polarisation forebode a new age of tension. 

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