Nuclear Weapons

Reflecting on NATO Security in the Context of a Rising China

05.21.13 | 6 min read | Text by Michael Edward Walsh

The future promises to be far more challenging than the past for international security analysts. The security challenges that we will face will be increasingly complex, transnational, and interrelated. This will make their mitigation all the more difficult. But, the reality of this changing security landscape should not cause us to give pause and adopt a Pangloss-like outlook toward our present condition. Insecurity is not a given – security can always be made by those with the will and intellect to do so. In any given context, making security simply requires accurately identifying and prioritizing threats to international security and then developing the requisite mitigations. In this respect, the profession remains largely unchanged from its Cold War origins.

What has changed is the theoretical disposition of international security analysts. Our current generation is far more open to the theorization of security as an essentially contested concept. This has transformed the nature of the international security discourse. It now openly embraces the notion that security is tied to the social construction of security threats. It is therefore valid to intervene in the debate over how China’s rise affects international security from a social constructivist perspective. Doing so requires recognizing that security is subjective and only meaningful in the presence of a referent object. As a consequence, we must start our analysis with the question: “Whose security are we talking about?”

For the purpose of this article, the discussion will be restricted to NATO member states.

From this perspective, China’s rise is but one of many important variables in the post-Cold War international security discourse. In fact, China is not alone in terms of rising power and prestige. Other important countries include the other BRICSI countries – Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa, and Indonesia. Their collective rise is shifting the global balance of power away from the NATO region and forcing major structural changes to global and regional security architectures.

To avert a systemic breakdown, the resident and emerging major powers will need to reach a strategic compromise. This might even require the construction of a new order that better accommodates the rising powers’ interests without sacrificing too much of the incumbents’. But, reaching such a compromise will not be easy.

If the two sides find themselves unable to forge an amicable solution, one or more of the emerging powers could make a revisionist move. In the decades ahead, international security analysts must therefore remain attentive to any signals that the rising power(s) are no longer willing or able to accept the notion that “international peace is more important than any other national objective.” In the end, it is the possible rejection of the status quo by one or more of these emerging powers that most threatens international peace and stability.

But there is far more to the story of international security in the 21st Century than just the rise of these emerging powers. The world is also witnessing other major changes across multiple levels and units of analysis in the international security domain. Chief among these are the Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Robotics and Information and Communication technologies (NBRIC) revolution, the rise of non-state security actors, the emergence of high-end non-traditional security (NTS) threats (such as climate change and emerging infectious disease), the advent of new high-end countermeasures (like ballistic missile defense), the increasingly irrelevance of the chemical and biological weapons non-proliferation regimes, the ongoing threat posed by North Korea, and the appearance of high-end, non-lethal, destructive weapon capabilities (cyber and EMP). Any of these could potentially destabilize the current status quo.

From the perspective of China, these changes present both opportunities and challenges. For example, the rise of non-state security actors presents a threat to the traditional state monopoly on violence. This certainly does not benefit an authoritarian government that can now be brought under surveillance (or even strategically challenged) by non-state actors. However, it also provides China with new export buyers for emerging technologies (such as cyber, precision manufacturing tools, drones, etc.) that could promote domestic economic growth while at the same time empowering others to undertake activities abroad that serendipitously benefit Chinese interests. For these reasons, NATO member states will be watching to see how China responds.

However, China is only part of the story. NATO member states must contend with the larger set of resident and emerging security challenges that threaten the status quo. This has led NATO member states (and many others) to securitize against a widening range of possible security threats to ostensibly protect their security. At times, this has included even partnering with China. But, the consequences of these moves are not all positive. Whereas individual securitizations may increase the security of one referent object (states), they can at the same time increase the insecurity of others (individuals). This state-human security dilemma is itself a major challenge for NATO.

In fact, according to a recent report, global democracy is now at a standstill.  This is largely the result of the international community’s post-September 11th penchant for securitization. In the last decade, the transatlantic community has even witnessed major declines across a number of important democracy measures (such as freedom of the press) in key NATO member states and their allies. Efforts to counter the threat posed by NBRICs and traditional Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRNs) also threaten to undermine commercial innovation. This represents a serious challenge to NATO’s economic security in an age where the return to economic growth is necessary to pull Europe and North America out of the global recession.

These pose serious, although often overlooked, security challenges for NATO. The indirect effects of an increasingly securitized NATO might well lead to growing societal pressures within its member states to change course on certain national security policies. The failure by some governments to acquiesce to these calls for change in the name of security could further empower state and non-state actors to challenge the security policies of NATO member states. Not only would this undermine efforts to confront serious security issues abroad, but it could also lead to new security threats on the domestic front (like Anonymous).

Finding the right balance between security and civil liberties will be key for NATO. But, there is no certainty that its member states will be able to do so. If they cannot, NATO could be forced to contend with a growing domestic backlash against its securitizing moves. In that event, it would be even more difficult for NATO member states to counter a rising China. But, whether China could capitalize on such an opportunity is itself a matter of debate. To do so, China will need to overcome its own internal security challenges, which include declining economic growth, widespread environmental degradation, an aging population, and rising ethnic tensions – just to name a few.

So, what is the best path forward for NATO? The answer to this question hinges on the opening question to this article: “Whose security are we talking about?” This is a question that NATO needs to keep at the forefront as its member states respond to an increasingly complex international security landscape.

Michael Edward Walsh is the Director of the Emerging Technologies and High-End Threats Project at the Federation of American Scientists. He is also the President of the Pacific Islands Society, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Australian, New Zealand, and Pacific Studies of Georgetown University, and a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.