Strategic Clarity Carries a Mixed Bag

by James E. Goodby & Ken Weisbrode

Reflecting on the period just after the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949, the US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson said that the language of Cold War policy-making had to be “clearer than truth” if the American people were going to support it.

As treaties go, that one is both clear and flexible. The Article V guarantee of one for all and all for one is about as clear as can be. But it does not say precisely how each member of NATO may choose to defend the others. That is left up to each member state to decide.

The same goes for the “O” in NATO. The Treaty does not include definite plans for an organization; but neither does it proscribe one.

Today, with President Joe Biden pledging that the United States will defend Taiwan, and with some of the last remaining European neutral powers in Europe – Finland and Sweden – announcing their wish to join NATO, it is easy to believe that strategic clarity has reached an apex. Or at least it is doing so in the way that former President George W. Bush made infamous: you’re either with us or against us.

In fact, the strategic picture following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is much murkier.

Even though there may be fewer neutrals in Europe, much of the world – including some large countries such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia – have not taken a clear stand for or against the morality of Russian aggression. Their willingness to support sanctions against Russia, or to overtly help Russia skirt the sanctions in order to oppose the United States and its allies, is for the moment very uncertain. Even fewer would be likely to take a stand against China in the event of Chinese aggression against Taiwan.

Within Europe, there are varying positions on how tough sanctions should be and for how long. And even among those countries actively assisting Ukraine, there are a number of views over the basic aims of that assistance, which range from helping Ukraine defend its territory to using the Ukraine crisis to keep Russian power weak in perpetuity. Some commentators have speculated that the war in Ukraine may lead to the fall of the Russian government and even to the breakup of the Russian Federation. Similar wishful thinking has been applied to China and would no doubt become louder during a Taiwan crisis.

Of course, it is possible to entertain notions of clarity and uncertainty at the same time. During most of the Cold War, its outcome, and the survival of much of the planet, was uncertain. Today, however, strategic clarity raises a number of critical questions:

Will the admission of former neutrals to NATO harden or attenuate NATO’s confrontational stance toward Russia over the longer term?

Will the more confrontational stance by the United States, and to some extent, Japan, toward China muddle or clarify their relations with other Asian powers?

How will those stances affect arms control, both nuclear and, someday, conventional, in Europe? In Asia?

Because more members almost always complicate relationships within an organization, how serious will intra-bloc divisions and tensions in NATO become? Will the same take place to a greater or lesser degree among US “allies and partners” in Asia?

What about overlapping institutional relationships? For example, will a bigger, stronger NATO come to dominate the EU? Or vice versa?

Finally, what about the ideology of “Eurasianism”? Will it survive Putin? Or will China, by its likely dominance of Russia, become a de facto European power in ways that few people until recently ever imagined?

These are just some of the questions that leaders and governments should be asking themselves and, one hopes, coming up with a few clear answers.

We don’t have them, otherwise we wouldn’t be posing the questions. We only suggest that the answers give priority to functional relationships, starting with the nuclear balance, rather than to geopolitical certainties.

The “clarity” that emerges in the West is probably going to be more a function of how China, Russia, and the United States behave in the next few years than of the vision held by any of the other powers. Ultimately, if a new Western bloc does emerge, it must as a matter of first priority obtain an active and positive understanding with competing blocs, starting with whatever also emerges between Russia and China.

The trickiest part is whether to think of blocs and the nations aligned with them as potential recruits for one very large security community, or to treat them as permanent rivals. Our preference would be to plan actively for the latter while hoping and working for the former, difficult though that may be.