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Blinken's visit heralds a new dawn for NATO

March 23, 2021

For the beleaguered NATO Alliance, the visit by the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is balm for the organization’s trans-Atlantic soul. But a number of divisive issues remain unresolved.

Anthony Blinken and Jens Stoltenberg wearing masks
The US Secretary of State vowed to strengthen the transatlantic allianceImage: Yves Herman/REUTERS

The relief was written on NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's face. At the meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, the senior diplomat was visibly appreciative of the new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's pledges of support and unity.

After four years of friction with the previous US administration, browbeating and insults by former US President Donald Trump, there is a new mood of optimism in NATO headquarters. "We now have the one-time opportunity to start a new chapter in the relations between North America, the US and Europe," Stoltenberg told DW.

A renewed partnership

The NATO leader expected a strong commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance from his US counterpart and wasn't disappointed. Antony Blinken said that he came to Brussels to express Washington's commitment to NATO and that's what he did. "The United States wants to rebuild our partnerships, first and foremost with our NATO allies, we want to revitalize the alliance,” he told the press.

Donald Trump holding up a plate of Thanksgiving dinner to US troops
The meeting helped banish the spirit of TrumpImage: Getty Images/AFP/O. Douliery

These were welcome words for France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian — after French President Emmanuel Macron back in 2019 referred to the alliance as experiencing "brain death,” triggering a debate over its future.

That future now looks a lot better and is currently running under the banner "NATO 2030," which, it is hoped, will culminate in a June Brussels NATO summit with US President Joe Biden in attendance.

The other assembled foreign ministers also welcomed Blinken's message. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he was looking forward to renewed talks on further developing the alliance. "There was a time to reflect and there's a strategic compass. And its now time for NATO to prepare for the major challenges of our time. And this means positioning ourselves with regard to China and Russia. And the conflicts that are happening within NATO not only have to be discussed politically, they also have to be solved," he proposed.

Conflicts with Germany

The new US Secretary of State wasted no time in addressing one of those conflicts: the ongoing dispute over the gas pipeline project Nord Stream 2 which intends to pump Russian gas into the European Union through Germany.  Blinken called the plan a "bad idea, bad for Europe, bad for the United States" and said that companies taking part in the project would face sanctions, demanding that construction be halted.

US soldiers in Afghanistan walk towards a helicopter
The future of NATO's mission in Afghanistan was high on the agendaImage: Brian Harris/Planet Pix/ZUMA/picture alliance

He also expressed misgivings about Turkey, saying that Ankara's purchase of anti-aircraft missiles from Russia and its dispute with Greece over contested natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean were issues that need to be resolved. But he called them resolvable and said they should not damage future cooperation among reliable allies.

Much to the relief of the NATO foreign ministers, Blinken did not make member states' military spending a central part of the talks, as the Trump administration had. The 2% military spending goal was not on the table Tuesday, according to one diplomat.

US President Donald Trump took a different tact on the matter and complained often and loudly about Europe not pulling its weight and even went so far as to say that "NATO allies were exploiting and taking advantage of the US." NATO members say they remain committed to spending 2% of GDP on military spending by the year 2024.

Seeking unity on Afghanistan

The new mood at NATO is optimistic, but also realistic. The US no longer intends to decide on issues such as troop withdrawals from Afghanistan alone, 20 years after western troops first occupied the country, but rather plans to coordinate such measures with its allies. The US diplomat said the old rules apply, telling reporters: "We went in together, we have adjusted together and when the time is right we will leave together." 

The Trump administration had signed a unilateral agreement with the Taliban to leave Afghanistan by the end of April. Washington however has since complained that the Taliban didn't keep its end of the bargain and renounce violence. The US now says its considering extending its military presence in Afghanistan, 20 years after it freed the country from Taliban rule.  What to do next is now up for review, Blinken said. "Whatever the United States ends up doing will be informed by the thinking of our NATO allies, which I'll take back to me after these conversations and consultations," said Blinken.

No decision on Afghanistan was made at the Brussels talks, much to the consternation of some of the foreign ministers, who say time is now running out.

Heiko Maas in a mask standing in front of furled NATO members' flags
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressed doubts about a premature pull-out of troops from AfghanistanImage: Virginia Mayo/AP/dpa/picture alliance

With 1,300 boots on the ground in Afghanistan, Germany is the second-largest NATO contingent in the region, followed by the US, which has 2,500 troops in theater. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas says he'll only consider pulling out Bundeswehr troops if significant advances are made on the peace front. "We don't want a premature troop withdrawal to risk the Taliban making a comeback and taking over power again."

China's growing importance

NATO heads of state are expected to have China high on their agenda during their June summit. As the alliance looks to the year 2030 and discusses its future direction, one of the major issues will be Beijing's growing influence on the world stage. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview with DW that China is coming closer to the West by way of its investments in the critical infrastructure of many countries. ""There's no way we can avoid addressing the security consequences for our regional alliance of the rise of China and the shift in the global balance of power," he said.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov met in Guilin in southern China Tuesday to position themselves against the "newly revived NATO alliance." Lavrov said he recognized the signature of what he called the "destructive nature of America's interests which rely upon political and military cold-war alliances." Those "renewed alliances," he said,  "are destined to undermine the architecture of international rule of law set forth by the United Nations." 

The Chinese and Russian foreign ministers say they view NATO's attempt at unity as an effort by western, trans-Atlantic forces to force their "rule-based understanding of world order on other countries."

Vaccines for the summit

The NATO foreign ministers are meeting in person in Brussels despite the ongoing coronavirus crisis. One of their major goals is to set the groundwork for their June summit of government leaders. In order to create a safe working environment from a "viral” standpoint, the goal will be to get all 4,000 NATO employees who will be attending the summit vaccinated before it takes place.

NATO member Poland said it is making the necessary amount of AstraZeneca vaccines available for these purposes. Whether this will sit well with the Belgian authorities in Brussels, who fear some will be getting their shots out of turn, is anyone's guess. The Belgian authorities, according to the news agency AP, have so far been reluctant to comment on the issue.

This article was translated from German. 

Correction 24. March 2020: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Antony Blinken's name. It has been corrected. 

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union