Marles should discuss beauty contests at the NATO summit in Washington
9 Jul 2024| and

The leaders assembled in Washington for the NATO summit this week cannot avoid talking about the ghost at the feast, Donald Trump, who looks increasingly set to win the US presidential election in November.

Allies have arguably already begun virtue-signalling towards Trump, including passing the message that their defence spending meets, or will rise to meet, the threshold for membership in Trump’s ‘two-percenter’ club.

This is welcome and overdue where it leads to greater collective burden-sharing. But there is a danger that allies will begin to focus overly on courting Trump’s attention through bilateral transactions, rather than within the multilateral alliance architecture. Such an approach would favour strongmen—such as Hungary’s President Viktor Orban—who also enjoy hobnobbing with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

If alliance dynamics start to revolve around Trump’s ego, then future NATO summits could become unseemly beauty contests for US attention and resources. European allies might compete against Indo-Pacific allies as the anchor for the United States’ strategic focus. Even within Europe, older allies in the west might scrap with newer allies in the east to play host to US tripwire forces and nuclear weapons.

Such contests could degrade deterrence everywhere by exposing disunity and damaging the credibility of collective defence, raising the potential of further aggression by Russia and China. Australia must play its part to avoid such beauty contests taking hold.

Unfortunately, Australia’s voice at the 9 to 11 July NATO summit has been diminished by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s decision not to attend. His absence is more conspicuous because the leaders of Japan, South Korea and New Zealand are attending, leaving Australia as the only NATO Indo-Pacific partner (IP4) to downgrade participation. As Albanese also sent a surrogate to the Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland in June, some of those gathering in Washington will be questioning Canberra’s priorities. Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles, who will stand in for Albanese in Washington, has his work cut out.

Marles needs to use his meetings in Washington to affirm that Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security are inseparable, which would help lay the groundwork for a more integrated approach to deterrence and mitigate the risk that allies encourage Trump to concentrate on one region at the expense of the other. So far, the Albanese government has shied away, both in word and deed, from making this strategic link as unambiguously as some of NATO’s frontline countries, such as Lithuania. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has also been clearer than Australian ministers on this point.

Let’s hope that Marles grabs an opportunity to set the record straight in a meeting with Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security.

One argument against the strategic coupling of regions is that Trump has already made up his mind to focus on China, which is Australia’s primary concern. Some of those tipped to have prominent roles in a Trump administration, such as Elbridge Colby, argue that the United States must marshal its strength for full-spectrum competition with Beijing, forcing Europe to stop free-riding and to confront the Russian threat. This is not an isolationist perspective but one that identifies China, not Russia, as the pacing challenge. From this viewpoint, the beauty contest is rigged, so why waste time fighting the result?

Colby’s view has gained some acceptance in Europe. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has tapped Gaullist veins to argue that Europe should develop greater strategic autonomy, backed by military structures that do not depend on NATO. Britain’s new defence secretary, John Healey, has warned that Europe must step into gaps vacated by the United States as it shifts its attention to China.

Europe stepping up on defence is beneficial for its relationship with the United States and for global security. But a clear division of labour, in which the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies faced China while Europe confronted Russia, would be impracticable and counterproductive.

In the military domain, the credibility of US extended nuclear deterrence in Europe cannot be readily decoupled from the presence of US conventional forces. Furthermore, the democracies must simultaneously meet the challenge posed by deepening cooperation between Xi, Putin and other revisionist powers across a range of fronts. The response includes de-risking economies, securing supply chains and competing on critical technologies. That requires developing synergies in the industrial base and building a shared innovation ecosystem across the West. Failure in any domain of competition risks losing everywhere.

It’s also not clear yet whether the Asia-first viewpoint of Colby and other advisers that Trump came to rely on in his first term, such as Robert O’Brien and Matt Pottinger, would hold sway during a second Trump term. As in all administrations, there would be a diversity of perspectives across the National Security Council, Pentagon and State Department. There may unfortunately be no equivalent of Trump’s former defense secretary James Mattis to tactfully nuance and implement presidential memos. But others who have remained close to Trump, such as former Central Intelligence Agency director and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, are clear-eyed on China and Russia. Regardless of their differences, all these advisers would try to dissuade Trump from cutting a deal with Xi, Putin or Kim Jong Un that sold out US allies.

The best hedges against Trump’s mercurialism are broad and cross-bracing alliances across Europe and the Indo-Pacific. If allies pander to Trump for favours, they encourage his transactionalism. But if Trump hears a consistent message of solidarity from his allies, couched in terms of burden sharing and arresting the falsehoods of Western decline, then he may be inclined to rein in some of his worst tendencies towards US unilateralism.

Therefore, Marles should work with the IP4 in Washington to explore a deeper relationship with NATO, including looking for ways to overcome the impediments that France and others have put in the way of opening a liaison office in Tokyo. A new official-level deterrence dialogue between NATO and the IP4 could also be valuable, both for signalling and technical coordination. In the longer term, NATO’s Indo-Pacific horizons need to expand to include exchanges with India, Indonesia and the Philippines.

NATO should be part of the solution, but it also has its limits in Australia’s region. There is no prospect of revising the North Atlantic Treaty to extend its geographic scope, so the Indo-Pacific will remain under a separate alliance system. At the same time, the EU has comprehensive power in such fields as economic and technological security and the setting of norms and legal standards, and it is already partnering with ASPI on a capacity-building project to counter hybrid threats in the Indo-Pacific.

Luis Simon at the Brussels-based Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy frames this balance as ‘NATO with rather than in the Indo-Pacific’. ASPI is glad to be working with Simon and other partner think tanks on a series of recommendations for NATO’s approach to the Indo-Pacific, which will be delivered at NATO headquarters later this year.

One way to nudge the dial without overhauling architecture is to build agile coalitions of cross-regional partners to solve specific problems, such as the drone coalition led by Latvia and Britain, which Australia has joined. In general, Canberra will find the most fertile ground for this type of practical coalition-building among the Nordic countries and NATO’s eastern flank, including in Poland, Czechia and the Baltic states, which recognise that Putin’s unbounded ambition relies on support from China.

As ASPI’s Danielle Cave has pointed out, Canberra’s preparations for Trump must include investing in deeper networks in Europe. The best way to avert the sorry spectacle of a beauty contest is by having a more modern and exciting alternative pre-programmed.