Finding the right role for NATO in addressing China and climate change

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a presser held as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit.

Executive Summary

Brookings – Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic InitiativeThe North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has evolved considerably since the end of the Cold War — taking on emerging threats like transnational terrorism and piracy, and venturing into new arenas such as cybersecurity and space. Today, two new issues are rising fast on NATO’s agenda, despite neither fitting comfortably into the mission of an alliance founded to address a direct military threat to Europe: China and climate change.

The primary geostrategic competitor of the future — for the United States at least — is China. But while China presents a complex set of economic, political, technological, and military challenges for which developing common trans-Atlantic positions is proving challenging, it is also very unlikely to trigger NATO’s Article 5 collective security provision.

Meanwhile, the primary existential threat faced by allies is climate change, which will of course affect NATO operations (including through its impacts on low-lying military bases) and the livelihoods — and potentially political systems — of NATO nations. The alliance is but one forum, however, that ought to be utilized to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to combat human-induced global warming. Moreover, mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis will require cooperation with China even as the strategic rivalry between the West and China intensifies.

How the alliance plans to address China and climate change remains far from clear — as does NATO’s approach to these two issues as member states continue to calibrate their national positions. Nonetheless, the June 2021 NATO summit communiqué made clear that the alliance intends to tackle both of these security challenges as it develops its new Strategic Concept.

In this paper, we examine how NATO might usefully contribute to the trans-Atlantic response to the China challenge and climate change, while stressing why the United States and Europe will need to look beyond NATO to strengthen other frameworks — particularly the U.S.-European Union and NATO-EU relationships — as they seek to develop trans-Atlantic responses to these increasingly complex twin challenges.


  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    The authors are grateful to Christopher Chivvis, Samantha Gross, and Tom Wright for reviewing and commenting on drafts of this paper. They would also like to extend special thanks to Colleen Dougherty and Lucy Seavey for their research assistance, Natalie Britton for her assistance in the preparation of this paper, Ted Reinert for editing, and Rachel Slattery for layout.