Morning Brief

NATO Foreign Ministers Meet as Alliance Seeks New Path

With its mission in Afghanistan under threat, NATO needs a new raison d’être. China may become a convenient foil.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a joint press conference with  Turkish Foreign Minister after their meeting at the Foreign Ministry building in Ankara, on October 05, 2020.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a joint press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister after their meeting at the Foreign Ministry building in Ankara, on October 05, 2020. Adem ALTAN / AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: NATO foreign ministers begin two days of talks, OPEC countries to decide on production limits, and Brazil’s deforestation hits 12-year high.

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NATO Searches For Meaning in Biden Era

Foreign ministers of NATO member nations meet today for a two-day conference to discuss the future of the alliance as the organization searches for relevance ahead of the impending Joe Biden presidency.

The alliance has spent the last two decades finding purpose in its Afghanistan mission, but with U.S. interest waning, and troops departing, it’s in search of a new raison d’être.

Pivot to Asia? The group appears to have found its motivation in a challenger thousands of miles from its borders. A new report due to be reviewed at today’s meeting calls for fresh thinking on dealing with a rising China, including deepening ties with Asian allies and increasing technological capabilities.

A. Wess Mitchell, one of the report’s co-authors and a former assistant secretary of state for Europe, laid out the core message in an interview with the New York Times. “NATO has to adapt itself for an era of strategic rivalry with Russia and China, for the return of a geopolitical competition that has a military dimension but also a political one,’’ he said.

The shift in focus is in line with a draft European Commission report that seeks to engage the United States in a new spirit of cooperation, including on subjects as far apart as digital regulation and deforestation. NATO’s posture should also catch Biden’s eye; he has championed the alliance in the past and whose administration looks set to continue the Asia “rebalance” embraced by the Obama administration. 

Public support remains high. Despite its identity crisis, NATO’s supporters can take some solace in public support for the organization. A Pew survey taken in 2019 found that public support is relatively high, and largely unchanged over the past decade; 82 percent of Poles approve of the alliance and the median approval rating across members states is 53 percent. France and Germany have seen the biggest drops in support among European members, with just 49 percent and 57 percent respectively holding a favorable view of the organization in 2019.

The Turkey problem. The outlier in those polls is Turkey, where only 21 percent of those polled held a favorable view of NATO, while 55 percent thought of the organization unfavorably. Turkey’s membership in NATO is starting to make less and less sense by the day, exemplified by its de facto alliance with Russia in the aftermath of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and its insistence on adopting Russia’s S-400 air defense system against the wishes of Washington.

What We’re Following Today

OPEC decision. Oil producing nations are expected to decide today on whether to increase production in the new year after a day of talks failed to yield a resolution on Monday. OPEC+ countries were due to increase production by 1.9 million barrels per day in January as part of a groupwide cut agreed in April, but the still-sluggish global demand for oil has prompted a rethink. The likely outcome, according to Bloomberg reporting, is a three-month extension to production cuts, although disagreements remain between cartel members on the exact terms of the deal.

Vaccine standoff. The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Stephen Hahn, will visit the White House today amid frustration at the speed of the agency’s approval process for coronavirus vaccines. The decision to summon Hahn comes as Trump administration officials offering differing accounts of when vaccines will begin being distributed. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), has said the Pfizer vaccine should be available as soon as Dec. 10, although an FDA official responsible for approving the vaccine said it could take “a few weeks.” The news comes as the U.S. reported a total of 4 million cases of the coronavirus in the month of November, a figure higher than any country has recorded in total over the course of the entire pandemic except for Brazil and India. 

U.S. Supreme Court hears international child labor case. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that will help determine whether U.S. corporations can be held responsible for human rights abuses committed abroad. The plaintiffs in the case allege that Nestlé and Cargill are liable for “aiding and abetting child slavery” for allowing child labor on cocoa farms that they control in Ivory Coast. Both corporations argue they can’t be held liable and that they are not directly responsible for any harm caused.

Keep an Eye On

Scottish independence. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has called for an independence referendum “in the early part of the new parliament,” ahead of Scottish parliamentary elections in May. Sturgeon made the remarks in an address at a Scottish National Party (SNP) conference. Although Scottish voters rejected independence by a 55-45 percent margin in 2014, recent polls show a majority in favor of secession, likely due to the strong support for the European Union among Scots. Westminster would have to give Edinburgh permission to hold another referendum, and Sturgeon has said she will take the British government to court if they block a vote. Writing in Foreign Policy, Jamie Maxwell explains why Boris Johnson may have inadvertently furthered Sturgeon’s cause.

Somalia-Kenya tensions. Somalia has expelled its Kenyan ambassador and recalled its own from Nairobi, alleging that Kenya had interfered in its electoral procedures in the state of Jubaland, while providing no evidence. The news was announced via a Facebook post by Somalia’s foreign ministry, and according to their Kenyan counterparts, no formal communication has been made about the ambassador’s removal.

Brazil’s rainforest. The level of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has hit a 12-year high, according to official data released on Monday. 11,088 square kilometers (4,281 square miles) of rainforest was destroyed in 2020, a 9.5 percent increase since 2019. Although deforestation has increased under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, Monday’s figures left some room for optimism: 2020’s 9.5 percent increase was much lower than in 2019, when deforestation was 34 percent higher than the previous year.

Odds and Ends

Tensions are fermenting between South Korea and China after a Chinese news outlet claimed China was leading the way on a traditional Korean dish. The spat begins with kimchi, a fermented vegetable dish that is a mainstay of Korean cuisine, but that goes by the name of pao cai in China (complicated further by a similar Chinese dish also called pao cai). The global standards body ISO recently published new regulations for the storage and transport of the Chinese variant, prompting the Global Times to crow that China was leading the world in kimchi standards.

The comment caused such anger on social media that Korea’s agricultural ministry issued a statement that international standards for kimchi were already set by the United Nations in 2001 and attempted to set the record straight once and for all. “It is inappropriate to report [the pao cai certification] without differentiating kimchi from pao cai of China’s Sichuan,” it said.

That’s it for today. 

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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