As NATO meets, leaders worry about hole at the alliance’s heart

As President Biden and his aides planned the opening ceremony in Washington on Tuesday night to mark NATO’s 75th anniversary, the aim was to project an aura of confidence.

The message to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and other potential adversaries will be that after more than two years of war in Ukraine, a larger and more powerful group of Western allies has emerged that is more committed than ever to thwarting aggression.

But that trust appears to be in jeopardy as 38 world leaders begin arriving here on Monday. Even before the summit officially begins, it has been overshadowed by uncertainty about whether Mr. Biden will continue his campaign for a second term and the looming possibility of a return for former President Donald J. Trump.

Trump has previously declared NATO “obsolete,” threatened to withdraw from the alliance, and more recently said Russia could “do whatever it wants” to any member state it deems inadequate to contribute to the alliance. With Trump’s approval rating rising in recent post-debate polls, key European allies have begun discussing what a second Trump term would mean for NATO and whether it can counter Russia without being centered around U.S. weapons, money, and intelligence.

Mr. Biden will meet with leaders on Tuesday night in the sprawling Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, a few blocks from the White House, in the same room where President Harry S. Truman presided over the signing of the treaty founding NATO in 1949. Mr. Biden was 6 years old then and the Cold War was just beginning.

Now 81, he may be Washington’s most vocal supporter of an alliance that has expanded from 12 nations in 1949 to 32 today as an era of superpower rivalry gathers steam once again. But leaders gathering Tuesday night will be watching Biden’s every move, listening to his every word, looking for the same signals the nation is watching: whether he can hang on to four more years of presidency.

Biden knows that, and in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Friday, said he welcomes the scrutiny. “Who’s going to hold NATO together like I do?” the president asked rhetorically. “The best way to judge me is to see him at a summit and see how our allies respond,” the president said. “Listen. See what they say.”

As NATO leaders arrived, they acknowledged that the alliance faces an unexpected test: whether it can credibly maintain the momentum it has built up in supporting Ukraine at a time when trust in its most important players has never been more fragile.

And they know that President Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are watching too.

“NATO has never been and will never be something we can take for granted,” outgoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Sunday during a wide-ranging discussion with reporters. “We’ve been successful for 75 years and I’m confident we can be just as successful in the future. But it’s a matter of political leadership, political commitment.”

In the months leading up to the meeting, NATO was making bets in anticipation of President Trump’s reelection, setting up a new NATO command to ensure long-term arms supplies and military assistance to Ukraine in the event of a Trump-era U.S. withdrawal.

But conversations with NATO leaders make it clear that plans to modernize NATO forces and prepare for an era that could be marked by decades of conflict with Russia have not been matched by a commensurate increase in the military budget.

More than two dozen NATO nations have met the goal of devoting 2 percent of their gross national product to defense, fulfilling pledges made in response to Trump’s demands or in the wake of Russian aggression. The percentage, set more than a decade ago when terrorism seemed the greatest threat, seems vastly underestimated given the challenge ahead, many of Biden’s advisers say.

In Europe, Germany has announced plans to strengthen its military to deter a Russian invasion, a reform promised by Chancellor Olaf Scholz weeks after the Russian invasion. But Scholz’s grandiose plan still has no budget, and German officials have resisted putting a price tag on it because the political maneuvering to win public support has proven too difficult.

Carl Bildt, co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations and former prime minister of Sweden, I wrote recently European countries “need to double their budgets again to ensure that we deter the threat from an increasingly desperate Russian regime.”

Despite this, White House officials said Monday that Biden will not push for new military spending targets.

But the more pressing issue for Biden and Scholz is avoiding another public clash with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky over how to portray the country’s eventual membership in NATO.

While en route to Vilnius, Lithuania, for NATO’s annual general meeting last year, Zelenskiy expressed frustration at the lack of a timetable for Ukraine’s NATO membership. “It is unprecedented and absurd that there is no timeframe set for either the invitation or Ukraine’s membership,” he wrote on social media at the time.

Upon his arrival, he was temporarily reassured by promises from the alliance that Ukraine would be able to skip some of the hurdles other countries had to overcome before joining.

But in recent months, NATO countries have been negotiating language to get around this issue, rather than risk admitting Ukraine as a member while it is at war.

In recent weeks, negotiators have begun to settle on a new approach: NATO is expected to declare Ukraine’s eventual membership “irreversible,” diplomats involved in the talks said.

The word “irreversible” sounds definitive, but it does nothing to resolve Zelenskyy’s central demand: the date by which Russia would come under NATO protection.

Zelensky’s case is clearly the most dire, but it is far from the only one.

Seventy-five years after NATO was founded at the dawn of the Cold War to contain the Soviet threat, some current and potential future leaders of NATO member states appear sympathetic to Russia’s diplomatic pleas, despite Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who recently visited Russia with Putin, made no public statements criticizing Russia’s aggression or continued attacks on civilians, but suggested he would seek peace talks on terms closer to those demanded by Russia.

The White House criticized the visit on Monday. National Security Council spokesman John F. Kirby said Orbán’s visit “is clearly not productive in terms of trying to get things done in Ukraine,” adding that it was “of concern.”

But to avoid publicly splitting NATO on the eve of the summit, Stoltenberg refrained from criticising Orban, pointing out that “NATO allies interact with Moscow in different ways and at different levels.”

Still, Stoltenberg said attempts at reconciliation as Putin moves into Ukraine will ultimately not bring peace. “We all want peace,” he said. “You can always end a war by losing it, but that doesn’t bring peace. It only brings occupation. And occupation is not peace.”

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