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A revived NATO marks 75 years, but political uncertainty clouds its future

4 days ago 26

This week’s NATO summit in Washington was supposed to be a celebration.

Seventy-five years after its founding, the alliance is bigger and more relevant than it’s been in decades. Transatlantic ties are strong again. Spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, allies are united — thanks, in no small part, to U.S. leadership.

But as the city prepares to play host to dozens of heads of state and government, few are in the mood for a party. The U.S. president who championed NATO’s revival is in serious trouble. On both sides of the Atlantic, far-right, isolationist politics loom.

NATO, at 75, is still vigorous. Yet it’s hard not to wonder how the alliance will look a year from now — whether it will make it to 76 alive and well.

Over three days of meetings starting Tuesday, President Biden and Western leaders will make the case that NATO and the post-World War II order have good years ahead.

Allies will recall the history that brought them together and rally around the need to counter a revanchist Russia. They will outline how they are working to help Ukraine. And they will signal that NATO has a close eye on the budding military partnership between Beijing and Moscow.

Outside the halls of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center — where the formal business of summitry will take place — the storyline will be less sanguine, with a focus on Biden’s fitness for office, the possibility of a second Trump presidency and political chaos in France.

The messaging from the summit will be calibrated to make a case for the alliance, to try to ensure it weathers the political storm intact. Allies will stress significant increases in defense spending and offer Ukraine more military aid — though the package is less than some NATO officials hoped and will not come with much progress on membership.

The turmoil is apparent to “every single European leader” ahead of the summit, said Camille Grand, a former NATO assistant secretary general who is now a distinguished policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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“They don’t want to make it part of the discussion, out of courtesy for Biden,” he continued, “but it is on everyone’s mind.”

All eyes on U.S. politics

Hosting NATO’s anniversary summit in Washington carries symbolic weight — but not, perhaps, in the way U.S. officials and diplomats had hoped.

Over the last few years, the Biden administration has worked to rebuild transatlantic ties damaged during the Trump era, renewing relationships with partners and signaling strong support for NATO.

“America is back; the transatlantic alliance is back. And we are not looking backward,” Biden announced at the Munich Security Conference in 2021.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year later seemed to prove him right, imbuing the alliance with a fresh sense of purpose, two new members in Finland and Sweden, and more sophisticated plans for deterrence and defense.

But in the months leading up to the Washington summit, Donald Trump shook the alliance by suggesting he would encourage Russia to attack U.S. allies if they did not spend enough on their militaries. At the same time, a months-long delay in getting U.S. aid to Ukraine underscored the precarity of American support.

Allies have responded by trying to “Trump-proof” their plans. NATO will this week formalize an effort to bring some of the work of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a U.S.-led coordinating body to supply Kyiv with a steady stream of weapons, partially under NATO control.

The idea is to try to stop Trump from pulling the plug on military aid and training for Ukraine. “If you internationalize it then you do Trump-proof it,” said one senior NATO official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss alliance plans.

Other NATO officials and diplomats cast this and other efforts as well-meaning but wildly insufficient to stop a determined Trump from undermining the alliance or its support for Ukraine should he so choose. Congress approved a measure aimed at preventing any U.S. president from unilaterally withdrawing the United States from NATO. But Trump would not need to formally leave the alliance to seriously undermine it; repeatedly suggesting that you won’t come to the defense of allies could do that on its own.

In recent days, questions about whether Biden is fit to stay on as the Democratic presidential candidate have compounded European concern — though most leaders are too polite to say so publicly. Behind the scenes, U.S. officials are trying to calm nerves, stressing that the alliance has survived all manner of political upheaval over more than seven decades. “We can’t stop national elections, that’s just part of the alliance’s DNA,” said a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to brief the press.

The alliance “has seen it all,” the official said. “This is not totally unfamiliar.”

European leaders in trouble

Still, the challenges seem to be multiplying. The Washington summit comes amid major political turmoil in France, where a strong showing from Marine Le Pen’s far-right party in the European elections last month prompted President Emmanuel Macron to dissolve Parliament and call snap legislative elections on June 30 and July 7.

Though early projections suggest that French voters mobilized Sunday to prevent the first far-right government since World War II, Macron and his centrist political movement will probably be constrained.

Macron is a longtime proponent of the idea that Europe should cultivate “strategic autonomy” from the United States, and in the past year he has tried to put himself at the front of the European response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

But uncertainty about what comes next — for Macron’s foreign policy, and French politics in general — will complicate alliance politics. “A France flapping in the wind would be a problem in peacetime,” wrote columnist Sylvie Kauffmann in Le Monde, a French daily, last week. “But it will be all the more so in the face of a Russian power at war that is redoubling its aggression and ostensibly welcoming the turmoil in Western democracies.”

In Germany, another powerful NATO ally, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, is also in trouble, beset by economic challenges, a shaky coalition and a rising far right. Scholz said at a party event last week that he was nervous about the situation in France and was texting with Macron daily, according to Spiegel. “We are discussing the situation, which is truly depressing,” he said.

Ukraine’s future at stake

All this upheaval is particularly bad news for Ukraine, whose immediate survival and long-term prospects depend, to some extent, on the fate of the alliance.

At last year’s summit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky angered allies with fiery tweets about the lack of an invitation to join NATO. This year, he will leave the summit with promises of enduring support and some takeaways — the new NATO structure for coordinating aid to Ukraine, military aid for the year ahead and the promise of some sort of “bridge” to membership.

Given Russian advances in eastern Ukraine and the pummeling of Kharkiv, he is unlikely to be satisfied. It is less than he hoped, certainly, and less than many believe he needs to win the war.

Kate Brady in Berlin contributed to this report.

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