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4 things to watch for as NATO leaders meet in US capital for high-stakes summit

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When Washington, D.C., last hosted a NATO summit in 1999, the alliance was celebrating a milestone. It was also facing a war in Europe and welcoming new members to the alliance.

So there will be a certain feeling of déjà vu in the American capital when leaders from 32 nations meet starting July 9, 2024, to discuss the state of the alliance as it turns 75.

Yet the scale of the challenges that NATO faces today, both within and without the organization, dwarfs what it confronted as it commemorated its 50th anniversary in 1999. The war in Ukraine has now been raging on for more than two years. NATO also has to contemplate the rise of China and the challenges that brings to geopolitics. Meanwhile, various members of the alliance are also experiencing political challenges at home and consequential elections.

In particular, the upcoming U.S. presidential election looms large for NATO. Republican candidate Donald Trump has been quick to express his displeasure with the alliance. And close advisers suggest that he is serious about possibly trying to withdraw the U.S. from NATO if he is elected president again.

Other issues on the NATO summit’s agenda include the development of a new southern flank strategy to confront growing security challenges in the Middle East and North Africa and the introduction of a new secretary general, Mark Rutte.

But it’s the following four topics that will likely dominate discussions in Washington from July 9 to July 11. How the alliance tackles them will go some way in signaling the Health of NATO as it turns 75 – and the future direction of the alliance.

1. Ukraine membership: A battle of semantics?

NATO first expressed its support for Ukraine’s joining the alliance in 2008 but offered no timeline for moving forward. That state of limbo has continued to plague the alliance ever since. At the 2023 NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, the alliance did not seem in a terrible rush, declaring: “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met.”

This vague wording led to a fierce and frustrated public reaction from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who denounced the language as “unprecedented and absurd.”

The Washington summit will once again be a delicate exercise in semantics. A formal invitation to join will not be on the table for Ukraine, as several countries still oppose that step. The U.S. and Germany, in particular, have stated they first want to see more improvement from the government in Kyiv when it comes to tackling corruption and upholding the rule of law.

A group of men and women stand chatting in front of a sign reading 'NATO.'
2023’s NATO summit left Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy looking for more. AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

The trick for NATO’s leaders will be to devise language in its official statement that can placate all parties. It would have to show some progress from last year, be welcome by Kyiv and still receive support from all NATO member states. The Biden administration has spoken of offering a “bridge to membership,” but other allies are still hoping for stronger language. They are pushing for words along the lines of outgoing NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s statement in April that Ukraine is on an “irreversible path.”

2. Supporting Ukraine: Shielding aid from political winds

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Western states have provided significant military aid to Kyiv. But the most recent shipments have faced significant delays – the result of opposition from some countries within the European Union and similarly from members of the U.S. Congress. These delays have had detrimental consequences on the battlefield for Ukraine as it tries to repel Russian momentum.

A key challenge for NATO will be how to institutionalize support for Ukraine while shielding it from the prevailing political winds among member states.

As a first step, NATO is set to take over the coordination of security assistance and training for Ukraine. According to Stoltenberg, this just reflects that “99 percent of Military support already comes from NATO members.” But it also aims to improve on the current process. Indeed, the current system of support on a country-by-country basis has not always been driven by efficiency or by what Kyiv needs.

Additionally, Stoltenberg is pushing for a multiyear financial pledge from all member states to make aid to Ukraine more predictable.

But recent reports suggest this objective might end up being watered down. Member states may commit to only US$43 billion (40 billion euros) for one year, as opposed to making commitments for a longer period. The extent to which the summit can institutionalize aid to Ukraine will be a key test.

3. China and the Indo-Pacific: Globalizing security

Just days before the Washington summit, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg penned an article emphasizing that “security is not a regional matter but a global one.” He also added that “Europe’s security affects Asia, and Asia’s security affects Europe.”

NATO increasingly regards the European and Indo-Pacific theaters as interdependent, and this has been shaped by its growing concerns about China. It was only in 2019 that the alliance first formally discussed China as posing challenges and opportunities. Since then, NATO has adopted increasingly tougher language toward the authorities in Beijing.

In particular, China’s support for Russia during the war in Ukraine has greatly contributed to worsening relations with the West and drawn NATO further into the Indo-Pacific. The summit this week will include, for the third time in a row, the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand – none of which are NATO members.

NATO’s leaders see China as a challenge but are far less clear on how to tackle it. Cooperation with NATO’s four Indo-Pacific partners remains limited. The alliance also seems unsure as to what extent it should focus on Asia as opposed to Europe. And member states don’t agree on the seriousness of the threat posed by Beijing. Developing a clearer strategy toward China will be among the priorities for those attending the 2024 summit.

4. Projecting unity: Cohesion in troubled times

The 75th-anniversary summit is meant as a celebration of NATO’s longevity and capacity to endure. There will certainly be positive headlines to share, noticeably the fact that 23 member states are spending 2% of their gross domestic product on defense – a long-standing goal for NATO that relatively few countries met until recently. NATO has also managed to provide significant military aid for Ukraine since 2022.

But NATO is also a political alliance, and one facing major headwinds. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s “peace mission” to Moscow, just days before the NATO summit, stirred significant anger among other EU member states. Although French voters have opted against bringing the far-right National Rally to power – something that could have dramatically affected the country’s approach to NATO and Ukraine – the political landscape across NATO member states remains volatile.

And then, of course, there is the U.S. presidential election in November. A Trump victory might mean another troubled four years for NATO.

With the Washington, D.C., meeting being touted as a time to celebrate the longevity of NATO, the summit might well be judged by the degree to which member states can continue to present a united front amid thorny issues and uncertain political futures for individual member states.

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