It's NATO's birthday, but all eyes are on the White House

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Today, all 32 members of NATO convene in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the alliance’s 75th birthday. 

Created in April 1949 with 12 original members, NATO was designed as a military alliance to deter and prevent further aggression by the Soviet Union in Europe. Since then, NATO has expanded to 32 members, fought a war in Afghanistan, used force in Yugoslavia in 1999, and intervened militarily in Libya in 2011.

Now the alliance must determine what to do as the war in Ukraine continues with no apparent end in sight, China flexes its economic, military and diplomatic muscles and the war in Gaza could expand. 

But unlike any other summit, this one takes place at a time when the U.S. president faces heavy pressure to resign, and the authority of the presidency may have been dramatically expanded due to the Supreme Court’s ruling on presidential immunity.

When the other NATO heads of government and state sit down with President Joe Biden tomorrow, the shelf-life of his tenure will be a legitimate question. Likewise, that future presidents may be above the law if all official acts are granted immunity will raise some profound questions.  

This is not to say that prior summits were free from chaos. For example, the 50th anniversary summit in April 1999, also held in Washington, was not without controversy. President Bill Clinton had just been impeached by the House of Representatives four months earlier. And while not at war in the sense that NATO’s Article 5 had not been invoked (stating that an attack on one shall be considered an attack on all), NATO was bombing Serbia to prevent the ethnic cleansing and murder of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Nonetheless, that summit was successful. A new strategic concept was approved along with a defense capabilities initiative to strengthen NATO’s military power. Three new members were added — the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Boris Yeltsin was still president of Russia and a friend.

A second summit that was by no means assured as a success came in Brussels in 2018. There in a closed session, President Donald Trump read the riot act to his colleagues, demanding that NATO countries must pay their fair share, including money that was “owed” in the past and must be repaid — although this latter category of arrears does not exist. 

After the summit ended, Trump bragged about how he had convinced members of the alliance to pay their fair share for defense. NATO has survived, if not a near-death experience, then something that came remarkably close. Members learned what to expect with the mercurial and bullying Trump.

Whether that knowledge will be useful in future summits is a thought that every NATO member is taking into account, in case Trump wins in November. But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte performed admirably in Brussels and is one reason he will be NATO’s next secretary general.

So aside from addressing these critical issues at this summit, Biden will be under everyone’s microscope, from his NATO colleagues to audiences with global reach. A single stutter, misstep, stumble or faux pas could be a political nightmare for the president. 

His fellow NATO leaders will be carefully, politely and subtly studying the president to determine his mental and physical acuity and agility. And, of course, the media attention will be even more intense.

Instead of the summit being dominated by issues, no matter how much the agenda has been pre-cooked and approved in advance, never before has the so-called leader of the free world overshadowed the meeting. Perhaps Trump did in 2018, but not to the same degree as this time, with so many questioning Biden’s fitness to remain in power and worrying about the uncertainties that lay ahead concerning America’s leadership.

It was no accident that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is led by China and Russia and features nine members and three observer states, met in Kazakhstan last week in advance of the NATO summit. 

The summit may need two miracles. First, Biden must put in a near-perfect performance, which in itself might upstage whatever comes out of the summit. Second, NATO must show strength, unity and clarity in dealing with major issues, principally Ukraine and ending the war on favorable terms.  

The question is, will NATO be both lucky and good?

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D., is a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of the “shock and awe” military doctrine. He is the author of “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD:  How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.”

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