NATO meets in Washington amid anxiety over Trump and rising far right

NATO meets in Washington amid anxiety over Trump and rising far right

NATO meets in Washington amid anxiety over Trump and rising far right

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Leaders of the West’s main military alliance are meeting in Washington this week. NATO’s annual summit marks the bloc’s 75th anniversary and the heads of member states attending will be seeking to demonstrate their collective resolve and strength. But a marked sense of vulnerability and anxiety looms over the deliberations.

The specter of a possible return of former President Donald Trump haunts many of America’s European allies and looms ever closer amid growing clamor over President Biden’s ability to win reelection. Trump repeatedly expressed antipathy toward NATO in his first term, and in the most recent debate he refused to say whether he would withdraw the U.S. from the alliance. European diplomats are already preparing contingency plans for a future Trump administration; many doubt he will actually withdraw from NATO but worry that Trump will weaken U.S. commitments to the alliance and undermine transatlantic unity.

Trump’s ultranationalist bluster and Biden’s frailty during the debate sent their own message to foreign observers. “This election is doing more to discredit American democracy than (Russian President) Vladimir Putin and (Chinese President) Xi Jinping could ever hope to,” Sergey Radchenko, a historian at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, wrote on social media. “I worry about the image being projected to the outside world. It is not an image of leadership. It is an image of terminal decline.”

In Europe, national and regional elections have given a boost to far-right populist factions, including some more hospitable to the Kremlin and skeptical of NATO, though exit polls in France’s midterm elections on Sunday appeared to show voters mobilizing to reject the right-wing, anti-immigration National Rally party. Still, political headwinds on both sides of the Atlantic are swirling around this week’s meetings in Washington.


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“The summit has gone from being an orchestrated spectacle to one of the most anxiously awaited meetings in modern times,” a senior Biden administration official told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius last week.

The war in Ukraine will surely dominate the debates. Despite kyiv’s insistence and the enthusiasm of some of its Eastern European neighbors, Ukraine’s membership in NATO is off the table. Instead, NATO member states are signing important bilateral security agreements with the Ukrainians and working to speed up arms transfers and military aid, as Ukrainian forces hold their ground more than two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Diplomats in Washington are aware that Trump may choose to cut off military support to kyiv, which was already subject to a costly delay because some Republicans in Congress blocked the necessary funding for months. They fear a scenario in which a Trump White House might tacitly allow Russia to consolidate its control over illegally won territories in Ukraine, pushing for a negotiated peace before Kiev has the upper hand in the war. That is why both the Biden administration and some governments in Europe have desperately sought to “Trump-proof” support for Ukraine in the short and medium term.

“With Trump’s possible return on the horizon, the best way to ensure Ukraine’s long-term security is to give it more capability to defeat Russia,” my colleague Josh Rogin noted. “That means speeding up the delivery of air defense systems, fighter jets, longer-range rockets, and helping Ukraine develop its own defense production to reduce its dependence on the West.”

At last year’s NATO summit in Lithuania, Ukrainian frustrations at not receiving a formal invitation to the alliance became public and threw the meetings into chaos. Similar tensions may not be on display this week, but some of Ukraine’s supporters in Washington believe Biden should do more.

“We have a political window right now that should allow for greater acceptance of NATO membership,” Dan Runde, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. “This should be the moment when the Biden administration should be pushing” Ukraine’s NATO candidacy, added Runde, who served under President George W. Bush and pointed to Bush’s attempts to encourage Ukraine and Georgian membership in 2008 that, at the time, were not matched by many of the United States’ European counterparts.

In the absence of clear commitments to Ukraine, NATO officials have chosen to focus on the bigger picture.“The United States is home to a quarter of the world’s economy, but together, NATO allies have half the world’s economy and half its military might,” outgoing NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Together, our deterrence is more credible, our support for Ukraine is more consistent, and our cooperation with external partners is more effective.”

Stoltenberg’s designated successor, former Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, is positioning himself as a clear-headed leader of the alliance and has already urged his European colleagues to adapt to whatever political situation prevails in Washington after November. “We should stop complaining, whining and scolding Trump,” Rutte told a security conference earlier this year. “I’m not an American; I can’t vote in America. We have to work with whoever is on the dance floor.”

But the background music is growing grim. A new poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations in 15 European countries, including Ukraine, revealed a growing disconnect between Ukrainians and European audiences around the world. Asked how the war will end, nearly 60 percent of Ukrainians said they see a resounding victory for their nation, while only 30 percent think it will end in some kind of diplomatic settlement. If bolstered by a further surge in Western arms, that Ukrainian belief in a complete victory, pollsters say, will only grow.

Many other Europeans do not share this enthusiasm, overwhelmingly rejecting the sending of ground forces to aid the Ukrainians and doubting Kiev’s ability to win the war. “The prevailing view in most countries… is that the conflict will end with a compromise agreement,” noted the authors of the ECFR report, Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard. “Thus, when it comes to the end of the war, European citizens express the pessimism of intellect while Ukrainians represent the optimism of political will.”