As NATO Summit Convenes, Leaders Worry About Biden's Uncertain Future

As President Biden and his aides planned NATO's 75th anniversary, which opens Tuesday evening in Washington, the intent was to create an aura of trust.

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

But as 38 world leaders began arriving here on Monday, that confidence appears to be in jeopardy. Even before the summit formally began, it has been clouded by uncertainty over whether Mr Biden will remain in the running for a second term and the looming possibility of former President Donald J. Trump’s return.

Mr. Trump once declared NATO “obsolete,” threatened to leave the alliance, and more recently said he would let the Russians do “whatever the hell they want” to any member country he felt was not contributing enough to the alliance. In recent days, as Mr. Trump has risen in post-debate polls, key European allies have begun to debate what a second Trump term might mean for the alliance, and whether he could confront Russia without American weapons, money and intelligence gathering at its core.

Mr. Biden will welcome leaders to the vast Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium a few blocks from the White House on Tuesday night, the same room where the treaty creating NATO was signed in 1949, in a ceremony presided over by President Harry S. Truman. Mr. Biden was 6 years old at the time, and the Cold War was in its infancy.

Now 81, he is perhaps the most outspoken advocate in Washington for an alliance that has grown from 12 members in 1949 to 32 today, as the era of superpower conflict has roared back. But as they gather Tuesday night, leaders will be watching Mr. Biden’s every move and listening to his every word for the same signals Americans are focused on: whether he can go the distance of another four years in office.

Mr. Biden knows this, and said in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC on Friday that he welcomed the scrutiny. “Who’s going to hold NATO together like me?” the president asked rhetorically. “I guess a good way to judge me,” he said, is to watch him at the summit and see how the allies react. “Come listen. Hear what they say.”

Upon their arrival, NATO leaders acknowledged that the alliance faced an unexpected test: whether it could credibly maintain the momentum it had built in supporting Ukraine, when trust in its most important actor had never been more fragile.

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

“NATO has never been, and is not, and will never be, a given,” Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance's outgoing secretary general, said in a wide-ranging discussion with reporters on Sunday. “We have done this successfully for 75 years. I am confident that we can do it in the future. But this is about political leadership, this is about political commitment.”

Months before the meeting, the alliance began hedging its bets in the event of a second Trump presidency. It is establishing a new NATO command to ensure long-term supplies of weapons and military aid to Ukraine, even if the United States, under Mr. Trump, withdraws.

But talks with NATO leaders have made it clear that their plans to modernize their armed forces and prepare for an era that could be characterized by decades of confrontation with Russia are not accompanied by a commensurate increase in military budgets.

More than 20 NATO members have now reached the goal of spending 2 percent of their gross national product on defense, fulfilling promises made by some in response to Mr. Trump’s demands and by others to the realities of the Russian invasion. That percentage, a goal set more than a decade ago at a time when terrorism seemed the greatest threat, seems wildly undersized for the task at hand, several of Mr. Biden’s aides say.

In Europe, Germany has outlined plans to bolster its military capabilities to deter Russian aggression, a transformation promised by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the weeks after the Russian invasion. But Mr Scholz’s grand plans have yet to be matched by a budget to finance them, and the policy of engaging the public has proven so strained that German officials refuse to put a price tag on them.

Carl Bildt, co-president of the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former Swedish prime minister, recently wrote that European nations “will have to double” their budgets “once again to credibly deter threats from an increasingly desperate Russian regime.”

Even so, White House officials said Monday that Biden would not push for new military spending goals.

But the more immediate problem for Biden and Scholz is avoiding another public clash with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky over how his country’s eventual NATO membership will be described.

Last year, on his way to Vilnius, Lithuania, for NATO’s annual meeting, Mr Zelensky expressed disappointment at the lack of a timetable for Ukraine’s entry into the alliance. “It is unprecedented and absurd when there is no time frame set, neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s accession,” he wrote on social media at the time.

Upon its arrival, Ukraine was temporarily appeased by the alliance's pledge to avoid some hurdles that other nations had to overcome before they could join.

But for months now, NATO countries have been negotiating language that would circumvent the problem, without allowing Ukraine in while it is at war.

In recent weeks, negotiators have begun to agree on a new approach: The alliance is expected to declare Ukraine's possible inclusion in NATO “irreversible,” diplomats involved in the talks said.

While “irreversible” sounds definitive, it in no way addresses Mr Zelensky’s central demand: a date when his country would return to NATO protection.

Mr. Zelensky's case is, of course, the most terrible. But it is certainly not the only one.

Seventy-five years after NATO was created to deter threats posed by the Soviet Union at the dawn of the Cold War, some current and potential future leaders among the alliance's member states appear sympathetic to Russia's diplomatic demands, despite Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited Russia the other day and, in public statements with Mr Putin, said nothing critical about its invasion or the continued attacks on civilians. He hinted at seeking an opening for peace talks on terms similar to Russia's demands.

The White House criticized the visit on Monday. John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Mr. Orban's visit “certainly does not appear to be productive in terms of trying to get things done in Ukraine,” adding, “It is concerning.”

But to avoid any public rift within NATO on the eve of the summit, Mr Stoltenberg stopped short of criticising Mr Orbán, noting that “NATO allies interact with Moscow in different ways, at different levels”.

However, he suggested that trying to reach a deal while Putin advances in Ukraine would not ultimately bring peace. “We all want peace,” Stoltenberg said. “You can always end a war by losing a war. But that will not bring peace, it will bring occupation, and occupation is not peace.”

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