What to expect from Biden’s first NATO summit as US president
Afghanistan, Russia, China and defence spending to dominate talks as alliance embraces Democrat leader after tumultuous Trump era.
On Monday, 30 leaders and heads of state will meet for a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, the headquarters of the 1949 security alliance.
In Joe Biden’s first NATO summit as US president, he will be eager to reassure his allies that “America is back” after a tumultuous four years of former American President Donald Trump, who declared NATO “obsolete”, called member countries “deadbeats”, and at first refused to explicitly endorse NATO’s mutual defence principle.
A new “2030 Strategic Concept” outlining how the alliance plans to address the various challenges it now faces is expected to be launched.
NATO’s current strategic concept dates back to 2010, but “didn’t take as seriously as it needed to the prospects of Russian aggression, and hardly mentioned China”, said James Goldgeier, an international relations professor at American University and former director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs on the National Security Council Staff.
The need to reflect the changing security landscape was called out by French President Emmanuel Macron, with his 2019 criticism that the alliance was “brain dead” and no longer fit for purpose.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg will propose an expanded focus on issues including cyberwarfare, China, Russia, strategic competition with authoritarian states and the effects of climate change on international security, experts say.
Here are five things to know:
One of the most pressing subjects on the agenda is how NATO will ensure the stability of Afghanistan as it winds down its operations in the region.
US troops and their NATO allies are set to withdraw their 9,600-strong mission by Biden’s September 11 deadline – after almost two decades of conflict in the region.
Critics, including former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, warn that there is a risk the Taliban could retake control.
The al-Qaeda network – which provided the US rationale for invading Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks – still has 400 to 600 members fighting with the Taliban, according to the UN Security Council.
In an April interview with CNN, al-Qaeda operatives said a “war against the US will be continuing on all other fronts unless they are expelled from the rest of the Islamic world”.
NATO plans to provide continued financial support to Afghan security forces. But questions remain on whether allies will pledge millions – perhaps billions – of dollars to provide equipment and serious training programmes to Afghanistan.
US military officials have also discussed setting up bases in neighbouring countries so they can spring back to Afghanistan if threats arise from al-Qaeda or ISIL.
The US would like to operate in Pakistan, but given Islamabad’s often tense relationship with Washington, that is unlikely under Biden.
The Pentagon would also favour returning to bases in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, he adds, a move that would require blessings from China and Russia.
“This will be much more difficult than it was 10 years ago,” he says, as relations between the US and those two powers have soured.
Leaders will also discuss strengthening NATO’s collective defence, with a focus on “an ever-more aggressive Russia”, says Kristine Berzina, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
In the past year, Russia sent a reported 150,00 troops to its border with Ukraine in what Stoltenberg called “the largest massing of Russian troops” since Moscow’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, prompting NATO to warn Russia that renewed “aggression” would have consequences.
The rift between Western governments and Russia has also grown over the near-fatal poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny last August, which many have blamed on Moscow – a claim it denies.
At the summit, the US will likely be asked if it is prepared to commit more troops and tanks to Europe, position more equipment in Europe, and put in more air defence on the continent, says Jamie Shea, senior fellow at Brussels-based think-tank Friends of Europe and former NATO staffer.
“Countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, would definitely like to see a stronger American defence in the region.”
In a recent speech, Stoltenberg noted that Beijing is not considered by NATO to be an adversary, but that China’s rise has direct implications for transatlantic alliance security.
“China is not being perceived as a threat per se but as something that could turn toward an adversarial direction,” says Berzina.
NATO allies have condemned China’s human rights abuses, including its crackdown on dissidents in Hong Kong and the internment of more than a million members of the mostly Muslim Uighur population in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Other concerns in NATO include China’s threats to invade Taiwan, Beijing’s increasing militarisation, and its approach to the Indo-Pacific region, which Dr Kathleen Hicks, the US’s deputy secretary of defence, has described as increasingly “coercive and aggressive”.
Berzina says that under Trump, there was “some desire in Europe to maintain equidistance between the two great powers and not be sucked into America’s conflict, especially when relations with the US were as poor as they were”.
While Berzina says there is still more “foot-dragging” in Europe on the issue of China than the US would like, Shea expects more alignment on Beijing.
“Europe has woken up to the China challenge,” he says.
The EU in March sanctioned Chinese officials for the first time in 30 years over the Uighur issue.
France, Germany and the UK recently sent warships to the Indo-Pacific region, which shows that Europe has a “stake in a free and open Indo-Pacific”, says Rafael Loss, coordinator for Pan-European Data Projects at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“NATO may seek closer cooperation with partners such as Australia, India, Japan and South Korea. It should also think hard about how it can contribute to protecting democracy in Taiwan,” says Loss.
NATO members will decide whether to hike the organisation’s common budget for more joint capabilities, such as training, exercises and stronger cyberdefences.
Stoltenberg has called on allies “to invest more” and “better” and proposed they collectively contribute $20bn into common budgets over the next 10 years.
Currently, the common pot amounts to 0.3 percent of total allies’ defence spending, or some $2.5bn.
French officials have expressed opposition to the bid to lift common funding.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly told Politico this month: “All this money is money that won’t go toward increasing national budgets and a European defence effort that benefits NATO. And to do what? No one is able to tell you.”
Berzina anticipates that spending will be a concern for some NATO members: “There have always been leaders and laggers in spending. There will be compromises, but I think this will be challenging, especially in the COVID-19 economic landscape.”
And then, the EU summit
A day later, on Tuesday, Biden and top EU figures will hold a summit in Brussels.
Experts said tariffs and trade relating to aircraft and metals are a key subject, as well as how to enforce a new minimum global corporate tax rate under a historic agreement reached on June 5 by the Group of Seven finance ministers.
Other issues will include data transfer, pandemic recovery, climate policy and carbon-pricing schemes.
While Europe is eager to welcome Biden to the region, the previous administration has shown how quickly Washington’s priorities can change.
European leaders are not yet sure how Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class” strategy differs from Trump’s “America First” agenda, says Goldgeier.
“This will be a critical question for Europe.”