Biden needs to go for NATO’s sake too

Biden needs to go for NATO’s sake too

Even if Biden still ekes out a second term, the outlook isn’t much better. In the shape he’s in, which is unlikely to improve, he’ll struggle to lead the alliance as US presidents are expected to do.

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Last Updated : 03 July 2024, 08:43 IST

By Andreas Kluth

President Joe Biden is one week away from hosting the other 31 NATO allies in Washington for what was originally billed as a triumphant pageant to celebrate 75 years of the most successful defensive pact in history. Instead, both Biden’s team and America’s allies are reeling from his debate disaster one week earlier and wondering what it means for NATO and world peace.

That televised ordeal reminded friend and foe alike that the incumbent president is six years older than NATO but with none of its vigor or coherence. It also showed yet again that the alternative leader is even worse. Not only is Donald Trump also older than NATO; he disdains the alliance as much as ever and is likely to gut its deterrence by dangling a giant question mark over the American commitment to mutual defense with all means, up to and including nukes.

So brace yourself for awkward group photos and convoluted summit-speak, as everyone from NATO’s outgoing secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, to his incoming successor, Mark Rutte, attempts to plaster over the cracks. Hoping to impress their main bogey, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the allies will try to project unity, resolve and strength. What will peek through instead are internal contradictions and self-doubt.

No amount of hugging the newly allied Swedes and Finns or the ever-exposed Estonians or Latvians can hide the anxious glances aimed at errant partners such as Hungarian Prime Minister and Putin pal Viktor Orban, or at lame ducks such as French President Emmanuel Macron, who by then will have probably lost his parliament to the far right. No artful press releases can distract from the failure, once again, to answer clearly the biggest strategic question facing the alliance: whether, when and how to admit Ukraine as a member.

NATO’s most existential worry, though, is what will transpire this year in the summit’s host city. The worst scenario is that Trump, buoyed by his mendacious but victorious debate performance and a tactical win in the Supreme Court, returns to the White House. People who worked for him in his first term are “convinced he will withdraw from the alliance if he is reelected.” Congress has legislated to make that harder. But several traditional — meaning internationalist, pro-Ukraine and pro-NATO — Republicans in Congress are retiring or making way for MAGA types.

Even if Trump doesn’t formally pull out, he could undermine the alliance and its deterrence just by boycotting it in his role as commander-in-chief of the most powerful member. He could pull US troops out of Germany, withhold funding, keep his ministers from visiting Brussels or refuse to appoint a supreme allied commander, a position held by Americans since General Dwight Eisenhower had the job.

Trump could also withdraw America’s nuclear “umbrella” over Europe, or bring home the roughly 100 tactical nukes that the US maintains in five European countries. Even more simply, Trump could just keep being vague about how he’d interpret Article 5 in the event of Russian aggression. It says that an attack on one ally is an attack on all, but doesn’t specify what the US or other partners would do. Any or all of these moves would tempt Putin to test the alliance, and possibly to attack its eastern members.

Even if Biden still ekes out a second term, the outlook isn’t much better. In the shape he’s in, which is unlikely to improve, he’ll struggle to lead the alliance as US presidents are expected to do. Even before last week’s debate, European officials had worries about Biden’s focus and stamina at other summits, and how he’d hold up in a second term.

If Biden were to bow out at this late stage in favor of a younger nominee, the uncertainty would temporarily increase. None of the Democrats in the headlines — from Vice President Kamala Harris to the governors of California, Michigan or Illinois — has burnished a national security profile. Putin or other dictators might still be tempted to test the new situation. Then again, being new in the Oval Office — Harry Truman in 1945 springs to mind — needn’t stand in the way of strong leadership.

All these ruminations unfortunately overshadow some recent major NATO achievements. US presidents since Eisenhower have in their own way complained that some allies free-ride on US might by skimping on their own armies. This year, though, a record 23 members will meet the NATO goal set a decade ago of spending at least 2% of national output on the military, as will the European allies collectively. Trump tries to take credit for this trend, but that belongs to Putin for reminding the whole alliance of the threat that Russia poses.

The best response by Europe to this strategic angst about US commitment would be to form, at long last, a “European army,” or at least to consolidate the continent’s fragmented militaries into one coherent “pillar” within NATO. The stronger this European force becomes, the more useful, and respectable, it’ll seem to future American presidents, who will all want to shift resources to the Pacific. And the more awe-inspiring, and therefore deterring, it’ll look to the Kremlin.

To be credible, however, such a European pillar would have to include France and the UK extending their nuclear umbrellas over the rest of Europe, as only the US so far does. Short of that, Germany or the European Union as a whole might have to build a new atomic arsenal to deter Putin or his successors in the Kremlin.

Hence the anxiety: None of this is likely to happen, and certainly not soon. The Europeans do see the threat from polarization, chaos and populism in Washington but can’t act as long as they face the same forces at home. The European populists, moreover, prefer to renationalize the EU rather than integrate it; some won’t even stipulate that Putin is a threat.

In all these ways, this year’s election drama in the United States has direct consequences for peace in Europe and the world. Biden’s answer cannot just be summitry and pageantry. He must demonstrate his responsibility by stepping aside for a new generation of American leadership before it’s too late.


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