US President Joe Biden will seek to restore ties of trust at the first post-Trump NATO summit on Monday, as leaders push to revitalize the alliance despite differences over the dangers that lie ahead.
The allies will agree on a statement that will emphasize common ground to secure their withdrawal from Afghanistan, joint responses to cyberattacks, and relations with a rising China.
Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, undermined faith in the West’s security architecture by questioning Washington’s commitment to defending European partners.
And he publicly clashed with his counterparts the last time the leaders met in 2019, before abruptly returning home early.
By contrast, Biden has firmly reaffirmed US support for the 72-year-old military alliance, and his administration has been making a show of consulting more with partners.
But divisions remain among the allies on some key issues, including how to deal with China’s rise and how to increase pooled funding.
The partners are concerned about the rush to leave Afghanistan and some question the strategy of an alliance that French President Emmanuel Macron warns is suffering “brain death.”
“We don’t see NATO as some kind of protection hoax,” Biden said Sunday after a G7 conciliatory meeting in Britain.
“We believe that NATO is vital to our ability to maintain American security.”
He stressed that the United States has a “sacred obligation” to the alliance and the principle of collective defense, and promised that he would “make the case: ‘We’re back’ too.”
The summit at the massive NATO headquarters in Brussels is scheduled to give the green light to a 2030 reform agenda.
The leaders will agree to rewrite the central “strategic concept” to face a world where cyber attacks, climate change and new technologies pose new threats.
The backdrop looms in the fight to complete NATO’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan after Biden surprised his partners by ordering US troops to return on September 11.
Russia remains, China rises
“I am very confident that this summit will demonstrate the strong commitment of all NATO allies to our transatlantic link,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told AFP.
“We have a unique opportunity to strengthen our alliance.”
European diplomats insist that confronting an emboldened Russia remains the “number one” priority of an alliance established to counter the Soviet threat after World War II.
Moscow’s takeover of Crimea in 2014 gave NATO renewed purpose, and fellow leaders will be eager to probe Biden ahead of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.
In China, Biden is picking up where Trump left off by getting NATO to start paying attention to Beijing and pushing for the alliance to take a hard line.
But National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, briefing Air Force One reporters, downplayed the role this would play in the statement. “Language is not going to be inflammatory,” he said.
Many allies fear drawing too much attention away from NATO’s main Euro-Atlantic sphere.
“This is not about moving NATO to Asia, but about taking into account the fact that China is getting closer to us,” Stoltenberg told AFP.
He pointed to Beijing’s attempts to control critical infrastructure in Europe, its movements in cyberspace, and heavy spending on modern weapons systems.
“NATO has to be prepared to respond to any threat from any direction,” he said.
As NATO looks to the future, it is leaving behind one of its most important chapters by ending two decades of military involvement in Afghanistan.
The allies are patching up plans to try to prevent a collapse of the Afghan forces when they leave and figuring out how to provide enough security for Western embassies to keep working.
Biden will discuss a Turkish offer to keep troops at Kabul airport, in a meeting with leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Ankara has offered to secure the essential transportation hub, but insists it would need US support.
Sullivan said the leaders would discuss how “our embassies can stay safely in Afghanistan, so they can do all the things they definitely want to do, providing the Afghan government and security forces, the people.”
But the US president is also willing to pressure Erdogan on Turkey’s purchase of Russian missile defenses and human rights.
As part of a reform agenda for the next decade, Stoltenberg is pushing for allies to improve political cooperation.
But there have been disagreements over proposals for more common funding for NATO, with France especially arguing that it would distract from the efforts of individual nations.
On that front, Biden is expected to tone down Trump’s rhetoric, criticizing allies for not spending enough.
But it will continue to pressure European allies and Canada to push defense budgets further to reach a target of two percent of GDP.
Stoltenberg said everyone is expected to sign a new cyber defense policy and create a fund to help start-ups develop innovative technology.
They could also rule for the first time that an attack on infrastructure in space, such as satellites, could trigger the bloc’s collective self-defense clause.