NATO’s Washington Summit: What Can We Expect?

The North Atlantic Treaty Association (NATO) is set to hold its annual summit in Washington DC this week. As NATO seeks to reinforce its centrality to transatlantic security, the summit affords the alliance an opportunity to come together in unity, and strategise future adaptation to today’s particularly volatile and turbulent global security environment. Considering this year also marks NATO’s 75th anniversary, the summit will be as much a celebration of NATO’s past and its enduring collective security agenda, as it is a look towards the future. So what can be expected from the Summit? What progress might it bring? And what challenges might it face?

Progress on Ukraine?

The Washington Summit occurs against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In many respects, Russia’s invasion has reinvigorated NATO, re-imbuing it with a clear sense of purpose, just a few years after French President Macron famously declared the organisation ‘brain dead’. The 2023 Vilnius summit, for example, led to the creation of the NATO-Ukraine Council and to the scrapping of Ukraine’s Membership Action Plan. Meanwhile, the 2022 Madrid Summit saw the agreement of a new strategic concept, a 10 year blueprint premised on responding to the fact that the Euro-Atlantic arena was no longer in peace time. The Madrid Summit also saw NATO invite Finland and Sweden to join the alliance, and secured commitments to a strengthened Comprehensive Assistance Package to Ukraine.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing though. Recent summits have failed to make headway on concrete timelines for Ukrainian membership of NATO, which have been stalled by demands for additional requirements from Ukraine, including corruption reforms. Even if Ukraine meets the technical requirements for NATO membership, the political environment and the fear of Article 5 being triggered will undoubtedly hamper Ukraine’s accession, at least until the war ends. Indeed, John Kirby, the Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the White House National Security Council, illustrated how challenging securing support for Ukrainian membership will be, by declaring that for Ukraine to gain NATO membership, “first they gotta win this war, right?”.

And while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has united NATO members around a common enemy, it has also highlighted vulnerabilities and splinters within NATO. Member states have shown varying degrees of support for Ukraine, with Hungary and Turkey in particular still maintaining and even strengthening ties with Moscow. And despite strong rhetorical support for Ukraine from many NATO allies, the alliance has not delivered the quick and extensive material support that Ukraine needs. Pledges from member states remain unfulfilled and delays in getting arms and ammunition to Ukraine are helping Russia to advance in Ukraine.

It is against this challenging backdrop that NATO leadership will be seeking to secure additional support for Ukraine as it struggles to hold off Russian advances. It is widely expected that NATO won’t be ready to offer Ukraine membership of NATO, instead offering steps to bring it closer to membership. The Summit is also expected to secure agreement on NATO acting as a hub for ‘coordination and provision of security assistance and training for Ukraine’, and announcement around deliveries of new air defence systems.

Wider geopolitical contestation

The splintering within NATO is not just confined to the topic of Ukraine. Addressing challenges posed by China and the conflict in the Middle East has also distracted and divided many NATO members. The 2023 NATO Secretary General’s Annual Report identified China as a growing issue for the alliance; both due to the risk of drawing resources away from European security, as well as its influence as an alternative authoritarian global power. However, NATO members remain divided on how to balance economic benefits with the security concerns that being interconnected with China brings. At one end there are nations such as Hungary who seem to be on a China charm-offensive. At the other is the US and the EU (as a collective) who are taking increasingly hawkish approaches to China, evidenced not least by the EU commission imposing an almost 40% tariff on electric vehicles made in China just last week. Meanwhile, nations such as Germany and Greece are allowing China stakes in critical national infrastructure, while others – including the UK – move rapidly away. This divide in approach will no doubt be exacerbated if President Trump wins the US election, further diverting the US’ attention and funding to the Indo-Pacific, leaving NATO members concerned over the security of the European neighbourhood and deeply divided on how best to engage with China.

Turning to the Middle East, although NATO itself has kept its distance from the Israel-Hamas conflict, member states have very diverging official stances, from the United States’ robust support for Israel, to Norway and Spain’s support for state recognition of Palestine. On the question of a ceasefire in Gaza, for example,  Spain and France have been prominent supporters while others, such as Austria and Hungary, have been far more critical. While the Middle East remains outside the immediate purview of NATO, the splintering of NATO’s consensus on the world stage undermines both its sense of collectivity and will no doubt obstruct progress on defence closer to home.

Potential for US Leadership

With President Biden facing growing pressure to step down as the Democrats’ candidate for the 2024 US Presidential election, he will want to use the Washington Summit to showcase his ability to lead on the world stage. Conscious of domestic pressures to make European NATO members take on a bigger share of the burden when it comes to European security, no doubt Biden will also use the Summit to push European members to increase their defence spending. With a growing recognition across Europe that this is necessary, this is a message that will be received slightly less coldly than it has in recent years. Not least because the looming prospect of a Trump Presidency, poses a far more existential challenge to NATO’s existence. During campaigning President Trump has already made clear he is happy for Russia to ‘do whatever the hell they want’ to European nations that fail to increase their defence spending, and his close relationship with Putin has sent alarm bells ringing across NATO members.

NATO members will therefore hope that while being firm on the need for Europe to take on a greater share of the costs, President Biden will rise to the opportunity of hosting the Summit and successfully make the case in the US for the need to invest in European security, regardless of whether he himself can lead that charge.

Starmer’s Debut on the World Stage

And as Biden looks to maximise the opportunity to lead on the world stage, so too will the UK’s own newly elected Prime Minister Keir Starmer. Since winning the election, the new cabinet has wasted no time in demonstrating its support for NATO and solidarity with Ukraine. Prime Minister Keir Starmer has called President Zelenskyy to assure him of the UK’s ‘unwavering commitment’ to Ukraine. Meanwhile, David Lammy, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, is already on a tour of European allies – Poland, Germany and Sweden – ahead of the Summit, and new defence minister, John Healey, has already announced a new support package for Ukraine in a visit to Odesa, Ukraine in his first 48 hours in the role.  

Of course handshakes and phone calls are one thing and the UK will need to follow up quickly with ongoing support for Ukraine, NATO and European security more generally. One question Labour will quickly have to answer is how and when they’ll fulfil their commitment to increase the defence budget to 2.5% of GDP, and how they will address the deep seated challenges facing the military. And against the backdrop of division and discontent within NATO, the NATO summit will be no walk in the park for Starmer. But no doubt he’ll hope that he can use the opportunity to signal to the world that the UK, under his leadership, will be a strong and reliable partner and proud supporter of NATO, at a time when NATO needs it most.

Emily Rawlings and Freya Moorhouse

Emily and Freya are Interns at BFPG