Possible Trump presidency casts shadow over NATO summit

NATO leaders will want reassurance that Biden has the mental strength and physical stamina to fulfil one of the world’s most demanding leadership roles

Possible Trump presidency casts shadow over NATO summit

A dark shadow is forming over the celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of the NATO alliance in the form of the growing uncertainty in Washington over US President Joe Biden’s faltering campaign for re-election.

The two-day summit to mark NATO’s creation in 1949, which gets underway in Washington on 9 July, is supposed to celebrate the alliance’s main achievements, not least preserving the peace in Europe throughout the Cold War. Leaders of the 32-member alliance will also want to reflect on their reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, launching the first major conflict in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

In many respects, the Ukraine conflict has acted as a wake-up call for many NATO states, prompting many of them to undertake a significant increase in defence spending so that they reach the minimum 2% target of GDP required by NATO membership. Prior to the Russian invasion, only a handful of NATO countries met the requirement, a shortcoming that was a constant source of friction between the US and major European powers, such as Germany, that consistently failed to meet the target.

The issue became particularly vexing during Donald Trump’s presidency when he famously berated then-German chancellor Angela Merkel over her country’s refusal to pay it due. US resentment at the Europeans’ unwillingness to pay for its own defence has even prompted suggestions, especially if Trump wins re-election to the White House in November, that Washington will withdraw from the alliance altogether and leave the Europeans to fend for themselves.

Trump’s constant hectoring of European leaders, together with Russia’s open act of military aggression against a neighbouring European state, has already prompted many European countries to radically revise their NATO spending commitments, with the result that at least 23 of the 32 member countries will be meeting the 2% target during next week’s summit, with many more set to follow suit. This compares with just three nations—including the US and the UK—meeting the target in 2014 when Russia first launched its military intervention in Ukraine.

The Ukraine war was a wake-up call for NATO, prompting many members to dramatically up their defence spending

Ukraine to dominate agenda

NATO leaders can also reflect on the positive impact their support for Ukraine in its war against Russia has had in enabling the Ukrainian military to resist Russian aggression, something most NATO leaders believe is essential to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from threatening other parts of Europe, especially those countries that are part of NATO.

Any act of aggression by Russia against a NATO-affiliated nation could provoke a direct conflict between Russia and NATO, with all the implications that could have for global security. NATO has also benefited significantly from the Russian invasion by persuading Sweden and Finland—two countries that had previously observed strict neutrality in the stand-off between Russia and the Western alliance, to abandon their neutral status and join the NATO alliance. The addition of these two states to NATO has significantly increased the alliance's ability to protect its northern flank from Russian meddling.

Having reflected on these significant changes to the alliance's resolve and ability to react effectively to a major international crisis such as the Ukraine conflict, NATO leaders will be keen to build on this platform during the Washington summit, examining ways to make NATO more resilient in defending the transatlantic alliance in the event of further challenges emerging to threaten Western security.

Biden's faltering campaign

Such discussions, however, will now have to be conducted against the deepening political crisis that has developed in Washington over whether the 81-year-old Biden is fit enough to serve a second term as president.

This follows the president's disastrous performance during his recent CNN debate with Trump, during which Biden often lost his train of thought and gave every appearance of not having the mental acuity to serve as president. Biden's performance was judged to be so inept that recent opinion polls in the US report that up to 80% of the American electorate now consider Biden too old to run again for the White House.

The addition of Sweden and Finland has boosted NATO's ability to protect its northern flank from Russian meddling

Of equal concern for the Democrats are opinion polls that show Biden has fallen further behind Trump in the race for the White House. Two recent polls have given Trump his biggest lead over the incumbent yet, placing Trump six points ahead of Biden, up from two points in February.

Biden's faltering campaign has prompted many senior Democrats to call on him to reconsider his bid and seriously consider standing down to let a younger candidate, such as US Vice President Kamala Harris, run in his place. Many Democrats fear that allowing Biden to continue with his re-election bid will simply gift victory to Trump in November's poll.

For the moment, the Biden camp has rejected calls for the president to withdraw his candidacy. Biden himself contacted senior Democrats to insist he was still fit enough to run and blamed his unconvincing performance in the CNN debate on suffering from a cold and delayed jet lag. Many Democrats find these explanations unconvincing, especially as Biden's last foreign trip took place 12 days before the debate, giving him plenty of time to prepare for his television appearance.

Consequently, with Democrats said to be still giving serious consideration to removing Biden from the nomination, all eyes will be on the president during the NATO summit to see if he still has the ability to perform in public. NATO leaders, too, will want reassurance that Biden has the mental strength and physical stamina to fulfil one of the world's most demanding leadership roles.

They will be aware that if Biden is not up to the job and still intends to run for re-election, it will simply open the way for Trump to regain the White House—an outcome none of them look forward to with any great enthusiasm.

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