Five things to watch for at this week’s NATO meeting

President Biden will convene with allies this week at a NATO summit in Madrid, which is expected to focus on the security alliance projecting its unity and coordination amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

The meeting, which follows the Group of Seven summit in Germany, is expected to cover a hosts of issues beyond the Russian war, including the bids by Finland and Sweden to join the organization.

Here are five things to watch for at the NATO meeting.

A show of support for Ukraine

Russia’s war in Ukraine has entered its fourth month and NATO leaders are expected to make showing their support for Ukraine a top priority.

This is a top priority for Biden, who has put support for Ukraine front-and-center to his agenda.

“He’s going into a NATO Summit where the alliance has truly never been more unified,” said John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications.

Biden, on his visit to Poland in March, touted that Putin has not been able to divide NATO and has consistently stressed that the most important thing is for the U.S. and allies to stay coordinated. He also reinforced his commitment to the collective defense principle of NATO’s Article 5, which states that an attack against one NATO apply is an attack against all. 

Ukrainian President Zelensky will virtually address the NATO meeting. Biden said a visit to Ukraine is unlikely on this trip.

Zelensky’s address will “give the leaders an opportunity to hear from him directly and will also enable NATO Allies to showcase their continued resolve to support Ukraine as it defends itself,” a senior administration official said.

Turkey’s battle over Finland and Sweden’s membership bids 

Finland and Sweden have applied for NATO membership but the Nordic countries are held up in talks with Turkey, which has opposed the bids due to support from those two governments toward Kurdish groups that Turkey considers to be terrorist organizations.

Turkey can essentially veto Finland and Sweden from joining NATO, since all members must agree to taking on new states.

It’s not clear if Biden, who has voiced his support for Finland and Sweden, will meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the issue. Senior administration officials, when asked about a meeting, have pointed to opportunities for leaders to meet on the margins of the summit even if there are no scheduled meetings.

Daniel Fried, former U.S. ambassador to Poland and an expert at the Atlantic Council, argued that Biden should become more directly involved in addressing the disagreements with Erdogan.

“Biden should be hands on with this one,” Fried said.

Turkey has indicated that it does not see the summit as a deadline in deciding whether to accept the Nordic countries. With Turkey maintaining its opposition to their membership, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg hasn’t provided a timeline on when Finland and Sweden might officially join. 

Rose Gottemoeller, a former deputy secretary general of NATO, predicted it would take at least a year for the two countries to join the alliance if Turkey drops its objections. The legislative bodies in each NATO member state must offer approval.

In Congress, there has been bipartisan agreement over the Finland and Sweden bids, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee easily passed a resolution earlier this month pressing NATO to quickly admit them.

Eyeing the China threat 

Leaders at the NATO Summit are expected to endorse a new strategic concept – the first since 2010 – which for the first time will explicitly address challenges posed by China. 

Kirby on Thursday told reporters that the strategic concept builds on months of conversations about the threat that China poses to international security.

“I think it’s a reflection of our allies’ equal concerns over the effect of Chinese economic practices, use of forced labor, intellectual theft, and coercive aggressive behavior not just in the region but elsewhere around the world. That they believe it’s important to factor China into the new strategic concept,” he said.

The White House has also highlighted that leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea are participating in the summit for the first time this year. 

While Russia is the most immediate threat to the alliance, China is considered a multifaceted and longer-term threat. The alliance is expected to discuss economic and cyber threats emanating from China as well as security in the Indo Pacific. 

Biden administration officials have insisted that they continue to be focused on China even while addressing the war in Ukraine. 

“Instead of distracting us from the Indo-Pacific and China, the president’s leadership with respect to supporting Ukraine has actually galvanized leaders in that region and effectively linked out efforts in Europe and in Asia and those Asian countries that will be participating in the NATO summit, I think speak volumes about that fact,” Kirby said.

Still, experts say that the U.S. is inevitably having to split its attention between security in Europe and Asia.

“​​The United States is in more of a balancing act,” said Gottemoeller.

Nations to upgrade force commitments 

NATO members are expected to make good on commitments to increase force posture to bolster defense of allies during Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

Biden administration officials said the new plans will help strengthen NATO and deter Russian aggression at a critical moment. 

“The President has been very clear in the context of the Ukraine crisis that NATO would defend every inch of NATO territory,” a senior administration official said on a call with reporters. 

Fried said there will be particular discussions about bulking up NATO’s presence in the Baltic states and Poland, which are close neighbors to Ukraine. 

“What the Ukraine war shows us is that Russia could attack but it also shows us that it is possible to defend the Baltics,” he said, noting that the Russian forces have performed below expectations. “There’s an argument that NATO ought to up its eastern deployments to brigade strengths.” 

Focus on defense spending

Talk of upping defense spending has been a contentious topic for the alliance, particularly during the previous administration when former President Trump pressured countries to spend more on defense to meet NATO’s target that each member state dedicates 2 percent of gross domestic product to defense spending. 

The war in Ukraine has caused nations to commit to spending more on their defense, most notably Germany, which pledged earlier this year to spend above 2 percent GDP after years of lagging below that level. 

​​“All along in this crisis, the NATO countries have been pledging more for defense spending,” said Gottemoeller. “I think all of them are going to be looking at their defense budgets.”

Gottemoeller said she wouldn’t be surprised if there is a recommitment to the 2 percent pledge or concrete pledges on further defense spending.  

A senior administration official said the U.S. expects the “upward trajectory” of defense spending over the last seven years to continue and accelerate and would work to make sure the alliance is well-resourced.

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