NATO's birthday-bash summit in Washington comes at a gloomy time

NATO’s summit in Washington this week was supposed to be a feel-good moment — celebrating the alliance’s milestone 75th anniversary amid stirring tributes to an enduring cornerstone of Europe’s postwar security architecture.

But despite expressions of solidarity and steadfastness, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gathering, which begins Tuesday, comes as some of the 32-nation bloc’s most important leaders can be counted among the political walking wounded, and at a dispiriting point in the war in Ukraine, now in its third year.

All this takes place as European leaders begin to fully grapple with the possibility of another presidential term for presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has suggested he would not honor transatlantic treaty commitments, including NATO’s foundational mutual-defense pledge.

Trump declared in February that if an outbreak of hostilities involved members who “didn’t pay” — a perennially misleading characterization of the alliance’s finances — he would tell Russia to “do whatever the hell they want.”

The roster of leaders of member countries reflects a time of unease and upheaval on both sides of the Atlantic.

President Biden, hosting the gathering, is facing calls to abandon his reelection bid over a debate performance in which he appeared frail and enfeebled.

France was plunged into deep political uncertainty by a mixed result from its parliamentary election that leaves President Emmanuel Macron’s centrists weakened — even though early projections from Sunday’s vote indicated that French voters rejected a determined power bid from the far-right National Rally.

New British Prime Minister Keir Starmer is fresh off a sweeping general-election victory for his Labor Party, but untested on the world stage. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz got an unwelcome wake-up call last month when what was once considered a fringe far-right party romped to second place in the country’s European Parliament elections.

Another casualty: Alexander De Croo, the prime minister of Belgium — whose capital, Brussels, is the site of the alliance’s headquarters — remains in his role only as a caretaker pending the formation of a new government. He stepped down after the same European Parliament elections that rattled Scholz and Macron with strong far-right showings.

And Hungary’s Russia-friendly Prime Minister Viktor Orban, now head of the rotating six-month European Union Council presidency, made a visit to Kyiv, where he urged President Volodymyr Zelensky to accede to a cease-fire, under terms the Ukrainians say would be unworkable.

Then, to the consternation of the EU, he went on to Moscow for a chat with Russian President Vladimir Putin — one that the bloc stressed was without its blessing.

“Appeasement will not stop Putin,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote on the social media platform X.

Even NATO’s chief-in-waiting, the Netherlands’ former prime minister, Mark Rutte, was only available to be named secretary-general and to start in October because he was out of a job: the Dutch government he led for nearly 14 years is now in the hands of a far-right-led coalition.

The general air of gloom threatened to overshadow what was to have been a triumphal element of the Washington summit: the accession to the alliance this year of Sweden, after Finland joined in 2023 — both of these Nordic countries being front-line states at a time of high tension with Russia.

Alliance members initially sprang to Ukraine’s defense after Moscow’s full-scale invasion of February 2022, and continue to provide billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry and other aid. But as the war drags on, the European Council on Foreign Relations, or ECFR — a think tank that released a major new study on European public attitudes about the Ukraine war — pointed to emerging cracks over the nature of the conflict’s endgame in advance of the NATO summit.

“One of the key challenges for Western leaders will be reconciling the conflicting positions between Europeans and Ukrainians on how the war will end,” wrote Mark Leonard, ECFR’s founding director. “While both groups recognize the need for continued military provision to help Ukraine push back at Russian aggression, there is a profound gulf over what constitutes a victory — and what the purpose of Europe’s support actually is.”

Similarly, U.S. public and congressional support for Ukraine — initially near-united in enthusiasm — has shown signs of doubt and decline. Several Republican leaders, as well as Trump, have questioned whether Washington should continue to pour billions of dollars into Ukraine. And a poll taken in April by the Pew Research Center said Americans who say the U.S. is spending too much money on Ukraine grew to 31% from just 7% shortly after the war there started in 2022.

As the leaders gather three months after formally marking the 75th anniversary of NATO’s founding, the alliance’s boosters can point to a few bright spots. Italy’s right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, in her post since October 2022, has proved surprisingly supportive of Ukraine and of NATO’s overall posture.

Turkey, a sometimes problematic ally that had initially balked at letting Sweden into NATO because of quarrels over the latter’s dealings with Kurdish separatists, dropped its opposition. And Sweden, a longtime bastion of neutrality, joined the alliance in March.

Only a little over a month before the summit, there were powerful rhetorical reminders of NATO’s raison d’etre, as world leaders gathered above the beaches of Normandy to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day, a turning point in the World War II fight against the Nazis.

“We’re not far off from the time when the last living voices of those who fought and bled on D-Day will no longer be with us,” Biden said as he paid tribute to the last surviving members of the Allied invasion force.

“So we have a special obligation,” he said. “We cannot let what happened here be lost in the silence of the years to come.”

Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.

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