US President Joe Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump had undermined the importance of the alliance in his four-year term, with frequent insults about the relevance of multilateral organisations such as NATO.
US President Joe Biden will seek to restore bonds of trust at NATO’s first post-Trump summit, as leaders push to revitalise the alliance despite differences over dangers ahead.
The allies will agree on a statement stressing common ground on securing their withdrawal from Afghanistan, joint responses to cyber-attacks, and the challenge of a rising China.
“We’re not entering a new Cold War and China is not our adversary, not our enemy,” Stoltenberg told reporters as he arrived at NATO headquarters ahead of the leaders.
“But we need to address together, as the alliance, the challenges that the rise of China poses to our security.”
Post-Trump era at NATO
Looming large at the summit is also the scramble to complete NATO’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan after Biden surprised partners by ordering US troops home by September 11.
Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump undermined faith in the West’s security architecture by questioning Washington’s commitment to defend European partners.
And he clashed publicly with counterparts the last time leaders met in 2019, before abruptly heading home early.
In contrast, Biden has firmly reasserted American backing for the 72-year-old military alliance – and his administration has been making a show of consulting more with partners.
“I welcome the fact that we have a president of the United States who is strongly committed to NATO, to North America and Europe, working together in NATO,” Stoltenberg said.
But there remain divisions among the allies on some key issues – including how to deal with China’s rise and how to increase common funding.
Partners are concerned about the rush to leave Afghanistan and some question the strategy of an alliance that French President Emmanuel Macron warns is undergoing “brain death”.
“We believe that NATO is vital to our ability to maintain American security,” Biden said Sunday after a conciliatory G7 gathering in Britain.
He stressed the United States had a “sacred obligation” to the alliance and the principle of collective defence, promising he would “make the case: ‘We are back’, as well”.
The summit at NATO’s cavernous Brussels headquarters is set to greenlight a 2030 reform programme.
The leaders will agree to rewrite the core “strategic concept” to face a world where cyberattacks, climate change, and new technologies pose new threats.
Russia remains, China rises
European diplomats insist that confronting an emboldened Russia remains the “number one” priority for an alliance set up to counter the Soviet threat in the wake of World War II.
Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Crimea gave renewed purpose to NATO and fellow leaders will be keen to sound Biden out ahead of his Wednesday meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On China, Biden is picking up from where Trump left off by getting NATO to start paying attention to Beijing and is pushing for the alliance to take a tougher line.
But National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, briefing reporters from Air Force One, played down how big a part this would play in the statement. “The language is not going to be inflammatory,” he said.
Many allies are wary of shifting too much attention away from NATO’s main Euro-Atlantic sphere.
Out of Afghanistan
As NATO looks to the future, it is putting one of its most significant chapters behind it by ending two decades of military involvement in Afghanistan.
Allies are patching together plans to try to avert a collapse of 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 transport hub, but insists it would need American support.
Sullivan said the leaders would discuss how “our embassies can stay in a safe and secure way in Afghanistan, to be able to do all the things they definitely want to do, providing for the Afghan government and security forces, the people”.
Stoltenberg said that NATO would continue to fund Afghan forces, train them abroad and provide civilian support to the government once the military mission has ended.
And he added, “also some NATO allies are now in direct dialogue, including the United States and Turkey and others, on how to make sure that we can maintain an international airport in Kabul.”
But the US president is also set to push Erdogan on Turkey’s purchase of Russian missile defences and human rights.
As part of a reform agenda over the next decade, Stoltenberg is pressing for allies to improve political cooperation.
But there have been disagreements over proposals for increased common funding for NATO, with France especially arguing it would distract from efforts by individual nations.
On that front Biden is expected to tone down Trump’s rhetoric, bashing allies for not spending enough.
But he will still push European allies and Canada to further boost defence budgets to reach a target of two percent of GDP.
Stoltenberg said allies are expected to sign off on a new cyber defence policy and to create a fund to help start-ups developing groundbreaking 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-defence clause.