When President Joe Biden entered office he was quick to declare that “America is back.” After his predecessor routinely expressed low regard for America’s European allies, Biden declared that the United States was resuming its place at the “head of the table” and was ready to “lead the world.” Nowhere is that leadership more on display than during summit meetings of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the most successful military alliance in history.
Almost by definition all NATO Summits are deemed “successful” since there is a political premium on demonstrating alliance solidarity, overcoming differences through carefully negotiated communique language, and touting compromise agreements as steps forward in the alliance’s main missions of deterrence and defense, crisis prevention and management, and collective security.
There are rare exceptions, of course, and in today’s context, the exception that seems to prove the rule is the Bucharest Summit of 2008 which foundered on President George W. Bush’s desire to provide a Membership Action Plan (MAP, traditionally the penultimate step to NATO membership) for Georgia and Ukraine, colliding with French and German reticence. The resulting compromise, whereby NATO did not offer a MAP to Georgia and Ukraine but asserted that both would someday become members of NATO, created the worst of all possible worlds: a strategic gray zone which left the two countries at the mercy of Vladimir Putin who ultimately invaded both and, in the case of Ukraine, did it twice. This created today’s enormous crisis in European security occasioned by Russia’s “illegal, unjustifiable and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine.”
The Vilnius NATO Summit held on July 11-12, 2023 offered an enormous opportunity for Joe Biden to make good on his pledges to renew US leadership of its premier multilateral military alliance. How does one assess his performance?
NATO faced three main challenges going into the Vilnius meeting: overcoming Turkey’s ongoing blockade of Swedish accession to NATO, concluding new regional defense plans to respond to the increased threat of Russian aggression, and working out Ukraine’s future relationship to NATO. The third challenge, which would prove to be the most difficult, involved eliminating the gray zone created by the Bucharest decision and creating a stable security equilibrium in Europe that precludes a third round of Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Biden and his team deserve high marks for managing the question of Swedish accession. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s authoritarian leader has perfected a form of transactional diplomacy with NATO and the European Union that rests on his ability to blackmail allies and partners into providing him with benefits that solidify his political standing at home. The Biden team understood from the beginning that although Sweden’s alleged coddling of Kurdish terrorists was the pretext for Erdogan’s ongoing blockage of Sweden’s candidacy, in reality he was also looking for psychic and material payoffs from the United States, notably a bilateral meeting at Vilnius with Biden and assurances that the Biden administration would proceed with plans to sell modern F-16 fighters to Turkey over strong congressional objections to the proposed sale. At the end of the day, despite (or perhaps because of) some last-minute theatrics by Erdoğan, the issue was resolved.
Erdoğan got a meeting with Biden, whose only other advertised bilateral engagement was with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy, and secured an announcement of the US intent to proceed with the F-16 sale with some side accommodations to manage congressional objections. He also obtained promises of Swedish and US support for an expanded Turkish-EU customs agreement. In return, Erdogan lifted his objections to allow for a happy ending – although the Turkish Grand National Assembly will not actually vote to ratify Sweden’s accession until October, which leaves plenty of time for more mischief-making by either Erdoğan or Hungary’s Viktor Orban who has used Turkish objections to try and extract his own concessions from Sweden and the EU.
On the second challenge, NATO had what seems to be a partial success. It agreed to new defense plans and promised to “regularly exercise the Alliance’s ability to rapidly reinforce any Ally that comes under threat.” But it is important to note that the plans are in many ways aspirational, will likely take years to implement, and in any event depend on NATO’s success in addressing the distressing state of the European defense industrial base. The Vilnius Communique implicitly recognized this reality by acknowledging that NATO needs “a robust and resilient defense industry able to sustainably meet the need of significantly strengthened collective defense.” But whether the European allies will be capable of meeting this demand remains, at best, an open question.
The war in Ukraine, and particularly the steady demand for munitions and other weapons systems to support Kyiv’s efforts to resist Russian aggression, has thrown into sharp relief the parlous state of the defense industrial base in both the US and Europe.
In 2018, the congressionally-mandated National Defense Strategy Commission (full disclosure: I co-chaired the Commission) drew attention to the fact that during the counter-ISIL campaign in 2015 the US Air Force almost ran out of precision-guided munitions, that the US defense industrial base faced difficulty in making up such short falls and that the supply chains for the defense industrial base were anything but resilient. Today, the Department of Defense and the Congress are taking steps to shore it up (although much more needs to be done).
Europe is, if anything, in even worse shape. As Michael Schoellhorn, the CEO of Airbus Defense and Space, noted in the days after the Vilnius Summit, “the US has definitely kick-started their industrial base as part of their defense system,” but in Europe “by and large it has taken too long, it’s not decisive enough and there’s too much fragmentation.”
There is irony in all this. Despite Biden’s pledge to lead the Alliance, it has largely been the Europeans who have forced the pace when it comes to providing Ukraine with military assistance – including on key items like tanks, long-range strike systems and provision of F-16 fighter aircraft.
The US administration, crippled by an overwhelming fear of escalation dynamics (despite repeated indications that Russia’s so-called “red lines” have repeatedly disappeared in the face of NATO members provision of material support to Ukraine’s armed forces) has repeatedly been in the position of playing catch-up on its qualitative support for Kyiv even as it provides the lion’s share of the military assistance to Ukraine. The recent decision to provide Ukraine with the Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munition, a cluster munition that will provide Ukraine with an important, if hugely controversial capability, may be an indication that Washington is ready to move a bit more aggressively to ensure that Ukraine wins the war. And Biden’s statements that he is considering supplying Ukraine with ATACMS ballistic missiles (enabling it to strike Russian logistics and supply lines that have moved out of range of the earlier supplied HIMARS systems) are a hopeful sign that some of Biden’s reticence is yielding to reality. But the fear of provoking “World War III” remains deeply ingrained in the psyche of Biden’s team.
The third challenge – Ukraine’s future relationship with NATO – provoked most of the drama at Vilnius and it is here that Biden and his team performed most poorly. Ukraine’s military performance has earned it enormous respect in European capitals. Considering Ukraine’s growing reliance on Western systems and training, as well as its successes on the battlefield, it is clear that the country is developing an advanced military that will be increasingly capable of meeting any criterion for interoperability. Its reforms at home (despite continuing problems with corruption and rule of law) compare favorably with some of the states recently welcomed into NATO – Montenegro comes to mind.
Nonetheless, amidst growing sentiment in Europe that a clear path to NATO membership was the only way to guarantee the security and stability of the continent in the long run, Washington (and Berlin) remained stubbornly resistant. Biden’s statements ahead of the Vilnius Summit that Ukraine wasn’t ready for NATO membership and that he wasn’t going to make it easy for them were nothing less than insulting. Moreover, as the communique deliberations in Vilnius proceeded, the insular or even solipsistic quality of the Biden team was sadly on display.
The Americans were reportedly stunned that the support for Ukraine’s path to membership was broader than they had assessed. When draft language leaked which suggested that Ukraine could only become a member when Allies agreed that unspecified conditions had been met, Zelenskyy understandably reacted harshly, tweeting that the reasoning was absurd.
The American response to Zelenskyy was to suggest that all the Ukraine language in the communique should be deleted. It was an unserious response that reflected a curious lack of strategic empathy. Although the Biden team spends much of its time worrying about what might provoke Vladimir Putin, it seems to have much less understanding or time for a heroic national leader who is fighting valiantly for the survival of his country against a rapacious enemy. This is an enemy who has committed countless war crimes and whose leaders routinely indulge in eliminationist, genocidal rhetoric and totally irresponsible and dangerous, if empty, nuclear threats throughout the course of this terrible war. Combined with Biden’s conspicuous failure to attend the summit’s final dinner for heads of state, it was not a good look.
Biden’s speech in Vilnius after the meetings had concluded and his subsequent stop in Helsinki allowed him to take a victory lap and proclaim the summit’s success and NATO’s solidarity. In truth, the language in the communique on Ukraine’s future association with NATO was not as strong as it should have been but, in combination with some of the undertakings to provide long-term bilateral assistance to Ukraine that Washington spearheaded, it was not as bad as Ukrainians might have feared.
There will be future opportunities for NATO foreign and defense ministers to provide additional assistance and clear the path to eventual NATO membership for Ukraine, perhaps leading to a formal offer at next year’s 75th anniversary summit in Washington. But Biden’s performance, despite some real achievements, was much less than his promised return of America to the head of the table. Sadly there was much more followership than leadership on display in Vilnius.