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NATO at 75 grapples with a 'constant threat of new types of attacks'

The Biden administration hosts a celebration for an expanding NATO's 75th anniversary amid political turmoil.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a pre-summit press conference.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a pre-summit press conference. (AN/NATO)

Preparing for the NATO summit in Washington, Western leaders have much to celebrate with the military alliance's expansion and spending, but face a set of stern challenges – from Russia's war in Ukraine and a crucial U.S. election to the Russia-China alliance and terrorist threats in Europe.

This year’s annual summit, only the fourth to be held in the United States since the 2012 Chicago summit and 1999 and 1978 Washington summits, is unlike any other before it, and it's not just because NATO is turning 75.

It was NATO Day on Monday with a baseball game at Washington's Nationals Park, where Jens Stoltenberg – marking his last summit as the transatlantic alliance's secretary general – threw the first pitch. Stoltenberg, a Norwegian former prime minister, has served as the NATO chief for 10 years, making him its second longest-serving head after the late Joseph Luns, a Dutch former foreign minister, from 1972 to 1984.

The three-day summit was set to start on Tuesday at the downtown Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where dozens of heads of state from around Europe and thousands of others are expected to gather.

Stoltenberg said the summit will focus on the war in Ukraine, NATO's deterrence and defense, and the global partnerships it has cultivated since the early 2000s. During his tenure, NATO returned to its original principal mandate of deterrence and defense, as he witnessed Russia’s tightening grip on Ukraine beginning with the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Last week, the U.S. military's European Command raised the threat level at bases on the continent to the second highest of five threat levels.

"We always have to be vigilant and aware of the threat of terrorist actions and therefore it is important that the U.S. command is vigilant and take the decisions on alert levels which they deem necessary," Stoltenberg told CBS News' 'Face the Nation.' "It is a combination – is always a bit dangerous or difficult to go into the details of intelligence – but NATO, the U.S. we have to be aware of the constant threat of new types of attacks and that's exactly what we are by also exchanging more intelligence and working together."

Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea also will join this summit, as part of what Stoltenberg calls an effort to deal with Chinese leader Xi Jinping's ties to Putin. "The war in Ukraine demonstrates how closely aligned Russia and China and North Korea and Iran are," he said. "China is the main enabler of Russia's war aggression against Ukraine. President Xi and President Putin, they all want NATO, the United States to fail in Ukraine, and if Putin wins in Ukraine, it will not only embolden President Putin, it also would  embolden President Xi."

Three NATO allies, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, possess 5,759 nuclear warheads, just slightly less than Russia's 5,889 warheads, according to the Washington-based Arms Control Association. Most of those under NATO control are in U.S. hands.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's message to NATO has been a not-so-subtle warning that providing too much military support for Ukraine could trigger a nuclear conflict. He claims he won't need nuclear weapons to win the war, yet says the West shouldn't assume Russia will never use them.

Political shifts in Europe

In late June, Mark Rutte emerged as Stoltenberg's successor after gaining the backing of all 32 members of the military alliance and decisively edging out a contender, Romania's President Klaus Iohannis. Rutte, who stepped down after 14 years as Netherlands' prime minister by riding away on a bicycle on Saturday, is set to replace Stoltenberg in October and hold the NATO post, traditionally held by a European, for at least four years.

Rutte's nation has a deep connection to NATO and direct involvement in what is now NATO’s main conflict, the war in Ukraine. When Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian surface-to-air missile in 2014 as it flew over eastern Ukraine, all 298 passengers and crew were killed including 196 Dutch citizens, sparking a crisis in the Netherlands. For Rutte, dealing with Putin is nothing new.

The 75th anniversary celebration may not be as exuberant as leaders would like it to be.

The right-wing shift in the Netherlands forced Rutte out of government and into NATO. Nervousness spread after France's President Emmanuel Macron dissolved parliament in early June and Marine Le Pen's populist, anti-immigrant National Rally party won the first round of elections.

But France’s left-wing New Popular Front alliance and Macron’s centrist coalition fended off a far-right win in legislative elections on Sunday. The high turnout among French voters shored up the left and center instead of opening the door to France’s first far-right government since World War II.

Another NATO personnel decision in June caused political friction in France but gained little publicity. The North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest political decision-making body, approved Admiral Pierre Vandier of France as one of the military alliance's two strategic commanders. He will assume his post in 2024. Le Pen questioned the appointment and called for a change in Ukraine policy; she wants to prevent French soldiers from being sent there, a scenario Macron has refused to rule out.

A week earlier in the United Kingdom, the center-left Labour Party won a majority in parliament, bringing Labour leader Keir Starmer to power in place of Conservative Rishi Sunak, who will keep serving as a lawmaker in the House of Commons despite his party's general election defeat, the worst in its parliamentary history.

NATO estimates of 2024 defense spending

The Trump factor

But the greatest question mark is the U.S. presidential election in November that will decide who will be the leader of NATO’s single most important military power. The possibility of Donald Trump’s return to the White House and the memory of this last tenure, marked by a deep hostility to international and intergovernmental organizations such as NATO, sparks uncertainty in Europe.

Trump, seeking the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, told a campaign rally earlier this year that he would "encourage" Russia to attack nations that fall short of NATO's defense spending targets.

Stoltenberg said Trump's remarks put soldiers at risk, but emphasized NATO's members remained committed to defending each other, and predicted that “regardless of who wins the presidential election, the U.S. will remain a strong and committed NATO ally.”

Article 5, the bedrock of the 1948 North Atlantic Treaty, defines an attack against one member of the military alliance as an attack against all. Trump eventually endorsed NATO’s Article 5 as president but kept portraying NATO allies as freeloaders on U.S. military might. However, Trump's "America First" policies, fueled by populist and white nationalism, undermine ties with traditional American partners.

Trump called on NATO allies to spend as much as 4% of their GDP on defense, which would double the current target of 2% by this year; this year, only Poland would meet that target. As president, he withdrew the United States from several international organizations and treaties – and raised the possibility of leaving NATO.

NATO allies agreed to halt their post-Cold War spending cuts and adopted the 2% target in 2014, after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. At that time, just three nations met the target.

This year, NATO says 23 members are "expected to meet or exceed the target of investing at least 2% of GDP in defense," up from just three in 2014. NATO figures put U.S. military spending at 3.38% of GDP, behind only Estonia 3.43% and Poland at 4.32%, with the U.S. accounting for about 70% of the alliance's US$1 trillion in military spending.

Trump's Republican Party criticized the need to provide more foreign aid for Ukraine's war against Russia. By contrast, U.S. President Joe Biden, whose bid for another four-term term is dogged by questions about his ability to defeat Trump for second time, has been a strong support of Ukraine and NATO.

NATO and its European members are preparing for the possible return of Trump, choosing leaders who are steadfast backers of Ukraine. European Union leaders reached agreement to nominate Germany's Ursula von der Leyen for a second term as head of the European Commission and Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas as the next foreign policy chief.

"Our most urgent task at the summit will be support to Ukraine. Ukraine must prevail, and they need our sustained support," Stoltenberg told a pre-summit news conference. "So at the summit next week, I expect heads of state and government will agree a substantial package for Ukraine."

He confirmed that NATO will provide 40 billion euros (US$43 billion) in military aid to Ukraine in 2025 and urged leaders to agree to a multi-year commitment. Biden has been saying for years that Ukraine will one day become a member of NATO. At last year’s summit, however, the U.S. focused on beefing up Ukraine’s self-defense rather than address its potential membership in NATO.

With the Biden administration determined to make the summit an election-year success, a senior U.S. official told reporters in Washington that NATO allies will present a "bridge-to-membership" scenario for Ukraine at the summit. Another major topic will be capacity building in NATO’s primary task of defense and deterrence. For this, the alliance is expected to enhance transatlantic industrial cooperation in the defense sector and ramp up ballistic missile defenses.