Four months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the effects of the war are not contained in those two countries. The conflict’s economic fronts, with the rise of energy prices and an emerging food crisis, are compounded by inflation and the likely potential of the war carrying on for months and years.
President Joe Biden is in Europe this week to figure some of this out. He met with the group of seven leading economies known as the G7 in Germany over the weekend. Together, they pledged $600 billion for a global infrastructure program in response to China’s investment in the developing world. On Tuesday, Biden will visit Madrid for his fourth NATO summit. The challenge for Biden, as he grapples with the hot war and its many consequences, is whether this trip can move beyond symbolic wins.
This will be Biden’s second in-person wartime NATO summit, and it’s significant, as the historically non-aligned countries of Sweden and Finland have formally asked to join the security alliance. But joining NATO requires the consensus of all its 30 member states, and Turkey’s obstructionist demands mean that the enlargement of the alliance in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression remains in the realm of symbolism.
At the summit, NATO will unveil a new guiding document that updates the alliance’s worldview since it last released one in 2010. Experts say that China will be mentioned in the document for the first time, a symbolic warning to the alliance’s competitor in Asia.
Perhaps the most monumental development coinciding with Biden’s trip is the European Union welcoming the candidacy of Ukraine to be a member. That too is symbolic. It could take decades for Ukraine to meet the EU’s conditions.
Of course, symbolism carries its own power. For Biden, the task in Europe is to take the symbolic unity of NATO countries and deliver unity around NATO’s objectives in the war — and in addressing other global challenges.
All the problems to solve at NATO and the G7
In a recent essay for the New York Times, Biden laid out what the US “will not do” in Ukraine: it will not seek regime change in Russia or avoid NATO’s direct involvement in the war. He inadvertently posed an enduring question: What are NATO and the US’s strategic objectives in Ukraine?
The US hasn’t been totally clear about its strategic goals because much of this depends on what Ukraine wants, explained Douglas Lute, who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to NATO from 2013 to 2017. “Our overall objective in Ukraine is still somewhat under formulation,” he told me. “We’re trying to calibrate our support for Ukrainian objectives, and that complicates matters here.”
But as the US continues to send more weapons on top of an already staggering amount of military aid to Ukraine, the strategic objectives of the war remain difficult to discern.
Much of this summit will be about aligning all 30 countries of the alliance. The problem is that each country faces its own domestic divides. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has just lost his parliamentary majority, and, in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is the least popular member of his own cabinet. Germany is figuring out new energy and defense policies, stopping Russian oil purchases but still buying Russian gas, as it ramps up its military budget. And in the United States, Biden looks ahead to a prospective midterm shellacking with high gas prices and outrageous inflation, as Supreme Court decisions and ongoing gun violence polarize the country.
Though this year the US has reinvigorated NATO and deepened its connection to Europe, experts say policy thinking remains stuck in the post–Cold War past. “We were very focused on Europe in the 1990s, and then 9/11 happened, and we totally forgot about it,” said Max Bergmann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Back then, the US was “freaked out” by the fact that the nascent EU was not just a political union but also had economic and defense elements that could counterweight US power. “Washington just has no real grasp of Europe today, doesn’t understand the centrality of the European Union, and tries to operate as if it doesn’t exist,” he told me.
The US and Europe are also trying to navigate soaring energy prices driven in part by the war, and while Biden tries to lower gas prices by any means necessary — Europe is unevenly reckoning with what it might mean to cut off Russian oil. “Climate is a big deal to the Germans and to the G7,” said Meg Lundsager, the former US executive director at the International Monetary Fund. “I don’t see the policy changes in the US that are needed, or the funding going to clean energy that we would need to do here to have a big impact.”
Joanna Rozpedowski, a researcher at the Center for International Policy, says that the countries of the G7 will have to go well beyond Ukraine. “Afghanistan is an ongoing issue. Ethiopia, Haiti, Sri Lanka. But the Ukraine conflict — I’m concerned that it will overshadow all of these crises, simply due to the immediacy and the proximity of that conflict to Europe,” she told me.
How to unite NATO on Russia and China
At the summit, a reanimated NATO will attempt to meet the thorny moment, while making everything as stage-managed as possible. “The whole goal of NATO is to have a narrative of unity — maximum support for Ukraine — and to have the show just be one of the images of leadership,” says Michael Kimmage, a historian focused on the Cold War at Catholic University of America. “But that’s, of course, different from really arriving at some kind of strategic consensus.”
NATO, it might be said, finds itself in a contradiction; it’s structurally a defensive military alliance that has nevertheless become involved in a war it’s not technically a part of. “There’s always this odd rhetorical gray zone or ambiguity where it makes these claims about being there for Ukraine. But it’s really NATO member states that are doing stuff and not NATO as such,” Kimmage, who served in the Obama State Department, explained.
The most urgent agenda item for NATO may be the most controversial politically: each country agreeing to a way out of this war.
Tom Pickering, a career diplomat who served as US ambassador to Russia from 1993 to 1996, says that the US preoccupation with demonizing enemies has shut down all lines of communication to Russia. “I think that that’s a self-made barrier,” he told me. “During the Cold War, we did learn that longstanding conversations tended, over a period of time, to produce some useful results.”
The US has become too focused on the notion of solving diplomatic problems militarily, says Pickering, “when, in effect, military efforts have produced outcomes that have not resulted in solutions so much as prolongations of the conflict.”
Ukraine and Russia are not talking, but David Arakhamia, majority leader of the Ukrainian parliament and the country’s chief negotiator with Russia, keeps an open channel with his Russian counterpart. It’s important to “not completely destroy some relationship,” he said, “because eventually there will be some negotiation, and we’ll have to set something right.”
But much of the Ukrainian public is not open to talks after Russian brutality in Bucha and Mariupol, Arakhamia said at a recent German Marshall Fund event. He also conceded that the Ukrainian negotiating position is weak.
A quick turnoff may no longer be possible, if it ever was. The idea of finding off-ramps for Putin to deescalate while saving face may itself date to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and assault on the Donbas — when Putin declined to take any off-ramps.
Now, the Biden administration seems to have dropped the off-ramp concept and has deferred instead to Ukrainian desires. “So that’s different from an off-ramp metaphor. It’s a message of unconditional support,” said Kimmage. “Not only is there no off-ramp, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for scaling back the escalation that’s happening, and some of that escalation is happening very, very close to the NATO domain.”
Though Russia is the war of the moment, observers will be watching how NATO addresses China in its new strategic concept — the document that is its “purpose in life,” as Rose Gottemoeller, the alliance’s former deputy secretary general, put it.
Since the US seems increasingly focused on deterring China’s military power in the Indo-Pacific region, European countries will have to refocus on how to defend Europe. “The alliance will be careful not to overreach with regard to its competition with China, and I think it will be careful not to over-militarize that competition,” Lute told me. “It will require careful drafting by NATO, because, of course, it’s a military alliance.” Securing critical infrastructure, commerce, and investments in Europe from China’s influence will likely be a priority of NATO’s approach to China.
The last NATO strategic concept was from 2010 and described a different moment. “Today, the Euro-Atlantic area is at peace and the threat of a conventional attack against NATO territory is low,” it read.