This 75th anniversary NATO Summit in Washington this week has two levels.

At the level of strategy, its purpose is to deal with the threat of Russian aggression by doing more to support Ukraine and making sure NATO’s own frontiers are defended. That means supplying more weapons to Ukraine, especially for air defense, and hopefully with fewer caveats on their use, especially important after Russia’s attack on a children’s hospital in Kyiv. There also are questions of whether NATO should extend its defense of NATO territory: the Polish-Ukrainian security cooperation agreement signed yesterday raises the question of whether Poland could shoot down Russian drones and missiles headed toward Poland but still over Ukrainian territory. This is a big deal, and NATO needs to consider that and other ways NATO can support Ukraine as it fights for its life.

NATO has already agreed that Ukraine’s future is in NATO, but it needs to make clear at this summit that the Alliance is serious. The “bridge to NATO,” or an “irreversible” path to NATO, phrases likely to find a place in the final NATO Summit Statement, can help. It is no light matter to bring into the Alliance a country at war. But the option of a neutral Ukraine, a la Austria during the Cold War, is gone: Russian President Vladimir Putin had a neutral Ukraine; before the full invasion in February 2002, Ukraine had not moved toward NATO, and Putin went to war anyway. Putin’s purpose in invading Ukraine is not to secure Ukrainian neutrality but to destroy Ukrainian independence and Ukrainian nationality as something separate from Russia. He has written as much. Leaving Ukraine in a “gray zone” is no longer a viable option. Putin has made clear that he sees “gray zones” as green lights for aggression. NATO should not allow such a situation to continue. 

While many in Ukraine want a straight-forward invitation to join the Alliance, or at least begin accession negotiations, for now the NATO Summit can succeed if it commits itself to the principle of Ukraine’s future in NATO in a more credible way than the patched-together compromises at the Bucharest NATO Summit in 2008 and the Vilnius NATO Summit in 2023

There is really no such a thing as an “irreversible” path for Ukraine, or for any other country, to NATO membership. But NATO can send a signal of determination to bring Ukraine into the Alliance rather than leave it in the cold through a good combination of communique language, leaders’ statements, and hard decisions to put NATO in the forefront of practical efforts to help Ukraine defend itself.

The Specter of Politics

Of course, the other level of the NATO Summit is politics — both European and especially U.S. politics in this election year. 

Rightist, and sometimes pro-Russia/pro-Putin political parties are on the rise in France and Germany (especially in the former East Germany). In other countries, like Poland and the U.K., strong pro-free-world coalitions or parties have done well in recent elections (and both Poland’s rightist former ruling party, Law and Justice, and the Conservatives in the U.K., are also strongly trans-Atlanticist). Putin may have been disappointed by the failure of the far-right French “National Rally” to capture a governing majority in last Sunday’s second-round elections, but he might be ready to bide his time and wait for a favorable political turn in Europe. Hard-right governments may turn out to be trans-Atlanticist, as in Italy. Or they could end up something like Hungary’s government under Prime Minister Viktor Orban: favorable to Russia and China. Putin could reasonably be counting on such a turn.

The bigger and near-term political challenge to NATO — and the subtext of the Washington Summit — is the U.S. election. This will have two aspects. First, all eyes will be on President Joe Biden: will he show stamina, energy, and leadership in public and private settings? As of this writing, President Biden may have turned back some of the pressure on him to withdraw from the presidential campaign. But pressure could come back fast and irresistibly should he again have a “bad night” as he had during the June 27 debate with Donald Trump. He will be on the spot throughout the summit.

Speculation About `Trump World’

A second aspect of the ramifications of the impending U.S. election is the prospective nature of a second Trump term, if one comes to pass. Europeans in town for the NATO Summit are talking about Trump World, trying to discern whether it would be as bad as Trump’s worst statements, e.g., “Putin can do whatever the hell he wants” to NATO members who are not meeting NATO’s agreed defense spending level of 2 percent of GDP. Or whether the U.S. would withdraw from Europe to focus on Asia as some, e.g., former Trump administration Pentagon official Elbridge Colby, seem to advocate. 

However, some Trump supporters, notably U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, are sounding more Reaganite and less neo-isolationist, at least judging by Johnson’s July 8 speech at the Hudson Institute. In a Washington Post op-ed published the same day, Marc Thiessen made a case for a pro-NATO, pro-Ukraine Trump foreign policy in strong, albeit partisan, terms. It is not clear to European observers (or to me) how a Trump foreign policy would in fact turn out. Possibly, as former U.S. diplomat Kurt Volker, who served as special envoy to Ukraine in the Trump administration, put it in a recent article, Trump himself doesn’t know. In that case, Europeans will be calculating how to approach Trump World, and who to approach in it.

In any event, many balls are in the air this week in Washington: the NATO agenda has more than the usual weight attached to it while war rages in Europe and amid the U.S. political dynamic. It isn’t pretty. But neither is the cause of the free world lost.

IMAGE: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (L) shakes hands with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk after they signed an agreement in Warsaw, Poland on July 8, 2024, ahead of NATO’s 75th anniversary leader’s summit. The NATO military alliance in April marked 75 years since the signing of its founding treaty in Washington — where its members gather for an anniversary summit from 9-11 July 2024. (Photo by SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images)