Navigating Uncertainty: What to Expect from the 2024 NATO Summit

Leonard Schuette
Navigating Uncertainty: What to Expect from the 2024 NATO Summit
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Ahead of NATO's 75th Summit, the Alliance is facing a myriad of crises. Expert Leonard Schütte on what to expect from the upcoming Washington summit and what success could look like.

On 9-11 July, NATO is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a summit in Washington, DC. What can we expect? 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s founding celebration in the US capital comes at a time of massive uncertainty about NATO’s future. Russia’s war against Ukraine shows no sign of abating and the Allies are divided on how to treat Ukraine’s NATO membership application. At the same time, the US elections loom large over the summit, with the Republican National Convention – during which the Republican Party will confirm Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency as well as their candidate for Vice-President – set to take place the week after the summit.

NATO allies will attempt to tiptoe around US domestic politics and focus instead on concrete deliverables. These include the creation of a new command to better coordinate the security assistance for Ukraine. The NATO nations also want to strengthen the Alliance’s defence and deterrence posture in Europe by making progress on implementing the new regional defence plans that NATO agreed upon at last year’s summit in Vilnius as well as facilitating the ramp-up of defence industrial bases. In addition, with several partners like Japan attending the gathering in DC, the question of whether NATO has a role to play in the Indo-Pacific will also feature prominently.  

Over the last months, there has been a lot of focus on NATO’s defence spending. Are there other actions that European allies should take to make this summit a success? 

According to latest figures, 23 out of 32 Allies are now meeting NATO’s goal of spending 2% of their GDP on defence. While this is important progress, it remains inadequate, not least because 2% is increasingly considered to be an insufficient benchmark to deal with the deteriorating security environment.

Aside from committing to sustainable defence budget increases beyond the 2% mark, European NATO Allies should think about how they can shoulder a much greater burden of Europe’s conventional defence. I have previously made the case for a European Burden-Seizing Initiative for Europeans to replace the bulk of US assets currently deployed in Europe that have militarily relevance in the Indo-Pacific. Such an initiative would not only prepare Europeans for the very plausible scenario in which the US retrenches from Europe, either as a result of Donald Trump’s re-election or a contingency in the Indo-Pacific region. It would also generate goodwill among US policymakers to keep the US capabilities in Europe upon which the European NATO Allies rely. And shouldering this burden would strengthen the case for Ukraine’s NATO membership by demonstrating that European states can actually muster the forces to deter Russia.

It is not enough for the Washington summit to commemorate NATO’s past – it must carve out a plan for the decades to come.

How are broader challenges to multilateralism affecting NATO?  

Various multilateral institutions are facing contestation from both within and outside of their membership – and NATO is certainly not immune from the strife. Effective multilateralism presupposes that members share principles of conduct and adopt wider understandings of national interests. NATO faces challenges on both fronts. First, the authoritarian lurch among many Allies is sowing doubt about whether liberal-democratic norms will continue to serve as the foundation of the Alliance. Second, and relatedly, if Trump wins re-election, the US could follow a much narrower interpretation of their national security interests and adopt a more transactional, short-term stance towards international organisations. Under these conditions, NATO may soon look much more like a traditional alliance only held together (or not) by a common threat.  

The Alliance also faces contestation from outside of the organisation. Russia and increasingly China too consider NATO to be a major adversary. Russia, for example, frames its war against Ukraine also as a proxy war against NATO. However, unlike in many other multilateral institutions, these external pressures have largely had a consolidating effect on the Alliance. By increasing and converging threat perceptions, Russia’s war has actually strengthened NATO's unity and led its enlargement to include Sweden and Finland.  

Looking ahead, NATO’s staying power will depend on how well it weathers these existential threats. And at the end of the day, it is not enough for the Washington summit to commemorate NATO’s past – it must carve out a plan for the decades to come.

Leonard Schütte is a Senior Researcher at the Munich Security Conference and a Fellow at the Centre for International Security at the Hertie School in Berlin.

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Photo: Simon Dawson / Number 10 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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