Four months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the effects of the war in those two countries have not yet been contained. The economic fronts of the conflict, with energy prices soaring and a food crisis emerging, are being exacerbated by inflation and the likely potential of war lasting for months and years.
President Joe Biden is in Europe this week to find out. He met this weekend with the group of seven leading economies known as the G7 in Germany. Together they have 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 ramifications, is whether this journey can go beyond symbolic victories.
This will be Biden’s second personal NATO wartime summit, and it’s important, as the historically nonaligned nations have formally asked Sweden and Finland 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 alliance’s expansion 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 will update the alliance’s worldview since it last issued one in 2010. Experts say China will be mentioned for the first time in the document, a symbolic warning to the alliance’s competitor in Asia.
The G7 announced new sanctions against Russia, also on gold. But the economic sanctions imposed on Russia have exploded and are affecting the global economy, quickly opening cracks in the unity of the West.
Perhaps the most monumental development to coincide with Biden’s journey is that the European Union welcomes Ukraine’s candidacy as a member. That too is symbolic. It could take decades for Ukraine to comply with the EU’s conditions.
Symbolism, of course, has its own strength. For Biden, the task in Europe is to take the symbolic unity of NATO nations and bring unity around NATO’s objectives in war – and in addressing other global challenges.
All the problems to be solved at NATO and the G7
In a recent essay for the New York Times, Biden explained what the US “will not do” in Ukraine: It will not pursue or avoid regime change in Russia direct NATO involvement in the war. He inadvertently asked a perennial question: What are NATO’s and US’s strategic objectives in Ukraine?
The US has not been completely clear about its strategic goals, as much of this depends on what Ukraine wants, explains Douglas Lute, who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to NATO from 2013 to 2017. formulation,” he told me. “We are trying to calibrate our support for Ukrainian targets, and that complicates things here.”
But as the US continues to send more weapons on top of an already staggering amount of military aid to Ukraine, the war’s strategic objectives 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 differences. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has just lost his parliamentary majority and in the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is the least popular member of his own cabinet. Germany is drafting a new energy and defense policy, stopping buying Russian oil, but still buying Russian gas, while ramping up its military budget. And in the United States, Biden looks ahead to a possible midterm shelling with high gas prices and excessive inflation, as Supreme Court decisions and ongoing gun violence polarize the country.
While the US has revived NATO this year and deepened its bond with Europe, experts say policy thinking is stuck in the post-Cold War past. “In the 1990s, we were very focused on Europe, and then 9/11 happened, and we completely forgot about it,” said Max Bergmann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. At the time, the US was “shocked” by the fact that the nascent EU was not only a political union, but also had economic and defense elements that could counterbalance US power. “Washington just doesn’t really understand Europe today, doesn’t understand the centrality of the European Union, and trying to operate as if it doesn’t exist,” he told me.
The US and Europe are also trying to deal with rising energy prices partly fueled by war, and while Biden tries to cut gas prices by any means necessary, Europe is miscalculating what it could mean to shut down Russian oil. . “The climate is a big problem for the Germans and the G7,” said Meg Lundsager, the former US director of 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 should be doing here to make a big impact.”
Joanna Rozpedowski, a researcher at the Center for International Policy, says the G7 countries will have to go much further than Ukraine. “Afghanistan is an ongoing problem. Ethiopia, Haiti, Sri Lanka. But the conflict in Ukraine – I’m afraid it will overshadow all these crises simply because of the immediacy and proximity of that conflict to Europe,” she told me.
How to unite NATO in Russia and China?
At the summit, a resuscitated NATO will try to face the thorny moment and make everything as staged as possible. “The whole purpose of NATO is to have a story of unity – maximum support for Ukraine – and to make the show just one of the images of leadership,” said Michael Kimmage, a historian dedicated to the Cold War at the Catholic University of America. “But of course that’s different from really coming to some sort of strategic consensus.”
NATO, one might say, is in a contradiction; it is structurally a defensive military alliance that has nevertheless become involved in a war of which it is not technically a part. “There is always a strange rhetorical gray area or ambiguity where it makes these claims that it is there for Ukraine. But it’s really NATO member states that do things and not NATO as such,” explains Kimmage, who worked in the Obama State Department.
The most pressing agenda item for NATO is arguably its most controversial politically: every country agrees to a way out of this war.
Tom Pickering, a career diplomat who served as US ambassador to Russia from 1993 to 1996, says US preoccupation with demonizing enemies has cut off all lines of communication with Russia. “I think that’s a homemade barrier,” he told me. “During the Cold War, we learned that prolonged conversations, over a period of time, sometimes produced useful results.”
The US is too focused on the idea of militarily solving diplomatic problems, Pickering says, “when in fact military efforts have produced results that have led not so much to solutions as to prolongations of the conflict.”
When Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke to Putin by phone last month, they urged the resumption of negotiations with Ukraine. Ukraine’s foreign minister criticized Macron.
Ukraine and Russia are not talking to each other, but David Arakhamia, the majority leader of the Ukrainian parliament and the country’s chief negotiator with Russia, is keeping an open channel with his Russian counterpart. It’s important not to “completely destroy a relationship,” he said, “because eventually there will be some negotiation and we have to put something right.”
But much of the Ukrainian public is not open to talks after the Russian brutality in Bucha and Mariupol, Arakhamia said at a recent event of the German Marshall Fund. He also admitted that Ukraine’s negotiating position is weak.
A quick exit may no longer be possible, if it ever was. The idea of finding exits for Putin to de-escalate and save face at the same time may itself date back to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the attack on the Donbas — when Putin refused to take exits.
Now the Biden administration appears to have dropped the off-ramp concept and instead postponed to Ukrainian desires. ‘So that’s different from a metaphor for an exit. It’s a message of unconditional support,” Kimmage said. “Not only is there no exit, there doesn’t seem to be much of a need to curb the escalation that’s happening, and some of that escalation is happening very, very close to NATO’s domain.”
While Russia is the war of the moment, observers will watch as NATO engages China in its new strategic concept — the document that is its “goal in life,” as Rose Gottemoeller, the alliance’s former deputy secretary general, said the expressed.
As the US seems increasingly focused on deterring China’s military might in the Indo-Pacific region, European countries will have to refocus on how to defend Europe. “The alliance will make sure it doesn’t go too far in its competition with China, and I think it will be careful not to militarize that competition,” Lute told me. “It will take a careful stance on the part of NATO, as it is, of course, a military alliance.” Securing critical infrastructure, trade and investment in Europe from China’s influence is likely to be a priority of NATO’s approach to China.
NATO’s last strategic concept dates from 2010 and described a different moment. “Today there is peace in the Euro-Atlantic area and the threat of a conventional attack on NATO territory is low,” it read.