Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt, I hear you’re in Europe, just like U.S. President Joe Biden. Are you consulting with NATO allies or just boosting Europe’s tourism industry?
Matthew Kroenig: The president drew the short straw this week. He is working hard, with a series of meetings and summits. I, on the other hand, get to teach my annual Machiavelli course in Florence, and then I’m off for a family vacation in Sicily.
EA: Well, that sounds lovely. Europe is clearly the place to be this week. Biden visited Europe for the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, before continuing on to Scandinavia. He also made a brief stop on an island just off the coast of Europe, where he met with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and King Charles III.
But while I was expecting to see some big announcements this week from the NATO summit, thus far things have been remarkably milquetoast. As expected, leaders declined to offer Ukraine membership, but the joint statement on future membership was lukewarm.
Biden’s speech was long on folksy optimism and cliches and short on any substance. The G-7 communique was stronger—promising bilateral security talks with Kyiv—but left out all the details, and thus far the only major announcement on defense spending has been an almost laughably weak commitment to make 2 percent defense spending among allies a “floor” rather than a target. It all seems to add up to nothing very much. One gets the impression that NATO member states are much more comfortable talking about unity than actually doing anything practical.
If anything, the biggest news of the summit was the divisions popping up between Ukraine and its Western backers. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rather lost his cool, tweeting that it’s “absurd” that NATO won’t offer Ukraine membership. I suspect those divisions will only grow as reality begins to bite in the war in Ukraine: The two sides may be partners, but their interests aren’t entirely aligned.
MK: You make some good points, but I am somewhat more positive in my assessment. First, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey will approve of Sweden’s bid for NATO membership. Many feared that Erdogan would continue to hold out to retain leverage and demand more concessions. I, for one, did not expect to see him announce his approval before the summit, so that was a nice surprise. Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto followed suit and announced his country’s support.
Of course, it is not yet final. Both parliaments will still need to approve, and a new incident, like another Quran burning, could still delay this further. Moreover, as part of the deal, Erdogan is requesting F-16 aircraft (which the White House has agreed to provide) and that the European Union reopen a path for Turkish membership. But it looks likely that Sweden will soon join Finland as a new NATO member.
Overall, this is a major strategic loss for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He claims he invaded Ukraine to stop NATO’s expansion, but now the alliance is larger and stronger than ever before.
EA: Good point. That was an unexpected and significant announcement. Clearly, Biden and Erdogan have settled on a quid pro quo: F-16s to Turkey in exchange for Sweden’s accession to NATO. But it’s certainly not guaranteed yet, and it’s possible that Congress will throw a wrench into the works when called to vote on the F-16 question.
MK: That is true. But given Congress’s strong support for bringing Finland and Sweden into NATO (it was a 95-1 vote), I suspect this will get through.
But you are right that Sweden’s NATO membership bid may be less significant and controversial than the issue of Ukrainian NATO membership. A repeat of the 2008 Bucharest language—that Ukraine would join NATO someday—would have been insufficient after Russia’s 2022 reinvasion. At the other extreme, Ukraine joining NATO immediately was a non-starter because several NATO members—most notably Germany and the United States—are worried about what it would mean to bring a country into the alliance engaged in an active war. So this was always about finding the right space in between.
I was in favor of a more forward-leaning approach. The alliance could have, for example, announced a commission to study the necessary steps for Ukraine to enter NATO before the 2024 Washington summit. Instead, the NATO communique reads: “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when allies agree and conditions are met.” This was disappointing to me but still a step in the right direction.
EA: I suppose tautologies are a diplomatic tradition, but they literally agreed that they will admit Ukraine to NATO once they agree! It’s basically a restatement of the 2008 Bucharest summit’s declaration, which said Ukraine and Georgia will become members at some future point. It’s vague and unhelpful. To be clear, I oppose admitting Ukraine to NATO, now or in the future. But I cannot understand why continuing to string it along while avoiding tough choices is preferable for leaders, rather than coming up with an alternative.
There has been a lot of talk among folks in Washington about the “Israel model” for Ukraine, for example. My colleague Kelly Grieco and I even wrote a paper about how one might implement it in the Ukrainian case. But we still seem to be hyperfocused on NATO membership even with the reality that many existing members don’t want Ukraine in the alliance.
MK: I don’t know that “many” existing members don’t want it in the alliance. My read is that many Northern and Eastern European members are ready, and France and Turkey also announced their support. In this instance, it was the White House that was isolated from many of its more forward-leaning allies.
This is an anomaly compared with the United States’ traditional role in NATO. Usually, it is Washington pushing NATO allies to step up and do the right thing. In this case, it was the White House holding things up. I suspect that if Biden had supported Ukrainian membership, he could have brought the rest of the alliance around.
The White House was understandably worried that, given NATO’s Article 5 commitment, near-term membership would mean a NATO-Russia war, but there are ways around that problem. West Germany was brought into NATO as a divided country, for example, and the alliance could have similarly granted Article 5 protections only to the territory already under Ukrainian control.
The Israel model does not make sense for Ukraine. Israel has nuclear weapons. Ukraine does not—anymore. (Thankfully, Washington talked Kyiv into giving up the nuclear weapons left on its territory when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s.) Israel’s enemies do not have nuclear weapons. Ukraine’s enemy does. Washington guarantees Israel a “qualitative military edge” through its dominance of the conventional arms market in the Middle East. It cannot guarantee Ukraine such an edge over Russia.
Plus, the Israel model basically only formalizes what the free world has already been doing for the past year and a half. It has already been providing Ukraine with high levels of military and economic support, and that has not led to peace.
People ask, how will this war end? The answer is by bringing Ukraine into NATO. Putin has used military force on the territory of almost all of Russia’s neighbors that are not NATO members (Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, etc.). He has used force zero times against NATO members.
Leaving Ukraine in a gray zone means giving Putin a green light.
EA: We discussed this in our paper. Yes, Israel has nuclear weapons, but it has always relied first and foremost on conventional deterrence. Indeed, if Israel really relied on its nuclear weapons for deterrence, then Washington wouldn’t even need to help it maintain an edge! And Israel’s neighbors have started wars despite that nuclear deterrent. There’s no reason it couldn’t work in Ukraine.
You’re right that the Israel model for Ukraine would effectively be a formalization of what’s happening now, but I would argue that it’s actually more credible as a promise because of that. Biden would commit to maintain a suitable level of support to Ukraine, rather than making a potential future promise to include it in an alliance. It’s a bird in the hand, rather than two in the bush. I think Ukraine would be wise to focus its efforts there, not on NATO membership. After all, this summit shows that membership for Ukraine is simply not on the agenda in the near term.
I also find it odd that the meeting of the West’s preeminent military alliance has been focused almost entirely on questions of Ukrainian membership and aid to Ukraine, rather than on issues of importance to alliance members. They have produced almost nothing of consequence on military spending and burden-sharing. These priorities seem extremely backward to me.
MK: Well, they did approve new regional plans. This is significant. It is the first time since the Cold War that NATO has developed large-scale military plans to defend against Russia. They are reportedly 4,000 pages long and detail, for example, where, how many, and what types of forces Western and Central European powers need to send for different contingencies.
This is the culmination of a process, started after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, to shift NATO’s defense strategy from defense-in-depth to deterrence-by-denial. In the recent past, NATO knew it did not have the forward forces to stop a Russian invasion of NATO’s eastern flank members, so its strategy was to allow Russia to take territory and then over the matter of months mount a counteroffensive to push Russia back. After seeing the devastation in Ukraine, however, it is obvious that this would not be a wise choice strategically or morally. So, instead, NATO is moving toward a strategy with a sufficient force posture to deny a Russian invasion from the start.
It is for this reason that I see the language about the 2 percent requirement shifting from a target to a floor being potentially significant. (Currently, only seven of NATO’s 31 members meet this target.) It is not increasing spending for its own sake but to develop specific capabilities to meet NATO requirements.
EA: Again, it’s a good step. But it should have been the absolute minimum already. And those seven countries are only a slight improvement from when the commitment to 2 percent was made at the summit in 2014. And it’s mostly not the largest countries that have reached that target. Instead, it’s the countries closest to the problem: Poland and the Baltics, plus traditional big spenders such as the United States and the United Kingdom. Germany may get to 2 percent in the next few years, but there are a lot of questions about whether its boosted spending will continue after the next few years.
The specific capabilities question is important. I’m very disappointed that this summit did not make any significant announcements on European defense issues. The United States has been seriously deficient over the last few years in pushing European states to develop their own capabilities and, more importantly, improve their own defense industrial base. There was a significant window of opportunity over the last 18 months to push for European states to become more self-sufficient and more capable, and I think Washington has blown it.
MK: Well, I, too, was a bit disappointed by the results of this summit, but we can look forward to next year’s gathering. It will be held in Washington on the 75th anniversary of the alliance, so it would be an opportune occasion for some big announcements. One other concrete step this year was that NATO members agreed to drop the requirement for a Membership Action Plan for Ukraine. That means it would not need to meet specific criteria before joining the alliance. Like Sweden and Finland, the alliance could decide to offer it membership immediately. And while you see widespread resistance to Ukraine’s NATO membership, I think, as noted above, that one guy in the White House changing his mind could make all the difference.
EA: Yes, and the question of who that one guy is remains pretty important! If the next president is Donald Trump, the 75th anniversary summit might end up as a retirement party for NATO.
MK: Ha. Good one. But the summit is scheduled for July, well before the next U.S. presidential election. But U.S. electoral politics still could play a role. If Trump or other Republican candidates are critical of U.S. support to Ukraine, they might make Biden more cautious than he otherwise would be.
EA: What do you think of the G-7 communique? It seems rather strange to announce it during the NATO summit, almost like an attempt to put out something substantive when there’s no agreement inside NATO.
MK: Did you find the G-7 statement more substantive? I figured you would argue that, like the NATO communique, it is thin gruel.
EA: Oh, no, it’s totally thin gruel. I’m sure leaders wanted it to sound stronger and more substantive than the NATO statement, but the G-7 communique only says, and I quote, “In the event of future Russian armed attack, we intend to immediately consult with Ukraine to determine appropriate next steps.” There may well be stronger commitments on arms on a bilateral level, but that’s pretty meaningless language.
MK: We don’t disagree on the concrete deliverables, but I still think the symbolism is important. The big question for global order is: Will Ukraine be a captive state in Russia’s sphere of influence, or will it be a member of the trans-Atlantic community and the free world? Statements from NATO and now the G-7 (which, of course, includes Japan, a major Asian power) are making it increasingly clear that they see Ukraine’s rightful home as in the free world. I think that, after this week, Ukraine’s eventual NATO membership is inevitable.
You might argue that this is just cheap talk, but political scientists have argued that public statements create commitments that make it hard for political leaders—especially in democracies—to abandon.
EA: That’s true. In some ways, I see these statements as policymakers making the same mistakes all over again: promising Ukraine NATO membership someday while leaving it in a gray zone now. It was locked into that path by the Bush administration back at Bucharest in 2008. I don’t see it as a good thing, though. I see it as an unwillingness to face difficult realities that is likely to lock Ukraine into conflict for years to come. I assume you disagree?
MK: Only partly. I would prefer to see Ukraine brought into NATO sooner rather than later. That would be the most effective step to deter Russian aggression and contain Putin.
Still, I do see these statements as contributing to a series of small steps that, when combined, will mean that Putin failed in his bid to restore the Russian empire and that the free world will grow larger and stronger.
EA: I hope you’re right about that. But based on this week, I worry that the free world is mostly capable of empty rhetoric and bickering about spending priorities.
MK: Well, I better go. My kids are bickering about empty calories and whether we should dine tonight on pizza or gelato. Arrivederci!
EA: Remember your Machiavelli, Matt: It’s better for parents to be feared than loved.