July 08, 2024

CNAS Responds: 2024 NATO Summit in Washington

This week, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will meet in Washington, D.C. to make key decisions on strengthening its defense amid heightened security stakes. Alongside the 75th NATO Summit, CNAS will cohost the NATO Public Forum from July 10-11. Register now for the virtual forum, and read more from CNAS experts on the summit's potential impact and the alliance's overall strength below.

All quotes may be used with attribution. To arrange an interview, email Alexa Whaley at [email protected].

Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer:

The 2024 NATO Summit planners did not know how prescient their choice of location would turn out. The Washington gathering aims to highlight the alliance's 75 years of success and its common resolve to support Ukraine. Yet bigger questions revolve around the United States. One presidential candidate expresses grave doubts about the alliance's value to Americans. The other faces questions in his own party about the continued viability of his candidacy. The allies bring to Washington not only a commitment to Ukraine, but also worries about politics in the alliance's indispensable linchpin.

Yet there are strong grounds to remain optimistic about NATO. Good things tend to endure because they have value. The alliance has significant value, and even a NATO-skeptical administration is likely to recognize that fact. The allies could demonstrate greater value this week by relaxing the conditions under which Ukraine is permitted to employ ally-provided weapons, and by deepening the discussions over NATO's role in the Indo-Pacific. This—and much more—will accrue to the allies' benefit, even in a strange American political moment. It's the right place and the right time.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security Program:

There is indeed a lot to celebrate at this 75th NATO Summit. 23 of the 32 NATO members now exceed the alliance’s target of spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. NATO is now officially larger than it was last year as Sweden will participate in its first summit as an ally. NATO is stepping up its role in aiding Ukraine by taking on responsibility for coordinating training and equipment donations. The alliance is taking concrete steps to better realize its regional defense plans. And the alliance is welcoming Mark Rutte as the new Secretary General. There is indeed a lot to celebrate.

And yet, one is left with the question of whether it is enough. Just as the NATO allies have been strengthening their cooperation, so too have America’s adversaries. Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are also deepening their ties and preparing for a long-term confrontation with the West. Russia, for its part, remains a formidable challenge and committed to not just subjugating Ukraine, but to undermining the NATO alliance. And then there is the issue of leadership and cohesion in the West. Many of the key NATO leaders are heading into the summit weakened at home, especially President Biden in the wake of his disastrous debate and French President Macron who lost his political gamble and has thrown his country into political chaos and probably policy paralysis. So while there indeed will be many positive deliverables at this year’s historic summit, there is a risk that the sorry state of Western leadership will cast a shadow over the progress and undermine the signals of strength and cohesion that the summit is designed to project.

Jim Townsend, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program:

NATO’s 75th anniversary summit will be like no other. I have attended most of them, beginning with the 50th anniversary summit in Washington in 1999. That summit occurred during NATO’s first major military operation, helping to quell efforts by Serbian President Milosevich to push Serbian Muslims out of Kosovo. On its 75th anniversary, NATO will again be involved in a European conflict, confronting an aggressive Russia by helping Ukraine defend itself and by restoring Allied military capability to deter future Russian aggression.

But what makes this anniversary unlike any other is that so much media attention and hallway chatter will focus on politics, not on NATO issues. A new UK Prime Minister will arrive at the summit after a major Tory defeat, bringing a new outlook to NATO discussions. From Paris will come a weakened French President Macron, but after the snap election culminating just two days before the summit, who will be his Prime Minster, much less represent defense and foreign affairs? There will be a new Secretary General too, the well-respected former Dutch PM Mark Rutte; summiteers will be watching his ability to fill the very large shoes of Jens Stoltenberg. Finally, the elephant in the room will be President Joe Biden, fighting for his political life after a disastrous debate against an outspoken opponent who does not look kindly on NATO and will be posturing for the Republican convention happening just days after the summit ends. Journalists attending President Biden’s summit press conference will likely not ask one question about NATO but instead ask about the President’s political future.

NATO has lasted 75 years because it has learned how to survive political turmoil like this; this is not the first time politics has roiled the waters of a summit. The mere fact that alliance now celebrates its 75 anniversary shows that NATO has met the test of time. NATO has also adapted not just to domestic political change, but to geopolitical change as well as change in how wars are fought. Without the nimbleness to adapt to shifting geopolitical landscapes, the alliance would not be celebrating its 75th anniversary, but because it has demonstrated that it is not brain dead, NATO will likely celebrate again 25 years hence.

Peter Schroeder, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program:

At its 75th anniversary summit in Washington this July, NATO is expected to offer Ukraine a "bridge" to future membership in the alliance. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan noted that the summit will show that Allies are taking concrete steps to aid Ukraine and ensure it is prepared to join the alliance. Highlighting one key deliverable for the summit, last month, Allied Defense Ministers approved a new entity called the “NATO Security Assistance and Training for Ukraine” to coordinate and facilitate support to the Ukrainian military. The new group will work alongside the existing Ukraine Defense Contact Group that Washington leads and will help organize training and manage the donation and transfer of military material. The new organization is also intended to show the alliance’s long-term commitment to Ukraine and provide an alternate way to coordinate assistance if U.S. policy changes after the presidential election in November.

U.S. officials’ framing of the alliance’s approach to Ukraine’s NATO prospects as a “bridge” to future membership appears to have largely gained Allied support and successfully avoided the contentious, divisive rhetoric at NATO’s previous summit. Last year in Vilnius, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was vocal about seeking an invitation to join the Alliance and was clear in his disappointment when it did not arrive at the summit. U.S. officials suggested he was ungrateful for the support he was getting, while other allies sniped about U.S. and German unwillingness to move forward on Ukraine’s membership prospects. This time around, there has been little such rhetoric in the run-up to the summit in Washington.

Nonetheless, this year’s compromise doesn’t permanently solve the question of Ukrainian membership, which is likely to continue to be a thorny problem at future NATO summits. In fact, finding ever more artful ways to “kick the can down the road” on Ukraine’s membership prospects will become a more pressing requirement, like a great white shark that needs to keep moving forward or die. And because of the “poison chalice” from the NATO summit declaration in 2008 in Bucharest, the question carries potentially existential connotations for the alliance. That summit made Ukraine’s membership a question of when, not if. Yet, as the war in Ukraine has shown, allies are not willing to send their soldiers to fight and die to defend Ukraine. That fundamental contradiction—a potential security commitment that allied member states seem unwilling to back—remains unresolved. And so, only by continuing to paper over that gaping chasm can NATO avoid more fundamental questions about Article Five and the alliance’s core security guarantees.

Katherine Kuzminski, Deputy Director of Studies and Director, Military, Veterans and Society Program:

75 years after its inception, NATO allies face the same difficult questions regarding how best to prepare the human capital necessary to deter and overcome Russia as they did in 1949: what are the means to compel and recruit the forces required to defeat the revanchist power? Nations across NATO are struggling to meet their military recruiting requirements, and retention trends pose similar challenges. The sustained Russian threat is reviving political debates about the potential for conscription across Western Europe, to include France and the UK. Germany proposed selective service registration in the wake of debates about reinstituting conscription. For its part, the United States continues to face a challenging military recruiting environment.

Recent NATO expansion to include Finland and Sweden provides two nations with strong cultures and systems of military service. Both nations maintain conscription models that are highly selective and valued across their society. The existential threat Russia poses to Finland—which shares 830 border miles with Russia—has long driven a competitive culture of military service, both voluntary and conscripted.

While each of these NATO nations’ increased commitments to military training leverage the current human capital available to the extent possible, military recruitment is an area requiring further individual and collective attention. The challenge isn’t necessarily new, as NATO allies have faced military personnel shortfalls for decades. However, Russia’s behavior over the past decade (and particularly over the last three years) is new, and the threat reinforces just how important it is for militaries to get the processes for acquiring military human capital right.

Nicholas Lokker, Research Associate,Transatlantic Security Program:

It appears unlikely that NATO will issue a formal invitation to Ukraine at its summit this July, despite many members pressing for the alliance to go further in its commitment to Kyiv’s future membership. This follows considerable discontent with the communiqué from last year’s summit in Vilnius, which defined neither a timeline nor the conditions for Ukrainian NATO membership. Though the alliance is correct to refrain from spelling out a clear timeline given uncertainty about the duration of the ongoing war in Ukraine, it would benefit from being more explicit about what it would take to join.

The North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5 collective defense clause will make it impossible for Kyiv to become a NATO member while fighting with Russia is active, as the alliance’s current members will not and should not desire to become directly involved in the war. A durable armistice—perhaps modeled on the status quo on the Korean Peninsula—should therefore be a nonnegotiable prerequisite. That is not to say that the West should pressure Ukraine to negotiate. Yet if and when Kyiv determines that it is unwilling or unable to keep fighting indefinitely, the United States and its European allies should work swiftly to secure the territory that remains under Ukrainian control, which may mean a smaller but stronger Ukraine, anchored firmly within NATO and credibly defended from any resumed Russian aggression in the future. Such an outcome would be far from ideal, and the West should in the meantime give Kyiv everything it needs to try to win back its territory. Yet NATO owes Ukraine a clear “Plan B” for if this proves impossible.

All CNAS experts are available for interviews. To arrange one, contact Alexa Whaley at awhaley@cnas.org.

Register here for a virtual press briefing on the importance of the 75th NATO Summit.


  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...

  • Andrea Kendall-Taylor

    Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security Program

    Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. She works on national security challenges facing the United States and Eur...

  • Jim Townsend

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    James Joye Townsend Jr. is an adjunct senior fellow in the CNAS Transatlantic Security Program. After eight years as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for European ...

  • Peter Schroeder

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    Peter Schroeder is an expert on Russian foreign and security policy, with nearly two decades of experience working on Russia and Eurasia in various roles in the Intelligence C...

  • Katherine L. Kuzminski

    Deputy Director of Studies, Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Katherine L. Kuzminski (formerly Kidder) is the Deputy Director of Studies, and the Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society (MVS) Program at CNAS. Her research special...

  • Nicholas Lokker

    Research Associate, Transatlantic Security Program

    Nicholas Lokker is a Research Associate for the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. His work explores the development of the political and security order in Europe, focusi...