U.S. President Joe Biden departs the White House March 18, 2022, in Washington, DC.

U.S. President Joe Biden departs the White House March 18, 2022, in Washington, DC. Getty Images / Win McNamee

Biden Travels to Europe To Ensure the West Will ‘Stay United’

Experts say the NATO alliance has proven as relevant and necessary as ever.

As a war on European soil mutes decades of questions about NATO’s relevance, U.S. President Joe Biden is heading to Brussels to meet with world leaders.

Biden will fly to the European Union capital for Thursday’s NATO summit and European Council Summit, both of which are expected to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that has killed more than 900 civilians and forced more than 3.5 million people from the country. He will then fly to Poland, where he’s expected to meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda on Saturday. 

At NATO, Biden is expected to announce more sanctions and stricter enforcement of those that were already imposed on Russia, as well as additional American contributions toward humanitarian aid, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Tuesday. He will also coordinate with allies to send more military assistance to Ukraine, and potential changes to the alliance’s troop presence in eastern Europe.

“This war will not end easily or rapidly,” Sullivan said. “For the past few months, the West has been united. The president is traveling to Europe to ensure we stay united, to cement our collective resolve, to send a powerful message that we are prepared and committed to this for as long as it takes.”

Biden is expected to use his time at NATO to build consensus and ensure the West acts as a united front, demonstrating that the alliance is as important as it's ever been, experts said.

“What the crisis has done…has put into stark relief what would have happened had we not had a NATO where we were cooperating every day in very routine days to prepare us for a crisis of this magnitude,” said Christopher Skaluba, director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. “NATO is a key tool of international power, but certainly the crisis has made” that clearer.

NATO was established in 1948 to deter the Soviet Union. But after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, members were left without a common enemy and experts began questioning if the alliance was still necessary. Some argued that NATO would have to go “out of area or out of business,” and for a while, members took on missions outside of Europe, including years of combat in Afghanistan justified as an Article 5 response to the 9/11 attacks.

But President Donald Trump called NATO “obsolete” in 2016, demanding that members boost defense spending and painting it as no big deal if the alliance should collapse instead. 

Questions about NATO’s relevance were asked long before Trump. In 2003, the New York Times ran an opinion piece with the headline: “NATO is irrelevant: A bureaucracy whose time has passed.” In 2010, Stephen Walt, an international relations professor at Harvard University, wrote in a Foreign Policy column that “NATO doesn’t have much of a future.” Reason, a libertarian monthly magazine, ran a piece in 2019 that said, “no number of NATO summits will re-energize an alliance against an enemy that went out of business nearly 30 years ago.”  

These have been valid critiques, said Sean Monaghan, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, but they are no longer relevant to the global threat today. 

“NATO was invented with one purpose and that was to deter Soviet aggression in Europe,” Monaghan said. “These were all relevant questions for the past several decades…but now we firmly find ourselves back in a more Hobbesian reality where Russia is clearly willing to use force in an incredibly brutal way against international law…and NATO has to step up to deal with that.” 

Other critics of NATO have argued that the financial burden of collective defense is shared unequally, and have slammed some members for not spending enough on national security. Monaghan called those critiques increasingly irrelevant. Members have slowly been increasing their defense spending since the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, where allies committed to reach 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2024. But Russia’s invasion is accelerating that timeline and driving higher investments. Three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Germany, which currently spends less than 1.5 percent of its GDP on defense, announced plans to increase that above the 2 percent threshold. Denmark this month made similar promises to boost defense spending, while Lithuania will increase defense spending this year to 2.5 percent of GDP.

All of this makes NATO’s value “crystal clear,” said Lauren Speranza, the director of The Center for European Policy and Analysis' Transatlantic Defense and Security Program. But NATO’s quick response and protection of member states isn’t enough because Russia is still actively attacking Ukraine despite the alliance condemning the action, reinforcing its borders, and sending help to Kyiv, she said.

“It hasn’t succeeded in deterring Russia,” she said. “We can’t pat ourselves on the back and be so proud of this response because, yes of course NATO has done a lot to support Ukraine…[but] we have to be real with ourselves that right now we’re kind of treading in a place where we’re more fearful of potential escalation.”

NATO’s reaction to Russia’s war could have implications for Ukraine, Georgia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina that have been vying for membership, since Kyiv’s bid to join the alliance has been a key sticking point of Russia’s invasion.

“There’s now a bit of fatigue about how valuable NATO can be to them, if that door really is open, and if [NATO] is really willing to welcome them in,” Speranza said.  

The fact, however, that Russia has never invaded a member of NATO is a huge success that is likely to push more countries to seek membership regardless of what help is provided to Ukraine, said Bradley Bowman, a senior director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Who has Putin invaded and occupied? It’s Georgia, a non-NATO member. It’s Ukraine, a non-NATO member,” Bowman said. “That is the most persuasive billboard possible for NATO membership.”