Last year, NATO scheduled a summit meeting in Madrid for this June 29-30. At the time, it made sense. Now, with war in Ukraine, it doesn’t. The summit needs to be postponed.
President Joe Biden has done a mostly artful job in managing the various pieces of the West’s response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. That has been based on dealing with the allies either individually or in short bursts on Zoom. But bringing them all together is highly risky. The risk is intensified by the media’s role, finding and highlighting all the alliance fissures in attitudes and actions.
At least one allied leader, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, supports Russia. One, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, said that the West should not humiliate Vladimir Putin, until partly retracting. The United States has been ambiguous. While Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has said the United States hopes Russia will be “weakened” by the war,” President Biden has been cautious about not provoking a wider war or expanding U.S. goals with Russia. Washington has also told Ukraine that it will not provide weapons that could extend the war into Russian territory.
Some allies are willing to provide weapons to Ukraine. Most are not; some are talking about providing advanced weapons but doing little; and some are chary of providing transit for these weapons, lest they become next on the Russian “hit list,” as Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has threatened.
One thing is certain for the summit: Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, will make a spirited presentation by video. He will underscore the suffering in Ukraine, with graphic pictures; point out that the West is tolerating a war of attrition, limited to Ukraine; and demand more practical military support than the allies will be prepared to provide. That will be the emotional high point at Madrid.
The U.S. and NATO task has been further complicated by Finland’s decision to apply for NATO membership. (Sweden has also applied, but that’s less consequential because it does not have a border with Russia). Finland’s joining would add another 830 miles of NATO border with Russia; yet despite Finland’s robust military capabilities, there is no plan or capacity for NATO to honor a military commitment to defend it. Further, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, says he will veto a decision to invite these two Nordic countries to join, because of Kurdish political activities there — and NATO operates by consensus, a unit veto. In the end, he may recede if he gets his price, denominated mainly in U.S. high-performance weapons.
But there would be a lag between inviting Finland and Sweden to join NATO and ratification by all 30 NATO allies, including a two-thirds vote in the U.S. Senate. The Biden administration has promised bilateral security assurances for the interim, but Washington has no practical means for honoring those assurances, except through some form of escalation, as would also apply to a Russian assault on a Baltic state. And that raises the question of nuclear weapons.
All NATO countries are naturally — and correctly — desperate to keep nuclear weapons off the table, while Putin keeps putting them back on. Maybe he is bluffing; but even just a bluff about nuclear use is frightening and destabilizing.
Almost all the allies have joined in imposing sanctions on Russia but also worry about the blowback effects in higher prices at home and the consequent domestic political impact. The common narrative in West Europe is that sanctions on Russia are a principal cause of rampant inflation. Thus many European allies’ willingness to maintain today’s sanctions on Russia is already eroding. Likewise, the European Union has agreed to a phased reduction in imports of Russian oil and gas, but it's not clear yet that it will ever be implemented.
When this month’s summit was scheduled, it was to feature a new Strategic Concept. That will include the basics of defense, deterrence, increases in military spending, dealing with new types of threat, taking some steps regarding military deployments in vulnerable Central European allied states, plus a pro forma bow to dialogue with Russia. But no valid framework for NATO’s strategic and political future can be devised while the war goes on. With the plethora of uncertainties raised by Russia’s aggression and its many spin-offs affecting the alliance and its members, it’s not possible for NATO to chart a long-term course with any chance of remaining relevant, other than perhaps to declare a new cold war, with all its rigidities, costs, risks, and uncertainties.
In addition, when the allies meet, they will have to make some key decisions about what goes into the summit communiqué. At the 2008 NATO summit at Bucharest, President George W. Bush sought to get Ukraine and Georgia on the fast track to NATO membership, through Membership Action Plans. Many allies rebelled, given their unwillingness to consider either country for protection under the Treaty of Washington’s Article 5. The compromise was to state that Ukraine (and Georgia) “will become members” of NATO, which in European diplo-speak meant probably never.
But given the haste with which this formula was put together, few among NATO leaders realized that that was the actual moment of commitment. It was seen as such both by Putin and by the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, who used that pledge to try recovering territories in South Ossetia. Georgia’s troops were crushed by Russia’s. That should have sent a signal to NATO that agreeing to push NATO’s borders right up against Russia in Ukraine, on the classic invasion route to and from Central Europe, could not be tolerated by any government in the Kremlin. The lesson was not learned, and NATO has repeated the “will become members” formula at every major meeting since then.
But NATO’s including ”will become members” in its Madrid communiqué would only exacerbate the Ukraine crisis — uselessly so, since it has always been clear that Ukraine could never get unanimity among the allies to be given the NATO Treaty’s Article 5 commitment to declare war if it were invaded. But if the statement is left out, the media (and others) will see that as backing down in the face of Russia’s aggression. It’s no-win for NATO and thus another reason not to have a summit at all.
Biden can continue trying to manage all these disparate elements in gossamer-thin NATO understandings about what to do about Russia and Ukraine. But getting everyone in the alliance together in the same room for two days is guaranteed to expose all the cleavages and could produce even more. The media will highlight them all. The summit would thus risk major failure, with negative longer-term impact on both NATO and America’s reputation for reliable leadership.
It would be far better to postpone the summit rather than risk seeing it fail, as is now likely. Bureaucratic inertia is driving the process forward. But political leaders, notably President Biden, need to see farther and put off the summit.
Robert E. Hunter served as U.S. ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs.
In half a century of public life, U.S. President Joe Biden has demonstrated unwavering support for Israel. In this photo Biden is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo
Of all the foreign policy challenges President Joe Biden faces, most difficult is the war in Gaza. That is not because of the apparent geopolitical stakes; as Biden often says, China poses the most important long-term challenge and Russia is next. But while important, what happens between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, has not been in the same league.
Yet because of the war in Gaza, with its linkage to overall Israeli-Palestinian relations and risks of escalation to other parts of the region, there may soon be an explosion dwarfing all other concerns facing Biden and his team.
There is also another important reason that the war in Gaza now occupies center stage for the Biden administration: America’s attitudes towards and relations with Israel. Since Israel’s creation in the wake of World War II, most Americans have considered U.S. ties with the Jewish state as special, both because of its founding as a democracy committed to values similar to America’s and a shared perspective of “never again” stemming from the Holocaust. Even when Israel has fallen short, as for many years in its treatment of Palestinians, most Americans have given Israel the benefit of the doubt. Except on a handful of occasions, Washington consistently “has had Israel’s back” in Middle East crises and conflicts.
For both interests and values reasons, therefore, it was natural that immediately following the horrendous October 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed and 240 more taken hostage, Biden declared total support for Israel’s military retaliation. His position was initially supported by most Americans, largely on a bipartisan basis.
But then the toll of destruction in Gaza mounted — as of this past week, more than 16,000 Palestinians have been killed, at least 40,000 more wounded, and more than 85 percent of the Strip’s population of more than two million has been rendered homeless with no safe place to go. All of this has been vividly displayed on U.S. television and cable media. Thus, the Biden administration began to rethink its hands-off support for Israel’s military campaign — but only with respect to its tactics, not its overall policy of destroying Hamas.
Washington worked through intermediaries, principally Qatar, to obtain a ”pause” in the Gaza fighting in order to get Hamas to release some hostages and increase the flow of humanitarian assistance from Egypt into Gaza. Following the end of the pause, however, U.S. appeals to Israel have been limited to try to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza, or, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, "taking more effective steps to protect the lives of civilians.” But so long as Israel continues to pursue the extirpation of Hamas, significantly limiting civilian casualties is impossible, as the Biden team must recognize. Notably, the world sees that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has essentially rebuffed Biden, which impacts on U.S. credibility elsewhere, especially since the United States is universally seen as Israel’s sole patron. Certainly, America’s reputation for promoting humanitarian concerns has been severely damaged.
Both factors argue for the president to press Israel immediately to declare a cease-fire, not just a temporary “pause,” but one designed to end the war. Indeed, if we are to believe Israel’s own estimates, Hamas’s military capacities have already been heavily degraded, and the possibility of it again being able to mount a serious attack on Israel is low.
The gravity of risks in the Levant and potentially throughout the region means that the United States (and others) cannot once again return to indifference when this war ends. Biden has shown he is aware of this, and has recommitted himself to pursuing the so-called “two-state solution.” For years, however, it has been largely a mantra; and while it is the best outcome, its prospects are now even more remote given renewed Israeli fears provoked by the October 7 attack and its attendant atrocities, as well as increased Palestinian bitterness over the massive destruction and loss of life in Gaza.
Yet time is not on the side of “orderly diplomacy” that for a half-century has been the usual course. There is already a major risk of a new intifada on the West Bank, as most Palestinians have lost any hope of Israel’s willingness to recognize their basic human rights, much less permit a Palestinian state. They also see that Israel will not stop West Bank settlers from displacing and even murdering Palestinian civilians. The Palestinians also cannot count on support from Arab states. No Arab leader really cares for the Palestinians and none has even called into question their existing treaties with Israel or the so-called Abraham Accords.
Nor is it conceivable that, to do the necessary diplomatic work, the U.N. or countries other than the U.S. can lead or have any chance of success. Nothing will be possible unless Washington takes charge and makes clear to Israel that, as the occupying power, it must change its policies and practices toward the Palestinians.
On December 6 , U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated his “appeal for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared.” In the U.N. Security Council Friday, the United States vetoed the resolution and was joined only by Britain’s abstention. The Biden administration thus tied itself even more to Israel’s slaughter in Gaza, carried out in major part with U.S.-supplied bombs. The veto further cheapened U.S. political and moral standing and made it harder for Biden to be seen as credible as a diplomatic leader once the war ends.
Until October 7, President Biden and his team gave Israel-Palestinian relations short shrift. So far, everyone has been lucky that the crisis has not spread across the region, with the possibility of wider war. Even so, Israel and Hezbollah have come to blows; Yemen has taken some pot-shots; and while Iran has been careful not to get directly involved, its proxies in Iraq and Syria have been engaged in some incidents.
But luck is not a policy. The president must know that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis can’t again be pushed aside when this war ends. He needs to rebuild trust in the United States for strategic competence and then as an honest broker. He needs to show that the United States will place its own interests first, not anyone else’s. He needs to augment his foreign policy inner circle with outside experts in strategy and regional dynamics, but free from biases. And he needs to be prepared to run risks in American domestic politics.
It's a difficult agenda, but nothing less will enable President Biden to protect and promote U.S. strategic, political, and moral interests.
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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