European leaders use Nato summit to sell military alliance to US voters

<span>Ukrainian soldiers fire on an artillery position in Donetsk oblast, Ukraine, on 29 June 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
Ukrainian soldiers fire on an artillery position in Donetsk oblast, Ukraine, on 29 June 2024.Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

European leaders at the Nato summit in Washington are focused on explaining to ordinary American taxpayers that the military alliance is worth the money, as the issue of burden-sharing has become a political football for both parties in the US – and threatens to become a serious stumbling block for the alliance should a second Trump administration come to power.

“There is a debate in the United States that the US are doing a lot to support Ukraine and Europe is not doing enough. If you look at figures, it’s actually a different picture. Europe is doing more than the United States: the financial support, military support we all have provided so far has been enormous … We are taking the security and defense seriously,” said Edgars Rinkēvičs, the president of Latvia, during a speech on Tuesday alongside former CIA director Leon Panetta and the Estonian defense minister, Hanno Pevkur. “It’s also very important to explain to the American public.”

In background briefings, European officials have said they have been concerned with political turmoil in the US and Europe. The US was among countries that pushed back against a multi-year financial pledge for military aid to Ukraine – in part because of the bitter fight in Congress over the Ukraine supplemental bill.

“We think that this is essential to signal that Europeans are taking a greater burden of their own security,” said another European official ahead of the summit. “And it’s an important message to Ukraine, to Russia – but also for domestic audience. Here in DC, we are aware of the sensitivity of that topic, and I think you can expect a lot of strategic communication on that next week.”

European officials are balancing concerns over the growing Russian threat in Ukraine and the political sensitivities that could further divide the alliance.

“We also understand that the ordinary people, in Latvia or the United States or somewhere else, sometimes do care more about economy, social issues, internal security, and we should take those concerns seriously and address them in the same manner that we are addressing the high geopolitical issues,” said Rinkēvičs.

Polling has shown that views on Nato are subject to a partisan divide in the US, and that the alliance has become steadily less popular among Republicans in the past year. According to the Pew Research Centre, just 43% of Republicans have a positive view of the alliance, down from 49% who said the same in 2023.

European leaders have taken different tacks, with some talking points seemingly tailored toward the Republican candidate as well. “Nato is a club, and when you have a club rules, then you respect the rules, and you expect that everybody will also respect the rules,” Pefkur, the Estonian defense minister said on Tuesday. “So Trump is a golfer, so when you pay your fee, in the golf club, you can play. Doesn’t matter how big is your wallet. So when you pay that fee, you can go to the golf course and play.”

In a speech at the Hudson Institute on Tuesday, the Republican House speaker, Mike Johnson, said that he supported Nato but that he would press European leaders on fulfilling a pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defense. He also tied national security to US border security, once again reinforcing how Nato policies have become subsumed to domestic US politics.

“Nato needs to be doing more,” he said. “Not all Nato members have reached their current commitment. It may even need to be closer at a level during the cold war. But if we’re all going to enjoy a future of peace and prosperity, we all need to have skin in the game.”

Critics have said that the US is going through a period of isolationism. “On a tectonic level, our allies should understand that there is a usually isolationist instinct in this country,” said Representative Jim Himes, a senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee. “And it emerges from time to time, when economic conditions here are not good,” or after moments of disenchantment like the Iraq war. “We are in that isolationist moment and it’s not just Donald Trump.”

Others describe it as restraint. Trump is not the only one calling for the US to withdraw forces and resources from Europe, leaving Europeans to take on the burden of defending themselves. Several liberal foreign policy analysts have been calling for years for a switch to American restraint when it comes to US military projection, especially in Europe.

Related: The Nato alliance should not invite Ukraine to become a member | Open letter

“It is in the interest of a transatlantic alliance to shift the burden toward Europe and transition over, a decent period, maybe about a decade, toward European leadership of European defense with the United States moving to a supporting role,” Stephen Wertheim a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a leading advocate for restraint.

Wertheim was one of dozens of foreign policy experts who wrote an open letter published in the Guardian urging Nato leaders not to invite Ukraine to become a member.

“It could also be counterproductive insofar as Russia believes that Ukraine is advancing down this bridge to Nato membership, Russia gains an incentive to prolong the war so that that moment never arrives, so that Ukraine never crosses that bridge on the other side.”

Advertisement