The 2024 NATO summit will mark an important step in the alliance’s adaptation to the new security environment resulting from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Structural challenges will remain, however, and four defining issues will continue to drive NATO discussions: Ukraine, China, deterrence, and political cohesion.

The Washington summit in July 2024 is expected to be both a celebration of the 75th anniversary of NATO and a critical moment for assessing how well the alliance is adapting to a new security environment. Allies will welcome Sweden into the club and seek to convey an image of resolute unity in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. An ambitious summit agenda—from strengthening NATO deterrence and collective defense, to supporting Ukraine and developing NATO’s global partnerships—will define the alliance’s future policy roadmap.

But the 2024 Summit will be only a steppingstone in a long-term effort to transform NATO. Charting a course beyond 2024 means analyzing the underlying institutional challenges that will continue to shape transatlantic security debates in the next three to five years and making difficult strategic decisions on Ukraine. These questions will not be resolved in July. And given crucial elections in the United States and the EU this year, complicated political dynamics within allies’ capitals—topics that are not on any summit agenda—will undoubtedly influence the nature of transatlantic cooperation in the future and the very values the alliance was formed to uphold. 

This paper highlights issues that will be front and center for NATO in the coming years regardless of the outcomes of the Washington summit. These challenges should be top of mind for NATO’s new secretary general, as they will determine whether the alliance can overcome internal divisions and efficiently adapt to a transformed geopolitical environment. 

Ukraine needs clearer signals from NATO

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will shape strategic thinking at the Washington summit. It is becoming clear that the current Western strategy of supporting Ukraine for “as long as it takes” is failing. Ukraine is in danger of bleeding out if it is not quickly supported in a more comprehensive and cohesive manner. To understand why, key allies must look at themselves in the mirror. 

Extensive delays in the US Congress’ passage of a supplemental spending package have depleted Ukraine’s supplies of artillery shells, air defense missiles, and other vital military resources, straining Ukrainian forces and allowing Russian troops to move toward densely populated areas. Germany’s persistent reluctance to supply long-range Taurus missiles is making the situation worse. Although the Biden administration’s recent decision to allow Ukrainians to target positions in Russian territory is shifting the debate, discord within the alliance over this decision is hurting NATO cohesion overall.

Further disagreements are on the horizon. France’s desires to form a European coalition of military instructors on Ukrainian soil received only modest enthusiasm overall. However, some allies believe President Macron’s willingness to push the envelope is sorely needed for Ukraine and the alliance to succeed. 

Ukraine’s NATO accession process will not be on the summit’s agenda, but it should be a focus of allied leaders this year and until Ukraine’s membership becomes a reality. Last year in Vilnius, allies adopted a disappointingly cautious stance on Ukrainian membership. Despite insisting that “Ukraine’s future is in NATO” and stating it will happen “when Allies agree and conditions are met”, NATO did not define guidelines for membership. France, Poland, and the Baltic countries have been pushing for a formal accession invitation to be granted during this year’s summit. Washington and Berlin disagree, believing that the current language on Ukraine’s accession has facilitated reforms from Kyiv, notably through the NATO-Ukraine Council and the adapted Annual National Program. It is extremely unlikely that an invitation will be issued in Washington. Allies will need to develop criteria for Ukraine’s membership after this summer. 

While fighting continues, consensus on Ukraine’s entry as NATO’s 33rd member will remain out of reach. To prepare for Ukraine’s entry in the medium term, allies must align their various visions on conflict resolution and be ready to offer an immediate invitation when a cease-fire or armistice is reached. In the short-term, the alliance should: 

  • take over leadership the Ukraine Defense Contact Group (an alliance of 56 countries that coordinates military aid donations) from the United States because of potential US disengagement after November’s election, assume institutional leadership, coordinate military support (defense plans, joint training, and more), and boost the interoperability of forces 

  • improve cooperation between NATO, G7 countries, and the EU to pave the way for the release of $300 billion in frozen Russian assets to support Ukraine 

  • encourage further bilateral security agreements between Ukraine and Western countries

  • encourage and reinforce governance and economic reforms in Ukraine that are necessary for European Union accession negotiations 

These transatlantic steps are essential to contain the war, strengthen Ukraine, and signal to the US government a growing alignment of transatlantic views. Importantly, success in these steps will cause Russia to stumble.

Making progress on NATO’s role on China

The 2022 Madrid Summit marked a change in NATO’s official language on the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The official declaration explicitly named the PRC as a systemic competitor, and the new NATO Strategic Concept defined Beijing’s coercive policies as a “challenge” to the alliance’s interests, security, and values. Two years later, transatlantic discussions on the subject have evolved, but many of the same questions remain. 

Allies broadly agree on a NATO approach to the PRC: countering Beijing’s ambitions in the Euro-Atlantic region and in domains that are not geographically defined, such as cyber, space, and disinformation. In that sense, it is not, as Secretary General Stoltenberg put it, about “NATO moving to Asia”. Using NATO as a platform to discuss the security implications of the PRC’s foreign and economic policies on allies makes sense.

Allies will have to pay closer attention to the PRC’s challenging behavior not only in the Atlantic, but increasingly in the Arctic. Finland’s and Sweden’s entry into the alliance has made all Arctic territory outside Russia NATO territory. In response, Russia has opened the door to the PRC in its Arctic territory. Moscow and Beijing are increasing their cooperation in space on satellite navigation technology, dual-use infrastructure development, and hydrographic mapping in the Arctic. These developments may portend an increasing number of confrontations in the future. 

Yet, in NATO, concrete strategies for countering the PRC’s many threats remain in contention. NATO’s ties to its four Indo-Pacific Partners (South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand—the “IP4”) remain limited. For the foreseeable future, cooperation between the IP4 and NATO will be restricted to areas outside traditional domains, such as countering sub-threshold acts at home, in space, and on emerging disruptive technologies. If the PRC continues to encroach on NATO allies’ territory and infrastructure in the Atlantic and the Arctic, NATO will have to reassess whether to respond in more traditional domains.  

Ensuring collective defense

NATO’s core task for now is to deter and defend its territory against a potential invasion. The alliance was formed to ensure collective defense against the Soviet Union, and it still holds significant advantages over Russia. 

The notion of a Russian incursion onto NATO territory should seem preposterous. The combined GDP of the NATO 32 is twenty times greater than Russia’s, and NATO’s population is nearly seven times larger. But Russia’s brutality in Ukraine, its aggressive rhetoric against allies, and the challenge of defending a larger and more politically divided NATO make collective defense appear more difficult to accomplish today than it was decades ago.

NATO’s ability to provide collective defense will depend on the extent to which allies see themselves as at risk of harm from Russia’s aggression. Russia is already carrying out attacks on NATO allies. Moscow is orchestrating sub-threshold attacks across European capitals, setting warehouses and stores on fire in London, Warsaw, and Vilnius, jamming GPS signals and halting air traffic in Estonia, and removing buoys to dispute maritime boundaries on the eastern border of the alliance. On top of that, Russia has carried out assassinations in Spain, Germany, and the UK.

The brazenness of Russia’s sabotage of NATO allies is increasing, as is the pace of Russia’s military modernization. Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine has accelerated its desire to put anti-satellite weapons into orbit and to use hypersonic cruise missiles capable of evading NATO’s air defense systems. Its message is clear: NATO citizens from Ottawa to Ankara and from Seattle to Helsinki are at risk. 

If all 32 NATO allies recognized their vulnerability and prioritized their defense, the next steps for ensuring collective defense would follow: increasing defense production (knowing that Russia intends to win by investing in bulk); positioning military equipment and troops on the eastern flank; conducting exercises to show that plans are not just paper; and increasing the volume and speed of responses to any aggression (to make clear that there is no chance of an easy fait accompli). 

These steps will be expensive and will require political will. The countries that benefitted most from NATO’s Cold War strength are the ones that will find this most burdensome. For Western European countries and Canada, the next three to five years will be the last chance to learn that making NATO work is not about reaching the 2% spending target. It is about investing enough to meet the real target: sufficient guns and ammunition, tanks, ships, airplanes, drones, air defense systems, and troops to make Russia see that there are no feasible wins against NATO. 

Some question the US commitment to NATO’s collective defense. But the United States is as vulnerable to attacks as any other NATO member. And given its wide geographic interests, the United States is deeply in need of good friends and allies. NATO allies that have overcome the delusion of being able to wish away Russia’s aggression will be bound to the United States not only by treaty, but also by respect. 

Reaffirming NATO as a political alliance 

As allied leaders regularly remind the media, NATO is not only a military organization, but also a political one. The values engraved in the Washington Treaty’s preamble and the multiple references to the Charter of the United Nations were meant to create a coalition based on political ideals as much as on the defense of joint interests. 

The Biden administration has made NATO an essential player in what it sees as a global battle between democracy and autocracy. The United States has often framed its efforts to build a network of alliances to counter the influence of strategic competitors in normative terms. Geopolitical developments have accelerated this trend: in March 2024, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Commander of the US European Command General Christopher Cavoli warned against the emergence of “interlocking, strategic partnerships” among the PRC, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. In the logic of blocs, these partnerships—which some observers are ready to call a new “Axis”—represent the opposite of NATO’s values.

Yet the future of NATO as a political alliance founded on common values depends on the political trajectory of all transatlantic partners. Internal developments in several allied countries place the democratic cohesion of the organization in question. The decline of political rights and civil liberties in Hungary and Türkiye is well documented and reinforces Russia’s and the PRC’s narratives of Western hypocrisy. While this situation is not new in the history of the alliance—Portugal, Greece, and Türkiye were NATO allies while not democratic—the dissonance between these political dynamics and NATO’s regular reference to values is difficult to reconcile. 

Perhaps more significant is the possible transformation of “transatlantic values” to align with a new political landscape on both sides of the Atlantic. While the US elections and the prospect of a second Trump administration attract the most attention, European politics is also quickly changing. Eight EU countries currently have far-right parties in government or governments whose survival depends on the confidence of the far right: Italy, Finland, Hungary, Croatia, Czechia, Sweden, Slovakia, and the Netherlands. The results of the June EU Parliamentary elections confirmed the growing influence of the far-right in European affairs, and may even usher in a far-right government in France. The electoral outcomes of 2024 could thus make NATO a political alliance whose members have vastly different understandings of the rule of law and individual freedom. This state of affairs would not necessarily mean the end of transatlantic military cooperation, but it would clearly impact NATO’s policy priorities and public diplomacy.