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China, Russia, cyberattacks and climate: What to know about NATO summit

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/14/2021 Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY

LONDON – President Joe Biden was at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Monday, the second stop on his three-stop overseas trip to Europe.

While in Belgium, Biden was meeting with NATO leaders and will hold talks, on Tuesday, with the European Union.

"There is a growing recognition over the last couple years that we have new challenges. We have Russia, which is acting in a way that is not consistent with what we had hoped, and we have China," Biden said during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on the summit's sidelines. "I want NATO to know America is there.

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Biden spent the past four days at a Group of Seven summit in the U.K., where he held talks with world leaders on topics such as the coronavirus pandemic, global economic inequalities, China's geopolitical ambitions and other shared foreign policy and security concerns. The White House framed the U.K. trip as an opportunity for Biden to reaffirm ties with close allies while reasserting the U.S.'s multilateral values.

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First of all, what is NATO?

NATO, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is a political and military alliance of 30 countries. It was established in 1949 to act as a counterweight to the Soviet Union and its client-states in Eastern Europe; to forestall the return of militant European nationalism after World War II; and to encourage political integration.

NATO's No. 1 job is protect and defend NATO territory and populations in Canada, the majority of countries in Europe, Turkey and the United States. NATO's Article 5 states that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Article 5 has been invoked only once in NATO's history, on Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.

How does NATO work and what does it do?

The alliance's chief strategy is one of deterrence, meaning it seeks to dissuade potential aggressors from taking hostile action against its members by building up a mixture of overwhelming cyber, nuclear and conventional military capabilities. 

In late May, a NATO show of strength was directed at Russia when American nuclear bombers flew over all 30 NATO countries as part of a 12-hour training exercise named "Operation Allied Sky." The mission took place without a hitch. Not all do, though. Also in May: U.S. soldiers taking part in a NATO training exercise in Bulgaria mistakenly stormed a factory in a rural part of the country that makes vegetable oil equipment. 

Another core NATO task is what it refers to as "crisis management" in complex security environments. In 1995, NATO helped end a war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and implement a peace agreement. In 1999, NATO helped stop mass killings and expulsions in Kosovo. About 7,000 non-U.S. NATO security forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan after an announcement from the Biden administration that all U.S. troops will exit that country by Sept. 11.

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Emmanuel Macron, Erna Solberg standing next to a man in a suit and tie: In this Dec. 4, 2019, file photo, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, front left, speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump, front right, after a group photo at a NATO leaders meeting at The Grove hotel and resort in Watford, Hertfordshire, England. © Francisco Seco, AP In this Dec. 4, 2019, file photo, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, front left, speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump, front right, after a group photo at a NATO leaders meeting at The Grove hotel and resort in Watford, Hertfordshire, England.

What will NATO leaders talk about?

The summit will see the military alliance's leaders publicly recommit to collectively face defense and security threats increasingly emanating from all directions: brazen cyberattacks; resource scarcity and migration flows exacerbated by a changing climate; Russian mis- and disinformation; Moscow's support, including recent military drills, for separatists in eastern Ukraine; out-of-control pandemics; China's rise; and a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. Biden's discussion with EU leaders will focus on foreign policy concerns such as global health security and trade cooperation.

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Video: China, Russia loom over Biden meeting with NATO SG (USA TODAY)

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"In a more competitive and unpredictable world, we need transatlantic unity – Europe and North America standing strong together in NATO," Stoltenberg said in a speech ahead of the event. He called for the alliance to modernize and better adapt to shifting security threats, and for more investment from members.  

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China is not formally mentioned in NATO's current strategy.

However, NATO countries will address the security challenge from China directly in a communiqué on Monday, according to the White House. 

"We're not entering a new Cold War and China is not our adversary, not our enemy," Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels. "But we need to address together, as the alliance, the challenges that the rise of China poses to our security."

Brad Bowman, a former national security adviser to members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, said he expects Biden to spend part of his time in Brussels undoing some of the moves that took place under former President Donald Trump, whose isolationist foreign policy rhetoric alienated NATO allies.

"Trump portrayed the U.S. military posture in Europe as something Washington was doing out of charity or based on relationships or defense spending," Bowman said.

"That really missed the big idea of why the U.S. military has forces in Europe: We have forces in Europe to deter conflict, and NATO has arguably been the most successful alliance in history in deterring additional aggressions from Moscow." 

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The alliance is strong but not perfect

Philip M. Breedlove, a retired four-star general in the U.S. Air Force who also served as NATO's Supreme Allied Commander for Europe from 2013 to 2016, said that in recent years more NATO members have "picked up the pace" in terms of meeting NATO spending requirements – now 2% of GDP – after years of sluggish inaction.

Breedlove said U.S. pressure on NATO members to meet this spending requirement predated Trump. But he attributed persistent public and private pressure by the former president to the overcoming of the "stagnation" and "downsizing" that characterized NATO investment before his administration. 

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But he added that the NATO alliance is facing some of its toughest challenges as a result of Russia's territorial aggression in eastern Ukraine, combined with Moscow's disruptive use of disinformation and cyberattacks. Given this, Breedlove said, it was vital the Biden administration "maintain the momentum of getting our allies and partners to understand that they have to invest in their own defense."

Breedlove said persistent concerns about NATO member Turkey, which signed a deal with Russia for an air defense system, were troubling but did not necessarily amount to an insurmountable problem.  

"Sometimes it's hard to make good soup with 30 ingredients," he said. "And we need to remember that sometimes, just like in a marriage, there's going to be problems, and sometimes there's going to be days when it's all good." 

President Joe Biden arrives at Melsbroek Military Airport, near Brussels on June 13, 2021, for two days of summits with leaders from the NATO military alliance and the European Union. © AFP via Getty Images President Joe Biden arrives at Melsbroek Military Airport, near Brussels on June 13, 2021, for two days of summits with leaders from the NATO military alliance and the European Union.

What's Biden's NATO strategy?

It's not that evident, according to Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow on foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. 

"I don't yet see a clarity of thought or a comprehensive character to (the administration's) thinking," he said in a briefing June 10. O’Hanlon said he fears Biden's national security team is "a little too happy to articulate themes of multilateralism" and "America being back" without offering any forward-looking policies.

O’Hanlon said he is specifically concerned that the president will push to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, which he said would unnecessarily provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin. Biden is meeting with Putin in Geneva on Wednesday.

Moscow views Ukraine and Georgia as sitting squarely within its sphere of influence. It also views them as territorial buffer zones to the EU and the West.  

"I fear that Vladimir Putin, if and when he saw (NATO) membership (from those countries coming), would find all sorts of new ways to stoke the pot through covert and other kinds of activities, and it would run the risk therefore of a U.S.-Russia war," he said.

Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: China, Russia, cyberattacks and climate: What to know about NATO summit

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