The upcoming North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) 2024 Washington Summit, set to take place in Washington, DC, this week on July 9 and promises to be a critical moment in the Alliance’s history.

Currently comprised of 32 countries from Europe and North America, NATO is a political and military alliance which guarantees the freedom and security of its members through collective defense, crisis management, partnerships and innovation.

NATO summits provide the opportunity for heads of state, heads of governments of member countries, partner countries, and the European Union to discuss challenges facing the Alliance. NATO does not have regular conferences, but instead meets at important junctures in the Alliance’s evolution. Summits are multipurpose, used to: introduce new policy, invite new members, reinforce partnerships and launch initiatives. The official title of the 2024 Washington Summit is, “Ukraine and Transatlantic Security.” In addition to the regular meeting format, this year’s Summit will commemorate the 75th anniversary of NATO.

The official agenda for the summit includes affirming support for Ukraine, strengthening deterrence and defense posture, and enhancing Alliance partnerships, among other items. According to BCIU’s Jeff Donald, Senior Director for National Security, while NATO members are arriving to this summit more united than in years past, the organization still faces challenges. Below are some of the topics anticipated to drive the agenda at the Summit, as well as Donald’s thoughts on the conversations circulating ahead of the event.

Russia’s Invasion

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be a significant focus of the NATO Summit, both on and off the official agenda. While summits generally involve member countries only, meetings can be convened in other formats on occasion. At the 2024 Summit, Allies will be joined by Ukraine for a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine was an attempt by Russia to undermine NATO,” Donald says. “By the account of an analyst I respect, Russia did not expect NATO to act in as unified a fashion as it has.”

Conversations surrounding this summer’s summit also include building a bridge to Ukraine’s future membership. While most, including Donald, do not expect NATO will accept Ukraine into the fold during this summit, the organization will reiterate its support for the country and work to bring the country closer to membership.

“The Summit is a time to celebrate the unity of purpose within NATO in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Donald says. “But the real work of this summit will be in moving forward with issues of industrial preparedness, technology cooperation, and enhanced capability for NATO forces.”

Investing in Defense

Despite the unity in NATO, the organization still faces challenges—namely, with funding. While the defense expenditure is regularly reviewed, as of 2014 NATO Heads of State and Government agreed to commit 2% of their national GDP to defense spending. This commitment helps to ensure the Alliance’s continued military readiness, which is a key component of the Alliance’s founding. In 2024, about two-thirds of Allies are expected to meet or exceed this guideline.

“One would think that a major land war in Europe would spur all of NATO to meet the 2% of GDP spent on defense target originally agreed to in 2014, but compliance is still incomplete. There are I believe six countries that even by 2029 will still not have met the goal,” says Donald. “Meaning there are countries that even five years from now still won’t be there. Much of Europe has gotten the memo, however, with Poland being a notable example.”

Poland now spends 4% — double the goal — and there are conversations increasing defense spending to up to 5% of its GDP. Donald recognizes that a country like Poland has more motivation to commit to NATO funding, because it identifies itself as a target if Ukraine were to fall.

“Not everyone has that,” says Donald. “Not everyone has the same history with Russia or that national will to beef up on defense. I wouldn’t expect the funding conversation to be part of say, NATO public forum discussions, but it has to be a part of the government leader meetings.”

Advantages in Innovation

While another challenge facing NATO is efforts by other countries to undermine the institution, NATO has an innovation advantage.

“There has been a broad effort by China to replace or undermine the institutions that the U.S. and Europe built up after World War II,” Donald says. “China is working to undermine the Bretton Woods system and other institutions in my opinion, and that is the other strategic-level challenge facing NATO.”

Europe and the United States continue to have an advantage in fostering innovation. The Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) is an initiative to develop technology across NATO to solve critical defense and security challenges. According to Donald, NATO’s capacity to innovate and design new defense technologies is higher than those that might be working to undermine the organization.

“NATO realizes that its real advantage is in the capacity to innovate and bring new technologies to bear in the defense space,” says Donald. “It can out-innovate those countries that might be working to undermine the organization.”

“The current unity of NATO is a source of strength, which now needs to be matched by actions. The organization is stronger than it has been in recent history, with the threat presented by Russia made stark,” says Donald. “You have members that are doing more to meet their 2% target obligations, or even going greater. The pendulum is moving in a stronger direction, and that’s worth emphasizing.”

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