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As President Biden and his team prepared to celebrate NATO’s 75th anniversary, starting Tuesday night in Washington, the goal was to project unity and confidence. The intention was to send a clear message to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other adversaries that, despite more than two years of war in Ukraine, NATO had become stronger and more resolute in its mission to deter aggression.

But as 38 world leaders began arriving on Monday, that confidence seemed to be wavering. Even before the summit officially began, doubts were raised about Biden’s potential for a second term and the specter of a possible return of former President Donald Trump. Trump, who once labeled NATO “obsolete,” has threatened to withdraw from the alliance and suggested he would give Russia free reign in member countries that don’t contribute enough to NATO.

With Trump’s recent rise in polls, European allies have become increasingly concerned about the implications of a second Trump term for the alliance, particularly his ability to confront Russia without American support. Biden will welcome leaders to the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, the historic site where NATO was founded in 1949. At 81, Biden is a staunch supporter of the alliance, which has expanded from 12 to 32 members since its inception. As leaders gather, they will be scrutinizing Biden’s performance for signs of his ability to lead for another term.

Biden expressed confidence in his leadership, inviting observers to judge its effectiveness based on the summit results and allies’ reactions. As NATO leaders arrive, they acknowledge an unexpected test of maintaining momentum in support of Ukraine amid uncertainty over the alliance’s most crucial member.

Outgoing NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stressed the importance of political leadership and commitment to sustaining the alliance’s success over the past 75 years. NATO is also preparing for the possibility of a second Trump presidency by establishing a new command to ensure continued military support for Ukraine.

Despite efforts to modernize their forces, NATO members still need to significantly increase their military budgets to meet the demands of a potential protracted conflict with Russia. More than 20 NATO countries have reached the goal of spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense, a target set more than a decade ago. However, this percentage seems insufficient for current challenges.

Germany, for example, has promised to boost its military capabilities but has struggled to secure the necessary funding and public support. Carl Bildt of the European Council on Foreign Relations suggests that European nations may need to double their defense budgets to effectively deter Russian threats.

The immediate problem for Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is managing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s expectations for Ukraine’s NATO membership. Last year, Zelensky expressed frustration over the lack of a clear timeline for Ukraine’s NATO accession. While NATO has pledged to streamline Ukraine’s accession process, the alliance has yet to provide a firm date, which presents a challenge in the ongoing negotiations.

Despite NATO’s commitment to Ukraine, some leaders within the alliance appear to be sympathetic to Russia’s diplomatic stance. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s recent visit to Russia, where he refrained from criticizing the invasion of Ukraine, has raised concerns. The White House criticized Orban’s visit, stressing the need for unity in supporting Ukraine.

Stoltenberg acknowledged NATO allies’ differing approaches to Moscow, but warned that attempting to negotiate peace on Russia’s terms would not lead to real peace, but only to occupation.

As NATO leaders gather, the alliance faces the dual challenge of maintaining its unity and effectiveness while addressing internal uncertainties and external threats.

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