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The NATO summit is a tale of three cities

What political gambles and uncertainty in London, Paris, and Washington could mean for international security.

- July 9, 2024

When they began planning for the summit that begins in Washington, D.C., this week, NATO officials surely expected a relatively placid backdrop, coming after the July 4 holiday in the United States and with most NATO publics engrossed in the UEFA Euro 2024 soccer tournament. Good thing too, since the summit would be crucial for NATO and for Ukraine.

So much for calm. The summit opens this week amid domestic political drama in three major NATO capitals: London, Paris, and Washington. 

It didn’t have to be this way. But leaders in all three capitals took gambles that brought NATO to this moment. 

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could have let the parliamentary clock run out, with a general election as late as January 2025. Instead, he surprised everyone by calling for an early general election on July 4. French presidential elections are fixed on the calendar, but French President Emmanuel Macron also gambled by calling a snap parliamentary election after French voters backed far-right candidates in the June European Parliament elections. The date of the U.S. election is, of course, set in stone. But President Joe Biden was the first to accept a CNN invitation to a June debate, breaking with traditional debate timing in the fall of an election year. 

Nobody talked much about international affairs in any of this. But foreign policy was a silent but crucial player in all three capitals. And the outcomes of all three domestic battles could dramatically affect NATO, Ukraine, and other pressing international security issues.

London: The failed gamble with the least drama?

At first glance, the U.K. general election, held on America’s Independence Day, might seem quite straightforward. After 14 years of governance by the Conservative Party, Labour won a landslide in terms of seats in Parliament. By Friday afternoon, the U.K. had a new prime minister, Sir Keir Starmer. Rishi Sunak’s early election gamble, announced in the pouring rain in late May, failed spectacularly.

Aside from immigration, foreign policy got little mention during the campaign (sound familiar?). But foreign policy was an important, if largely silent, force in the election, and will loom over Labour’s new government in several ways.

1. Starmer avoided talking about Brexit, but can’t escape its effects. 

The last U.K. election, in 2019, was all about Brexit, the U.K.’s 2016 referendum to leave the European Union. Brexit consumed British politics for years, and Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won the 2019 election by appealing to an exhausted public with the slogan, “Get Brexit Done.” Now that it is done, Brexit has increased friction in U.K. trade and driven some businesses to open or base operations in continental Europe. Brexit is now deeply unpopular, and analysts have found it to be a significant drag on the U.K. economy amid a cost-of-living crisis and a fall in living standards

So why did Starmer say next to nothing about Brexit during the campaign? 

In a sense, he didn’t need to. The dominant campaign themes were domestic economic pain and the poor state of public services, especially the National Health Service, after years of Conservative austerity policies. Voters lost confidence in the Conservatives’ ability to govern after Johnson’s scandal-ridden tenure and the short-lived, high-impact premiership of Liz Truss, whose economic policies inflicted further damage on an already-suffering economy [Editors’ note: If you haven’t seen Britain’s Channel 4 send-off for Truss, set to Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” do yourself a favor and spend the next 1:18 minutes watching it.] During the campaign itself, Sunak made several mistakes that dominated media coverage for days, including a rushed departure from the D-Day commemoration.

But Starmer’s silence also reflected a longstanding and deliberate decision not to talk about Brexit despite its importance to Britain’s current economic woes. Instead, when he took over as Labour’s leader, he focused on making Labour an electorally viable party after the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, a member of the party’s left wing and a self-identified socialist. The Labour Party suspended Corbyn in 2020 for failing to adequately address anti-semitism within the party. Corbyn was also a long-time opponent of NATO and nuclear weapons, key pillars of U.K. security policy for both parties. 

When Starmer became leader, he somewhat ruthlessly purged the party of Corbynism. Although happy to criticize the Brexit deal Johnson struck with the E.U., Starmer had no appetite to reopen the Brexit wars and spook the voters he wanted to woo back to Labour. 

2. Britain’s economic woes will affect its defense spending (and thus NATO)

While British politicians and voters might be done with Brexit, the U.K. election was a stark reminder that Brexit is certainly not done with them – and will continue to affect other issues like security and defense. 

Starmer has long made it clear that he strongly supports NATO and Ukraine, so neither became a dividing issue in this year’s election. He also pledged to increase defense spending to 2.5 percent of GDP. The U.K. armed forces – crucial for NATO in many ways – did not escape budget cuts in the austerity years, leaving gaps in their capabilities that will require increased spending if they are to meet the goals both parties support for NATO and Ukraine. 

But Starmer also promised to get Britain’s troubled public finances in order while ruling out major tax increases or large-scale spending plans. While Brexit is not the only factor in Britain’s economic slump – the pandemic and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine drove up the cost of goods, food, and energy – its effects are limiting economic growth. This will make Starmer’s international security pledges that much harder to fulfill. There is simply no money – a reality that now becomes his problem. 

    3. Brexit will haunt efforts to address other international issues.

    Brexit will also loom over Labour’s efforts to address concerns about migration, a major campaign issue. During the campaign, Sunak talked about migration as a security issue, and the new Labour foreign secretary, David Lammy, has also characterized it as such. 

    Here again, Brexit matters. Addressing the many small boats carrying migrants across the English Channel illegally is nearly impossible without a better working relationship with the E.U. But reforging those ties, in turn, will likely require Labour concessions on free (or freer) movement of people. While the Conservative Party failed to fulfill its Brexit mantra to “take back control” of Britain’s borders while in government, in opposition the party surely would attack Starmer for any border compromises.

    The Tory solution – which avoided negotiating with the E.U. – was a costly plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, a policy the U.K. Supreme Court deemed unlawful. The plan was also in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Britain remains a party. No flights with asylum seekers ever took off for Rwanda, and Starmer scrapped the Rwanda policy on the day he took office. But it’s not clear how he can address the small boats crisis without Europe’s help. 

      4. Volatile politics will continue to shape U.K. foreign and security policy.

      The “Labour landslide” narrative also masks another warning for Starmer that affects foreign policy: the volatile and eroding support for the two major parties and their policies. Many analysts noted that the vote was not so much for Labour as against the Conservatives (and in Scotland, against the incumbent Scottish National Party). While Labour ran a highly strategic campaign and won a landslide in terms of seats, its vote share increased only slightly from the 2019 election and was lower than in the 2017 election, both fought with Corbyn as leader. 

      The anti-Tory vote splintered, with Nigel Farage’s far-right Reform Party doing shockingly well, capitalizing on the discontent with increased legal and illegal immigration and earning its first-ever seats in parliament. On top of all this, Labour also saw significant protest votes against its staunch pro-Israel stance, eroding what should have been comfortable majorities for major Labour figures – including Starmer himself. Labour lost a few seats outright to pro-Gaza independents and several to the Green Party as well.

      More generally, the results suggest that voters did not actively choose Labour for its return to traditional policies like support for NATO. Instead, U.K. voters rejected a long-serving incumbent party and were open to many different alternatives, including populism. During the campaign, Farage said that the West “provoked” the Russian invasion of Ukraine through NATO expansion. Farage will now be a member of parliament who will likely garner outsized media coverage.

        Starmer knows he needs more international cooperation – including better relations with the E.U. – to address major issues like economic growth, immigration, and defense requirements. Lammy, the new foreign secretary, almost immediately embarked on a trip to Europe, and has already said that Labour wants a new security declaration with the E.U. to help address some of these issues (including migration). 

        The dilemma is that the populist domestic politics of Brexit unleashed international forces that squeezed Britain, which in turn led to domestic political dynamics that helped Starmer gain power. But now these same domestic politics threaten to undermine Labour’s ability to build support for addressing international problems. 

        So when Starmer arrives in Washington, expect cheers for the continuity of Britain’s commitment to Ukraine and NATO, and general reemergence on the world stage. But the new U.K. government lacks a strong domestic base on which to make good on those commitments, no matter how much the two major parties share them. On issues like Gaza, Starmer can do little directly, but must still manage different factions within his party. 

        Starmer might not want to talk about Brexit or foreign policy much, but these issues can start their own conversations. 

        Paris: A bad gamble that could have been worse

        The French election story is more complicated. Until Sunday’s exit polls, Macron’s gamble looked doomed, with the first round of the parliamentary elections setting up a potential victory for Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally. 

        Then French voters delivered a surprise. The left coalition, rapidly assembled after Macron called the snap election, won the largest seat share in parliament, with Macron’s party in second place. In perhaps the most surprising result, the far-right National Rally only managed a third-place showing. 

        The surprise was no accident: It was the product of intense elite coordination and political bargaining to block the far-right from winning the largest seat share. Many candidates from Macron’s party and from the left who placed third in the first round dropped out to maximize the chances of blocking the far right in the second round. 

        Like Farage in the U.K., Le Pen has a history of opposing NATO, disdaining international cooperation, and embracing Russia. In this sense, the far right’s defeat is good news for NATO and other international institutions.

        But Macron’s gamble leaves his political power and that of his party significantly weakened. After losing its parliamentary majority, Macron now faces “cohabitation” with a hung parliament. France will have deep political uncertainty for the foreseeable future. While Macron wasn’t on the ballot, his party and his vision for Europe and NATO very much were. His goals for a stronger and more capable Europe and NATO – including his comments earlier this year that Western troops might go to Ukraine – are unlikely to see progress. 

        There are some similar themes in the French and British results, however. The rejection of Macronism, clear in the first round, led to a splintered electorate in the second round. Elite coordination helped blunt the far right’s appeal and mitigate Macron’s losses. But the left also made gains, suggesting that France is also seeing eroding support for the traditional policies of the center.

        So Paris is not burning, but the elections showed France’s role in international institutions and alliances rests on a shakier foundation than many might have expected.

        Washington: The biggest gamble of all?

        Of all the domestic problems NATO leaders expected, a crisis within the Democratic Party’s electoral machine was likely not one of them. After all, Biden has long made U.S. leadership of the NATO alliance and support for Ukraine a central pillar of his foreign policy, and in many ways his presidency.

        But Biden’s debate gamble backfired spectacularly and has thrown his candidacy into doubt. NATO’s 75th anniversary summit is happening in a crucial week for Biden, as congressional Democrats return to Washington and reassess their support for him as the Democratic nominee, amid concerns about his fitness for another term in office. 

        Of course, any viable Democratic alternative to Biden would reiterate U.S. support for NATO. But the stakes for NATO in the 2024 election are very high. As I have written elsewhere with James Goldgeier, Donald Trump has long held the alliance in contempt and could do much to gut it in practice even if he did not or could not withdraw the United States formally. 

        This means NATO is very much on the ballot in November in the United States. And despite calls from past presidents of both parties for greater military spending by non-U.S. member countries, the United States and its nuclear umbrella remain the bedrock of NATO’s ability to deter attacks from other countries.

        Even if Trump fails to win the presidency, there are still serious warning signs about U.S. domestic support for NATO and for Ukraine. Aid for Ukraine has already become a politically polarized issue, as illustrated by the rocky congressional path for the last round of aid, in April. While it is true that most Republicans, and especially Senate Republicans, still support NATO and Ukraine, bipartisan support is no longer enough to generate money and military materiel on cue. Some scholars have argued that this is a healthy development. But risky and volatile electoral processes are perhaps not the safest way to make major national security choices.

        NATO’s 75th birthday present: uncertainty

        As NATO leaders gather for its 75th anniversary, attention no doubt will focus on the Democratic Party’s drama. But the wider political uncertainty runs far deeper. 

        Many commentators have seized on the U.K. and French elections as a triumph of democracy. One striking common feature was the losing side’s quick acceptance of the election results (although the long-term response by the far right in France has yet to become clear). In London, Sunak and Starmer praised each other as they executed the rapid and peaceful handover of power. Some pundits have suggested that Biden should learn from the example of French third-place candidates, who made a political sacrifice for the sake of democracy. 

        But from the alliance’s perspective, the relevant takeaway from all three election gambles is that NATO is more fragile because of political uncertainties swirling around three of its most important members. There is one election that might break NATO, but no single election can fix it, either.