This week, major leaders gather in Germany and Spain for the G7 and NATO summits to discuss the war in Ukraine, global economic woes, and Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership bids. At a virtual event on the summits, American Statecraft Program Director Christopher Chivvis spoke with Rose Gottemoeller and Charles Kupchan about what’s at stake for the summits and what U.S. President Joe Biden and his allies need to accomplish. Gottemoeller, a nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program, is a former NATO deputy secretary general. Kupchan is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council during the Barack Obama administration.
Excerpts from the event, which have been edited for length and clarity, are below.
On the Summits’ Goals
Christopher Chivvis: The stakes of these meetings seem unusually high. Rose, do you agree that this is unusually important? Or do you see it differently?
Rose Gottemoeller: I think every summit meeting, every trip of the president abroad, is important. In this case, I think it’s vital. There are major strategic objectives. NATO was astoundingly coherent following the invasion of Ukraine and really pulled together strongly. But there are some fissures starting to show in the alliance, so I think it will be important for Biden to really bolster that coherence and that willingness to work strongly together to continue to support Ukraine through a long war.
But as far as the G7 is concerned, and the NATO countries in general, it is important to figure out the messages to carry back to every public about inflation and this long haul and how there will have to be some belt-tightening—but at the same time, leaders are doing something about it. [These] things will help to counter what is essentially a weaponization of so many issues by the Kremlin, whether you’re talking about the inability of the Ukrainian farmers to get their harvests out to feed a hungry globe or the way [the Kremlin’s oil-and-gas policy toward Europe] is being driven in a way to create maximum discontent. There will have to be a real show of will with regard to these Kremlin policies.
Charles Kupchan: I’m glad that a G7 meeting is coupled with a NATO meeting for a couple of different reasons. One is that the G7 is a smaller group, so it’s a great place to signals-check and to set the next steps. And one of the assets of a G7 meeting is that it’s not as scripted as a NATO summit. At NATO summits, there are a lot of seats at the table, and everybody gets their five minutes to say something. But at the G7, there is greater flexibility. And I think this is a moment when leaders really do need to roll up their sleeves and have frank conversations with each other.
The other important aspect here is that a lot of what needs to be discussed does not fall squarely onto NATO’s agenda. There’s a huge traditional security piece to this, but as Rose said, there’s also food security. There is the energy piece of this. There’s climate change. There’s a lot of stuff that is more geoeconomic in nature than geostrategic in nature, and I think it’s therefore fortunate that there is this G7/NATO tag-team set up.
At the G7, I would identify a couple issues that I would encourage the Biden team to address. One is where we are on the sanctions effort and continuing to put pressure on the Russian economy. The G7 is the right place to have that conversation, because you need all the world’s major economies to be in lockstep to make the sanctions most effective.
Second, we have an urgent need to try to open up Ukraine’s ports to get grain out. And that’s because we are looking at a humanitarian emergency [and] potential spillover of migrants flowing into Europe. This strikes me as a place where, even if the war is continuing, you might be able to get Ukraine to de-mine the harbors and Russia to agree to end the blockade. I’m not a fan of NATO going in there and going after Russian ships—that strikes me as too escalatory. But this would be a great time to have a breakthrough on that front.
Finally, what most worries me right now about where we are in the war against Ukraine . . . [is the] political and economic blowback. I just came back from Berlin, and they’re a little wobbly. Here in the United States, we’re seeing gas near $5.50 a gallon. We’re looking at food prices that keep going up. The G7 would be a very good place to have a discussion about the effects of the war on the global economy and what can be done to deal with inflation and the fact that the International Monetary Fund is downgrading global growth.
On the War in Ukraine
Chivvis: There was an enormous amount of unity when Russia first invaded Ukraine. But over the course of the last weeks, we’ve seen some tensions emerge within the alliance. There continues to be strong support for Kyiv, but some countries appear to be more concerned about trying to bring this war to a close sooner rather than later, and then other countries that are insistent that we should push on in supporting Ukraine until Ukraine wins the war. How do you see U.S. policy in this, given the tension?
Kupchan: I’m in the bring-it-to-a-close-sooner-rather-than-later camp, in the sense that I worry that time is not on Ukraine’s side in several different respects. The battlefield has shifted; the momentum has shifted. And it’s going to be hard for the Ukrainians, even if they get more weapons, to retake territory that Russia has taken. I don’t believe that the expulsion of Russian troops from Ukraine and getting back to the 2014 boundaries is possible. And, as a consequence, I think you need to begin a conversation about war termination.
The Biden administration has so far not gone down that road. In fact, they have said the opposite. I would encourage the administration during this trip to start that conversation. I think that they’re getting a demand signal from Europe that they would like that conversation to begin.
The spillover effects will deepen over time. If we’re still in the middle of a war and the temperature starts to go down and people turn their heaters on, you could well be looking at gas rationing in Germany. I don’t think we want to go down that road, right? There is already a lot of debate in Germany about this issue, and the Italian government has just experienced a defection on this issue. Washington should get ahead of the curve and start this conversation.
Gottemoeller: There’s a demand signal from Europe, but it’s coming from some Europeans—the Italians, the French, the Germans. The swath along the borderlands with Russia—the Baltic states, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, essentially the former Warsaw Pact countries, now members of NATO—are in quite a different place. Those countries have always been highly suspicious of Russia and quite dismissive of the value of diplomacy with Russia. So that is informing their thinking now, and they are scared out of their wits that Russia’s coming after them next. My view is Russia is grinding up its armed forces in Ukraine, and it is barely able to continue the fight along its 1,000-kilometer front in Ukraine now. So the idea that they would invade [elsewhere] now is to my mind somewhat muddy, but nevertheless, that is a high anxiety in Central and Eastern Europe. Biden has to also navigate that territory.
Charlie, do you think we’re at that point of a grinding stalemate now?
Kupchan: Yes. That’s why I think it’s time to open the door to seeing if you can’t have a combination of open the ports, get a truce or ceasefire of some sort, and create at least a framework for diplomacy.
Chivvis: What of the proposals that are out there for NATO to serve as an escort to third-country vessels to get that grain out?
Gottemoeller: I absolutely disagree with that notion. I think individual NATO countries could participate in an escort, but NATO as an institution—absolutely not. It’s not needed. Also, we should be getting the countries that actually need the food assistance. If they have capable naval vessels, they should be invited by the UN to participate in the escort. It should be a global effort to move this grain to market.
On NATO’s Strategic Concept
Chivvis: What do you think NATO ought to be doing with its Strategic Concept?
Gottemoeller: The Strategic Concept is NATO’s major statement of its strategic objectives—its purpose in life. And the one currently in existence was from 2010. It states in part that Europe is at peace and there are no conventional military threats to NATO. So it’s high time. It rang hollow even in 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea and destabilized the Donbas. But at that time, I think NATO was properly preoccupied with putting in place the battle groups in the Baltic states and Poland, working on reinforcement, building up its capability to rapidly reinforce again, so it didn’t want to take the time and expend the energy then to redo the Strategic Concept.
The objectives will be to reinforce that message about the deterrence and defense strengths of the NATO alliance and its ability to defend all of its member states against whatever may occur. The new angle will be China. As the United States brings its military attention and force to the Indo-Pacific, NATO was going to have to articulate its support for that effort—not moving NATO to operate in the Indo-Pacific, but essentially being willing to reinforce the defense of Europe while the United States is preoccupied elsewhere. Now, NATO does have to renew the strength of its determination to defend European territory and the territory of NATO allies from military threats. And here’s what I think is also going to be important in the new Strategic Concept: how to deter weapons of mass destruction and the kinds of threats that Russia has been brandishing during this war involving nuclear weapons, [as well as] chemical, biological, and radiological threats.
Chivvis: Is there a China issue at this summit, or have all of these other issues overwhelmed what would’ve been a pretty big effort to try to galvanize support for a tougher line with Beijing?
Gottemoeller: China was really supposed to dominate, to be one of the major priorities for NATO in thinking through and deciding how to treat China in the Strategic Concept. . . .
[On Thursday] I was on a very interesting call about polar research and what’s going on now that Russia has absented itself and that we have absented Russia from so much cooperation on climate change in Arctic regions. [Russia is] a major Arctic presence, and the melting of the permafrost is affecting our global climate health. So how do we figure out how to work more with China to ensure that we are getting the best possible analysis going now in this area?
That’s just a small example, but we should be thinking strategically about how we continue to engage with China while we have a huge number of problems with the way it is throwing around its military weight in the Indo-Pacific and continuing concerns about its pressures against Taiwan. It’s a delicate balancing act, and I do expect that this will be on the agenda for the G7 leaders, especially since the key leaders in the Indo-Pacific will be also at that table.
Kupchan: One issue that I do think will be very interesting to watch is how much decoupling results from this episode. Are we about to enter a period of de-globalization in which we’ve all watched Russia get smoked by the sanctions and ask ourselves if we want to continue with that level of global economic interdependence? China is at a disadvantage here, particularly in terms of the financial system, where the renminbi is still not an international currency. That puts it at a certain disadvantage when it comes to thinking through the implications of the war economically.
On the U.S. Midterms
Chivvis: I wonder what the two of you think the impact of the midterms could be on U.S. policy toward Ukraine?
Gottemoeller: It’s been remarkable, the bipartisan support so far for Ukraine. I was undersecretary for arms control and international security, and oddly, that also means I oversaw the Political Military Affairs Bureau, which is where the weapons assistance licensing goes on. And there was always huge [debate], and particularly remembering 2014 and what was going on in the Obama administration, but at the end of the day we weren’t willing to supply major weapon systems to Ukraine.
And now it’s 180 degrees different, and with the support of Republicans in Congress. So I guess I would hope that could continue, even if the midterm elections drove the United States in the other direction, with Republicans controlling the House and/or the Senate. But I do have worries about the Make America Great Again crowd coming back and essentially turning inward. And I think [Vladimir] Putin’s watching that with a very sharp eye because it’s part I think of his long-term strategy here, which is to divide and conquer. That’s always the Kremlin strategy with regard to NATO.
Kupchan: I don’t worry that Congress could or would force the Biden administration to make a dramatic change in its policy toward Ukraine. Congress doesn’t have the ability to do that. But I remain deeply concerned about the state of American politics and think that the economic conditions in the country have a lot to do with it.
Gottemoeller: Could I just disagree slightly, Charlie? Congress holds the purse strings, and the Biden administration had to do some convincing to get the $40 billion [for aid] out of the Congress, which [Ukraine has said] it’s going to run out by the end of the year. If the House and/or Senate flip, getting additional funds out of Congress to support Ukraine could be extremely, extremely difficult. And that’s I think what Putin is watching very closely.