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Did Biden’s NATO Speech Move the Needle for Peace or Politics?

Promises of prosperity in NATO’s 75th year.

As doubt about President Joe Biden’s cognitive capability swirls around Washington, DC, the president made yet another attempt to put the American people at ease. Most importantly, Biden attempted to assuage fears among America’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies that the leader of the most powerful nation on earth is not fully capable. To that end, he provided the keynote address, welcoming the other 31 delegates to the 2024 NATO Summit.

Challenges for NATO: Same as Last Year

This NATO Summit comes with many of the same challenges present at last year’s meeting. Opening Tuesday night’s program for President Biden was NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who reminded the audience that 75 years ago, the allied powers signed the Washington Treaty and were resolute that the global carnage of two previous world wars “should never happen again, so they founded NATO with a clear purpose to preserve peace and safeguard freedom.” Stoltenberg repeated the defining promise of the Alliance, “one for all, and all for one.” Preserving peace in Europe makes NATO the most successful and “longest-lasting alliance in history,” Stoltenberg told the audience.

Following Stoltenberg’s foundational perspective, President Biden walked straight to the podium, with teleprompters prominent. The president welcomed the delegates and began his little more than 11-minute speech. Standing on stage at the Mellon Auditorium, where the Washington Treaty creating NATO was signed seven and a half decades ago, Biden began with his own bit of history. He told the audience that the first meeting in 1949 had 12 countries participating, including US President Harry Truman.

What followed was oratory, again, holding to what NATO has meant to the world in the past and the opportunity to look forward “with strength and with resolve.” There were a lot of platitudes like, “Together we rebuilt Europe from the ruins of war, held high the torch of liberty during long decades of the Cold War.” Biden held the Alliance in great esteem for coming to the aid of the US after the 9/11 attack. NATO invoked Article 5, an attack on one is an attack on all, for the first time in NATO’s existence.

Vintage Biden, however, could not lose the opportunity to put a shot across former President Donald Trump’s bow. “…[I]t’s significant. In the year 2020, the year I was elected president, only nine NATO allies are spending 2% of their defense GDP on defense. This year, at least 23 will spend at least 2% on defense,” Biden told the audience. He gave the impression that his leadership had brought about a change in the funding priorities of the Alliance members.

To be fair, during Biden’s predecessor’s presidency, there was no motivation like Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine to provide a dose of realism to recalcitrant NATO members. Additionally, fewer NATO nations achieved the 2% defense spending objective during the eight years of President Obama’s administration, when Biden was the vice president.

World Leaders Attend NATO Summit In Washington, D.C.WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 9: U.S. President Joe Biden awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during the NATO 75th anniversary celebratory event at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium on July 9, 2024 in Washington, DC. NATO leaders convene in Washington this week for its annual summit to discuss their future strategies and commitments, and marking the 75th anniversary of the alliance’s founding. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

After strong words about how Ukraine “can and will stop Putin,” the president gave the audience the notion that before Russian President Vladimir Putin started his war against Ukraine, Biden anticipated the invasion and took decisive steps, sending “US reinforcements [to] NATO’s Eastern flank.” What he didn’t talk about was that seven months before Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden had a summit meeting with Putin, after which the US stopped the flow of offensive, lethal weapons to Ukraine that would have been useful. The US chief executive then went over the litany of assistance NATO and the US provided to Kyiv after the Russian invasion.

The US commander-in-chief announced to the gathering what most had come to hear. He said:

“Today I’m announcing historic donation of air defense equipment for Ukraine. The United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Romania, and Italy will provide the equipment for five additional strategic air defense systems. In the coming months the United States and our partners intend to provide Ukraine with dozens of additional tactical air defense systems.”

Biden went on to say that when it came to air defense interceptors, Ukraine would be given the number one priority. This was no doubt music to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s ears. However, as past promises of military aid have proven, the issues have not been how much but when. Fighter aircraft, tanks, and long-range ground-to-ground missiles have been delivered, but months after requested. Biden did not mention NATO membership for Ukraine.

Secretary General Stoltenberg Receives Honor

Closing his time on the stage, Biden recognized NATO General Secretary Stoltenberg for his leadership in unifying NATO countries in common causes. Biden presented the general secretary with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor the United States bestows. When history is written about this time in Europe’s existence, Stoltenberg will be a focal point of NATO.

For Mr. Biden, it’s unclear whether this major policy address lasting less than 15 minutes has turned the tide of calls for him not to run for a second term. “The White House is hoping he can turn the page on a difficult period in his presidency with his highest-profile policy speech since the debate, although some diplomats at the summit said the damage was hard to erase,” Reuters observed. Though appearing confident and in control, Biden was glued to the teleprompter and, despite some garbled words, did not go off script. It’s not likely this performance moved the needle much for the president.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliate.

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