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Russia is Top of Mind at NATO summit

Heads of state pose for a group photo during the NATO 75th anniversary celebratory event at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium in Washington D.C. (July 9, 2024)
Kevin Dietsch
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Heads of state pose for a group photo during the NATO 75th anniversary celebratory event at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium in Washington D.C. (July 9, 2024)

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, is 75 years old this year. The political and military alliance is now 32 members strong.

The NATO summit kicked off this week in Washington D.C. and Consider This host Mary Louise Kelly sat down with top diplomats from eight Nordic and Baltic nations before the summit officially kicked off in a panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council.

Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania make up the members of a regional bloc called the Nordic-Baltic 8 — eight small-to-medium-sized countries in the shadow of a much more powerful neighbor, Russia. In that sense, they speak as one voice at the summit this week.

Sweden and Finland are the newest members of NATO, having joined since Russia invaded Ukraine, and Sweden's foreign minister Tobias Billstrom said he feels safer in the alliance:

"Sweden joining NATO was coming home. This was the end of a process which started in 1994, when we became members of the Partnership for Peace. And when we now became fully fledged members on the 7 of March, that was indeed a crowning achievement."

Finnish State Secretary Pasi Rajala said Finland has long been accustomed to taking care of its own security, so being in NATO members feels like a mental shift:

"To understand that we're no longer alone, that we're this wonderful group of allies and the United States and other allies. We felt secure before, but now we're even more secure."


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Security priorities.

In recent years, most of the Nordic-Baltic Eight have made it a point to spend more on defense, as they watch what's happening in Ukraine with fear for their own countries.

The foreign ministers knew this week they were speaking to Americans, who might not see Russia's war in Ukraine as a top priority. But Lithuania's foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis is very closely following what is happening in Eastern Ukraine:

"The whole security landscape is being shaped in Kharkiv," he says. "Lithuanian security landscape is being shaped in Kharkiv. The way that the war will go on, the way that Ukraine's been able to resist and push back on Russians — it will affect directly on my country's security."

The potential for Russia to disrupt the international rules-based order is also a major issue for Iceland's foreign minister, Thordis Kolbrun Reykfjord Gylfadottir. Iceland has a population smaller than any U.S. state and is the only NATO member with no standing army; it has come to rely on that order.

In contrast, the U.S. outspends every country in the world on its military — by a wide margin — and is the wealthiest and most powerful country in the alliance. She and the other ministers made the case that it is also in the U.S. interest to be a good ally.

"I think the U.S. also needs to recognize that paying the insurance is always a smarter business than not doing so, and then end up in a situation that is so much more dramatic on all fronts, more costly both in currency and in lives and in just the rule-based order. And there the interest of the United States really lies."

U.S. politics and NATO.

With political uncertainty and instability in the U.S. and an upcoming presidential election, Kelly asked the diplomats to what extent U.S. domestic politics influence what the alliance can do. Billstrom, Sweden's foreign minister, says they all agree that U.S. participation in NATO is indispensable.

"On top of that, I think that we all take our own responsibility very seriously regardless of the outcome of U.S. elections," he says. "And also, just on a side note, there is a tendency sometimes in European media to be very focused on the election outcome for the White House, but we all know that the Congress and the Senate has a lot to say when it comes to foreign security policy. And a president has a lot of power in the U.S., but you are not a Chinese or a Russian president. You have to think about what the Congress thinks about this."

When pressed, Billstrom acknowledged that the U.S. Congress recently held up Ukraine aid for months in a partisan fight, but attributed that to the expected workings of a democracy, and recalled a lot of support for NATO's mission in his personal meetings with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

The Nordic-Baltic Eight placed a lot of importance on safeguarding assistance to Ukraine. Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump has suggested that he's not going to prioritize assistance to Ukraine, and has threatened to pull the U.S. out of the alliance if other member countries did not spend enough on their own defense. When Kelly asked if they see a need to "Trump-proof" NATO in the event he is elected to office again, Denmark's foreign minister said that whoever is in the White House, Europe has self-interest in stepping up its defense capabilities:

"Instead of discussing whether we can Trump-proof things, we should discuss whether we could future-proof things," Lars Lokke Rasmussen said. "And that will give us an upper hand towards anyone in the White House in the future."

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