Whatever else happens in President Biden’s tenure, and no matter how long that tenure lasts, the events this week in Europe will ensure that his presidency is a consequential one. Russian aggression in Ukraine posed a historic challenge, both moral and geopolitical. Mr. Biden responded by pursuing the revitalization and growth of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the very institution whose purported expansionism had been the pretext for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The just-concluded NATO summit in Madrid produced both approval for the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO and stepped-up U.S. troop deployments to Europe, including a first-ever presence in Poland. Instead of backing down or cracking up, as the Russian leader no doubt hoped and quite possibly expected, the alliance has stood up, with unprecedented military assistance to Ukraine. And now it has been further extended geographically and solidified politically.
What a difference it made to have a confirmed believer in transatlantic solidarity in the White House — and bipartisan support for it in Congress as well — at the moment of Mr. Putin’s attack. It’s far from clear that Mr. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, a frequent apologist for Mr. Putin and critic of the NATO allies’ alleged freeloading, would have responded this way. In the short term, NATO’s fortification on Mr. Biden’s watch is a strategic defeat for Mr. Putin and a strategic win for the West. The long-term impact is harder to gauge, in part because that will depend heavily on the NATO member states’ follow-through over the coming years. Early indications are encouraging, however: NATO member nations are increasing defense spending, with 10 now above the guideline level, 2 percent of gross domestic product, and with the crucial nation of Germany committed to reaching that target after years of neglected defense. Public opinion appears likely to support greater military outlays. A recent Pew Research Center survey of public opinion in 11 NATO member nations found a median support level for the alliance at 65 percent, with approval trending up in seven of the 11.
The stark realization that NATO has not outlived its mutual-protection purpose — that, to the contrary, its members recognize a common enemy — has been galvanizing. Risks to the alliance still loom. One is Turkey’s authoritarian and nationalist shift under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan ultimately dropped his objections to Sweden’s and Finland’s membership based on their alleged softness toward Kurdish separatists, but still presents a troubling exception to the alliance’s democratic values. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s announcement of plans for a 300,000-troop rapid reaction force surprised some alliance members. NATO’s updated “strategic concept” document name-checked China as a source of concern for the first time and promised to address “the systemic challenges” it poses; but there were few specifics on how to back up that new commitment with tangible resources.
The greatest imponderable for NATO is the ultimate outcome of the war in Ukraine. Experience so far shows that Russia’s designs can at least be blunted, and possibly thwarted, given sufficient allied resolve under U.S. leadership. Mr. Biden should act on that lesson as long as he is president — and his successors should, too.