Our experts read between the lines of NATO’s Washington summit communiqué

What can thirty-two allies accomplish in forty-four paragraphs? NATO leaders on Wednesday afternoon released the Washington Summit Declaration, a consensus document setting forth what the Alliance stands for. In the case of Ukraine, it lays out a “bridge” to membership and a long-term financial commitment, but stops short of declaring when the country will be formally invited into the Alliance, as it continues to battle Russia’s full-scale invasion. The document is also notably tough on China, which it describes as the “decisive enabler” of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Our experts dig into the fine print below to break down what’s in the communiqué—and what isn’t.

Click to jump to an expert reaction:

Daniel Fried: In its support for Ukraine, the declaration ‘passed the test of seriousness’

Rachel Rizzo: There’s much to celebrate, but major questions remain

Ann Marie Dailey: The communiqué contains few surprises and some missed opportunities

Luka Ignac: NATO targets the Russia-China partnership in a new way

Wayne Schroeder: NATO is right to look beyond the 2 percent of GDP defense target

Andrew D’Anieri: Specific, long-term funding commitments are designed to win over Ukraine skeptics

Christopher Harper: The language on Ukraine’s “irreversible” path to NATO is an important achievement

Robert Soofer: On nuclear deterrence, NATO grapples with topics once deemed off limits

Beniamino Irdi: NATO language on hybrid threats should be clearer and deeper

Joslyn Brodfuehrer: What NATO needs is a bridge from conceptualization to operationalization

Michael John Williams: Allies are rightly concerned about Russian hybrid threats, but light on specifics for countering them

In its support for Ukraine, the declaration ‘passed the test of seriousness’

Through its Washington Summit Declaration, NATO has strengthened its support for Ukraine’s security and its “irreversible path” to NATO membership. This language, contained in the declaration’s paragraph 16, is a step forward. More importantly, it was not a grudging compromise (as at the Vilnius NATO Summit in 2023), or a fraught showdown (as at the Bucharest NATO Summit in 2008). This time, the allies, especially the United States, seemed serious in asserting that, difficult as it may be to bring Ukraine into the Alliance, in the end, this may be the only way to provide long-term security to Europe in the face of Russia’s imperial ends and violent means. 

NATO also set up long-term mechanisms to provide military support for Ukraine and issued a supplemental statement that lays out details of this support. This, combined with the announcements of air defense equipment and F-16s for Ukraine, demonstrate that NATO is continuing to face down Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

The remaining US caveats on Ukraine’s authorization to use US-provided weapons to attack even legitimate military targets inside Russia remain a problem. The laws of war ought to be sufficient in restricting Ukraine’s military actions; going beyond them seems excessive.

Many will argue that NATO should have just extended an invitation to Ukraine or at least started accession negotiations. I have sympathy for these views. Nevertheless, NATO moved forward. It is easier to write an article than negotiate a communiqué with thirty-two governments. 

The decisions the allies took at the Washington summit and the language on Ukraine in the declaration passed the test of seriousness in time of war.

Daniel Fried is the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, former US ambassador to Poland, and former US assistant secretary of state for Europe.

There’s much to celebrate, but major questions remain

One day into the summit, there is already much to celebrate (beyond the Alliance’s seventy-five years, which of course is no small feat).

The final communiqué calls Ukraine’s pathway toward NATO “irreversible.” For a consensus-based organization, that’s a big deal. On top of that, we can finally see Ukraine’s “bridge” to NATO membership taking form, with the Alliance vowing to station a senior civilian in Kyiv and to set up a command in Wiesbaden, Germany for coordinating security assistance and training—with allies agreeing to send the Ukrainians a package of new air defense systems, including four Patriot batteries.

But with allied leaders saying the bridge will be short and well-lit, major questions remain about the duration and lighting. And what happens between now and Ukraine’s eventual membership, which could still be decades away?

From my conversations around town, I’m gathering that there’s also a sense of frustration amid the celebrations. Thus far there have been no announcements that the United States is willing to loosen the restrictions on how the Ukrainians can use US-supplied weapons. People seem frustrated that Ukraine can’t strike deep inside Russia, and there’s a feeling that the United States is making Ukrainians fight with one hand tied behind their backs.

There is also a somewhat somber mood regarding the US election. US President Joe Biden’s speech last night at the summit kickoff was strong and presidential, but there’s still some doubt about whether he has what it takes to pull off a win in November. And a loss for Biden means a win for former US President Donald Trump, which further rattles already-nervous Europeans. What I’ve been saying to them here at the summit is this: Tell NATO’s story, because it’s a good one. Keep increasing defense spending; twenty-three out of thirty-two allies are now spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, an increase from nine allies when Biden took office. And keep shouldering more of the defense burden for the European continent. This is likely what Europeans will wind up needing to do anyway, so best to start now.

Rachel Rizzo is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

The communiqué contains few surprises and some missed opportunities

This communiqué contains few surprises, with the biggest announcement—the creation of a mechanism for the NATO Security Assistance and Training for Ukraine—previewed weeks in advance. The other key Ukraine-related deliverable is the Pledge of Long-Term Security Assistance for Ukraine, which pledges forty billion euros in the coming year, with language loosely indicating that the support should continue in future years. While significant, this is a step down from some allies’ hope for a multiyear commitment of a percentage of each NATO nations’ GDP. With the Indo-Pacific partners on hand, the declaration missed an opportunity to note that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a threat to global security, not just Euro-Atlantic security. The bureaucratic, stilted language on a “bridge” to NATO for Ukraine belies ongoing disagreement within the Alliance on Ukrainian membership, but the language on Russia underscores a united NATO assessment that Russia is a long-term, strategic threat. 

The declaration is also an acknowledgment that more needs to be done to operationalize the commitments made at Madrid and Vilnius, namely that in order for NATO’s new regional defense plans to be executable, NATO nations will have to spend more than 2 percent of their GDP on national defense. Allies also acknowledged that gaps remain in key areas, including munitions stockpiles, integrated air and missile defense, command and control, and sustainment. The NATO Defense Industrial Capacity Expansion Pledge aims to address some of these gaps. The declaration also acknowledges the need to partner with the European Union to counter emerging and hybrid threats, as well as the importance of working with like-minded partners in the Asia-Pacific, including on support for Ukraine, cyber, disinformation, and technology. 

One major missed opportunity was the absence of Latin America in the section outlining  a new action plan for NATO’s southern neighborhood. China and Russia are conducting active disinformation and malign investment campaigns in South America. But unlike Africa and the Middle East, Latin America remains relatively stable, and it has significant economic and political cooperation potential with NATO allies. Whoever assumes the newly created role of special representative for the southern neighborhood should ensure that they include Latin America in their dialogue, outreach, and visibility. 

Ann Marie Dailey is a nonresident senior fellow at the Transatlantic Security Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and is currently serving as a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

NATO targets the Russia-China partnership in a new way

It is significant that NATO has highlighted the deepening strategic partnership between Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This acknowledgment underscores the Alliance’s unity and awareness of the evolving geopolitical landscape. By recognizing the mutually reinforcing attempts by Russia and the PRC to undercut and reshape the rules-based international order, NATO lays a crucial foundation for formulating strategies to address and counteract this burgeoning nexus.

This statement signals a collective commitment among member states to not only monitor but also actively engage in identifying and implementing measures to mitigate the influence of this partnership.

Luka Ignac is an assistant director for the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

NATO is right to look beyond the 2 percent of GDP defense target

The Washington Summit Declaration correctly addresses the need to more urgently sustain national commitments to defense. It also correctly understands that expenditures beyond 2 percent of GDP will be needed to remedy existing shortfalls and improve the capabilities, capacity, and readiness of the thirty-two NATO allies in all five defense domains—land, air, sea, cyber, and space.

To achieve the 2 percent goal or even go higher, NATO allies will have to achieve real growth in their defense spending—growth beyond the rate of inflation—and stick to that goal for multiple years. Real growth in defense spending is how most NATO countries got to 2 percent, and it is how the remaining allies can get there.

Wayne Schroeder is a nonresident senior fellow with the Transatlantic Security Initiative.

Specific, long-term funding commitments are designed to win over Ukraine skeptics

Buried at the bottom of the NATO communiqué are key details on the Alliance’s pledge to contribute a minimum of forty billion euros over the next twelve months to Ukraine for military purposes. While forty billion euros is no small change, the communiqué notes that this pledge is in fact not an increase in military aid to Ukraine, but an approximation of annual provisions by allies since Russia began its full-scale war of aggression in 2022. 

In an effort to systematize and track military contributions to Ukraine by NATO member states, the “Pledge of Long-Term Security Assistance for Ukraine” pegs minimum funding to countries’ GDP as a share of the Alliance total. For example, 2024 US GDP is estimated to be around $28 trillion, more than half of the roughly $46 trillion GDP total of the Alliance, so Washington would contribute approximately $26 billion in military aid to Ukraine over the next twelve months. Notably, allies must report on their contributions every six months to make sure each country is pulling their weight—a welcome dose of transparency. The first reporting period back dates to the start of 2024, so the United States is already much of the way toward fulfilling its minimum obligation.

The level of detail outlined in the pledge is no doubt aimed to mollify Ukraine skeptics (in the Trump orbit or otherwise) that allies in Europe are taking support for Ukraine seriously. Those efforts could be strengthened by continuing to source and send air defense, artillery ammunition, and long-range missiles to Ukraine on time and in appropriate quantities.

Andrew D’Anieri is a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

The language on Ukraine’s ‘irreversible’ path to NATO is an important achievement

The word “irreversible” in the paragraph regarding Ukraine’s path to NATO membership is powerful and important. One should not underestimate how tricky it will have been to achieve consensus on this. The implication is that this path cannot be reversed during any negotiations that might occur with Russia.

Sir Christopher Harper is a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. As a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot, he was involved in active operations over Iraq and in the Balkans and has commanded at all levels of the RAF. He also served in several positions at NATO, including director general of the HQ NATO International Military Staff.

On nuclear deterrence, NATO grapples with topics once deemed off limits

As expected, the communiqué reaffirms NATO’s commitment to modernize its nuclear capabilities, strengthen its nuclear planning capability, and adapt as necessary to changes in the security environment punctuated by Russia’s nuclear intimidation and ongoing modernization of its large stockpile of theater-range nuclear weapons. 

As a former US representative to NATO’s High-Level Group (HLG) for nuclear planning, I recall how difficult it was just five years ago for the HLG to issue even a bland communiqué after each meeting—that’s how ambivalent some allies were about the nuclear mission. Today, NATO appears to be grappling with topics once considered off limits and is taking seriously the nuclear planning, exercises, and training necessary to demonstrate resolve.

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg once said that “deterrence starts with resolve. It’s not enough to feel it. You also have to show it.” This communiqué, taken in conjunction with the 2022 Strategic Concept and 2023 Vilnius communiqué, sends a strong message to Russia that nuclear deterrence remains “the cornerstone of Alliance Security.” 

Robert Soofer is a senior fellow in the Forward Defense program of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, where he leads the Nuclear Strategy Project. He served as US deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy from 2017 to 2021.

NATO language on hybrid threats should be clearer and deeper

As most NATO leaders have acknowledged in recent statements, Russia fights a nonmilitary war against the West alongside its effort on the battlefield in Ukraine.

The communiqué released today does reflect an awareness of this in the paragraphs dedicated to hybrid threats. For example, it notes that Russia has “intensified its aggressive hybrid actions against allies, including through proxies.” It also lists several hybrid actions, including sabotage, cyberattacks, electronic interference, and provocations at allies’ borders, such as by provoking irregular migration. In addition, the communiqué names China as engaging in “sustained malicious cyber and hybrid activities, including disinformation.”

However, the space and dignity reserved by the document to this challenge do not do justice to its profound strategic nature. The effort to undermine democratic societies by leveraging its freedoms is the common denominator among all of NATO’s systemic adversaries, first and foremost China, and it will remain such after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has been repelled.

Perhaps distracted by the kinetic pace of war on the European continent, NATO language on hybrid threats is still somewhat unrefined, especially at the leadership level. A more explicit focus should be put on the multi-domain, or “DIMEFIL,” dimension of the challenge, especially by avoiding any confusion between the parts—such as cyberattacks, disinformation, and economic coercion—and the whole-of-society offensive coordinated campaigns they form.

Clearer and deeper language in top-level NATO communication on hybrid threats would achieve two key objectives. 

First, it would emphasize the systemic aspect of these threats, which would be an implicit reminder that NATO is an alliance based on values, at a time when some allies need to be reminded of this message. A whole-of-government offensive will only be effective if it is directed from an authoritarian regime and addressed toward a democratic society, whose openness is not only its target but also the weapon used against it. 

Second, it would inform a better counter-strategy to hybrid threats, one based on the whole picture and the adversaries’ strategic objectives rather than independent efforts in single domains.

Beniamino Irdi is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

What NATO needs is a bridge from conceptualization to operationalization

As heads of state gather to take part in this milestone NATO Summit, we are reminded that today’s security environment differs significantly from the one that twelve nations faced when signing the Washington Treaty seventy-five years ago. War is raging in Europe. Russia has threatened to send troops to new ally Finland’s border and is rebuilding its land forces in preparation for a long-term conflict with NATO. But these conventional threats are situated within a broader spectrum of challenges ranging from nuclear saber rattling to the very real hybrid activities levied against frontline allies. The Washington Summit Declaration recognizes the complexity of the increasingly connected battlespace, with commitments to “enhance NATO’s deterrence and defense against all threats and challenges, in all domains, and in multiple strategic directions across the Euro-Atlantic area.”

Maintaining NATO’s edge will hinge upon the Alliance’s ability to operate across domains at speed and scale. Allies pledged to provide the necessary forces and capabilities to resource the new defense plans in preparation for “high-intensity and multi-domain collective defense” and integrate space—NATO’s newest operational domain—into the Defense Planning Process. While developments in this year’s declaration yet again reflect a push to accelerate the Alliance’s transformation into a multi-domain-operation-enabled warfighting machine, it remains unclear as to whether NATO Allied Command Operations and its military personnel are equipped with the tools and expertise they need to facilitate coordinated activities across the air, land, sea, space, and cyber domains—none of which are equal. Now is the time to move beyond NATO Allied Command Transformation’s 2023 concept by integrating capabilities across domains, increasing training on new domains, and ramping up NATO exercising. Without innovative, mutually reinforcing initiatives from allies in the short and medium term, Supreme Allied Commander Europe Christopher Cavoli will be constrained in his ability to leverage new domains to secure the advantage in a future fight. 

Joslyn Brodfuehrer is an associate director with the Transatlantic Security Initiative.

Allies are rightly concerned about Russian hybrid threats, but light on specifics for countering them

The Washington Summit Declaration covers all the familiar ground, from setting expectations for Ukraine to defense spending to Indo-Pacific strategy. But for me, the most interesting parts are sections 12-14, which are focused on collective resilience, hybrid threats, and disinformation. The inclusion of these three sections is critical, because it is highly probable that any Russian actions against a NATO ally will be specifically geared to avoid a direct violation of Article 5. It is far less probable that the Kremlin would launch a full-scale invasion against Poland or the Baltics.

The Kremlin has waged a broad campaign of “political warfare” against NATO allies for a solid decade—and this “war” shows no sign of abating. Evidence of this is found in Kremlin funding for far-right parties across Europe, cyber attacks against Estonia, assassinations in the United Kingdom, and election meddling in the United States, to name but a few of the most egregious examples. 

These sections of the communiqué convey the high level of concern within NATO around these critical issues, but they also lack specificity. For example, NATO should lead efforts across the Alliance to change national legal frameworks to recognize state-supported cyber attacks. One hopes that sections 12-14 of the communiqué will be further developed in the coming year, not least because indirect political warfare is just as popular in Beijing as it is in Moscow. 

Michael John Williams is a nonresident senior fellow with the Transatlantic Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and associate professor of international affairs and director of the International Relations Program at the Maxwell School for Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

Further reading

Related Experts: Daniel Fried, Rachel Rizzo, Ann Marie Dailey, Luka Ignac, Wayne Schroeder, Andrew D’Anieri, AM Sir Christopher Harper, KBE, RAF (Ret.), Robert Soofer, and Michael John Williams

Image: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, Sweden's Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, U.S. President Joe Biden, Britain's Prime Minister Keir Starmer, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and other world leaders attend NATO's 75th anniversary summit in Washington, U.S., July 10, 2024. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein