Biden faces a high-stakes summit with his presidency in the spotlight

President Biden’s faltering performance in last week’s debate has raised new concerns among allies already worried about the possibility of a second Trump presidency as they head to Washington in coming days for a U.S.-hosted NATO summit.

An event that the White House anticipated would project Biden’s global leadership and deliver a foreign policy victory at a key campaign moment — less than a week before the Republican National Convention — now has taken on new meaning.

The substantive summit agenda remains, focused on support for Ukraine and its path toward NATO membership, as well as alliance unity, burden-sharing and modernization. On Wednesday, Biden’s national security team was preparing his remarks — known in alliance parlance as “interventions” — for the main summit plenary meetings and firming up a schedule for bilateral sessions with individual government heads on the sidelines.

But the debate stumbles have amplified existing apprehension — shared by many alliance members — that Biden’s reelection campaign is in trouble and that they risk a return to the troubled years of Donald Trump’s disdain for NATO, insults to his fellow Western leaders and praise of adversaries such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“What they’re worried about is Trump, not Biden,” suggested a White House official, one of several U.S. and foreign officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic and security issues.

A major question is whether Biden can navigate the complicated web of interactions over the three-day event that will involve nearly 40 leaders, their entourages, a swirl of complicated one-on-one meetings and the pressures of being the most important NATO leader at a moment when any misstep could spell political doom.

Biden administration officials said there had been no thought of limiting the president’s exposure at the summit and noted that a solo news conference that had been penciled in on early agenda drafts has now been firmly scheduled.

In the wake of the rising turmoil unleashed by the debate, a senior official from one NATO country said the summit was a welcome moment to assess Biden in the flesh and make plans accordingly. This official said leaders would be eyeing the president’s comportment in all of their interactions with him: at the summit itself, a reception, a Wednesday dinner for leaders and their spouses, and during one-on-one sessions.

Regardless of what is brought up in public, “I think you can’t escape the political overtones of this summit, where it’s occurring, when it’s occurring, what it’s bookended by in terms of the … debate and the convention,” John Deni, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said Monday at a NATO preview event held in Washington.

While the 75th anniversary NATO summit is designed as a show of strength to alliance rivals, questions about Biden’s health have already posed a major distraction that could undermine summit goals, analysts said. “That’s the unfortunate reality,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and a former senior intelligence officer focused on Russia.

“If he puts on a decent performance, then maybe they’re all back to where they were before, saying ‘the media in America is so overblown,’” Kendall-Taylor said. “I do think it’ll go a long way in shaping their sense of his future and the future of the Democratic Party.”

Just as it has dismissed the debate as a “bad night” for Biden and touted domestic policy accomplishments over the past three years, the White House this week focused attention on what it considers NATO’s successes during Biden’s term, from unity and support for Ukraine and the admission of Sweden and Finland.

“NATO has become stronger … and has gained two more countries because of this president’s leadership,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday.

In response to a barrage of questions from reporters about Biden’s mental acuity and physical stamina, Jean-Pierre pointed to foreign leaders, who “have seen the president personally up close for the past three years,” she said. “They have talked about his leadership. They have commended his leadership. … They have been proud to see him as president of the United States after what they experienced in the last administration.”

As proof, she noted that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in an interview on the sidelines of last month’s Group of Seven meeting in Italy, praised Biden as “one of the most experienced politicians in the world” and “a man who knows exactly what he is doing.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jean-Pierre added, described the president after a February phone conversation as “very clear and focused.”

But the offering of a few foreign leader testimonials seemed to underline the concerns expressed by others at home and abroad as Biden moves into the spotlight and seeks to project both domestic vigor and international power.

Ivo Daalder, who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration, said that the summit in many ways will play to Biden’s strengths, presenting him with opportunities to rub elbows with friendly leaders and be at the center of attention as other leaders make requests of the United States.

Also playing in the president’s favor in what will be a closely scrutinized event, he said, is the widespread fear of Trump’s return, making Biden the person who stands between them and the potential for drama and even ruin of the alliance.

“Everyone will hope that the next NATO meeting will be with him, too,” he said of Biden.

Still, many NATO countries had started to hedge their bets even before last week. For months, embassies and officials have been engaged in a frantic effort to build ties to Americans seen as likely future members of Trump’s foreign policy team, both to glean assessments of how he might position the United States in the world and to curry favor.

Staffs at the summit will be huddling and “comparing notes,” trying to plumb the reality of Trump’s threats and promises, James J. Townsend Jr., a former Pentagon official for European and NATO policy, said at the Atlantic Council event.

“Do you take him literally or do you take him, you know, with a grain of salt,” he said. “And frankly … if he gets elected, if should he find himself in the White House, we’ll just have to see where he’s going.”

While it may not come up in public, Townsend said, “after this latest debate, that’s definitely going to be what’s talked about in the corridors.”

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