As Challenges Pile Up, a Spate of Summitry Spotlights Western Resolve

Western leaders are embarking on an extraordinary stretch of summitry this week, which could give them a chance to project unity to adversaries who increasingly view the West as something to be defied, disregarded or even repudiated.

But as they gather on the windswept bluffs of Normandy for the 80th anniversary of D-Day on Thursday, and five weeks later in Washington for a NATO summit, the leaders will be tested across a range of divisive issues: wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the rise of China and, perhaps most daunting, the future of the United States.

On one level, D-Day and NATO are inspiring bookends: the first, a nostalgic commemoration of the Allied victory over Nazi tyranny; the second, a 75th birthday party for the alliance that grew out of the ashes of World War II. In between, there is a Ukraine peace conference in Switzerland and a Group of 7 leaders’ summit in Italy.

Yet beneath the pride and pomp, there will be nagging doubts, not least about the direction of American politics. President Biden will travel to France and Italy (he is expected to skip the Switzerland forum), but he is squeezing in the diplomacy amid an election-year battle against former President Donald J. Trump, whose victory in November would call into question the very survival of the alliance that Western leaders are spending so much time celebrating.

Mr. Trump’s shadow over the events is inescapable. The summits are bookended by his convictions last week for falsifying business records and his sentencing, which is scheduled for July 11, the final day of the NATO meeting in Washington. That will provide European leaders with a front-row view of America’s political dysfunction, even as Mr. Biden strives to unite them against the Russian threat.

“There’s a split screen,” said Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. “We’re experiencing an era of revival and renewal in the Western alliance, and these various summits will capture that.”

“But we’re going to be celebrating at the very moment that everybody is worried about the next American election,” said Professor Kupchan, who worked on European affairs in the Obama administration. “For the first time since World War II, the internal threat to the West is more acute than the external threat.”

Western anxiety is not limited to concerns about the United States. Fears of a populist resurgence are rippling across Europe — from Italy, where a right-wing prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, will play host at the Group of 7 meeting, to France and Germany, where leaders are facing rising discontent and restive challengers on the right. Far-right parties are expected to perform strongly in European Parliament elections, which start on Thursday and could strike a discordant note amid the tributes to the heroes of D-Day.

“Europeans were already thinking this whole series of criminal cases were helping Trump rather than hindering him,” said Kim Darroch, who served as Britain’s ambassador to the United States during the Trump administration. “This will be part of every conversation between the delegations at all these summits.”

Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington, said, “Europe entertains doubts not so much about the rule of law as about the adulthood of the U.S. electorate, part of which appears to be extremely gullible and too susceptible to the temptations of Trumpian populism.”

To Mr. Ischinger, who ran the Munich Security Conference until 2022, Mr. Trump’s sentencing will be an ill-timed distraction from a NATO meeting that could “offer a unique opportunity to restore faith in our common vision of freedom and to display resolve instead of hesitation, courage instead of fear.”

Mr. Biden took a decisive step in that direction last week by allowing Ukraine to use American weapons in limited military strikes inside Russia. That decision could now galvanize other Western countries, some of which were already leaning in that direction, and it eliminated a divide between Washington and European capitals.

But Mr. Biden will put strict limitations on the use of American weapons for fear of escalation with Russia, a nuclear-armed adversary, and where to draw the line will remain a point of contention within the Western alliance.

Mr. Biden also needs to do a better job of persuading the Europeans to pick up more of the burden of defending Ukraine, diplomats said. The congressional approval in April of a $61 billion aid package for Kyiv, after a lengthy delay, underlined the degree to which Ukraine’s — and Europe’s — security still depends on the United States.

“Europeans must grasp that, absent a bigger effort on their part, there could be significant U.S. disengagement from the alliance, particularly if Donald Trump returns to the White House in January,” said Peter Westmacott, who served as Britain’s ambassador to the United States, France and Turkey.

“At some point, there are likely to be negotiations to end the conflict,” Mr. Westmacott said. “My worry is that if Ukraine’s supporters do not do more, and soon, that negotiation could turn out to be a surrender — which would only encourage Putin to push his luck further.”

Russia has not been invited to the Swiss peace conference, which has led other major powers like China to spurn the gathering. Mr. Biden’s absence will also diminish potential outcomes, though the White House has said it will send a delegation. Mr. Putin would give Mr. Biden a standing ovation if he didn’t show, said Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Mr. Zelensky’s frustration with Washington underscores the linchpin role of the United States in the web of alliances. Shoring up those relationships has been an important priority of the Biden administration, and analysts said that these summits would showcase the progress it had made, not just in Europe but also in Asia, where Japan and South Korea have drawn closer to the United States.

Mr. Biden’s stalwart support of Israel in the war in Gaza has opened a divide between the United States and some European countries. Ireland, Norway and Spain recently recognized a Palestinian state. But Britain, France and Germany have so far avoided a split with the United States, despite the fraught domestic politics in their countries and growing discomfort with Israel’s conduct of the war.

For all his diplomatic efforts, some experts say, Mr. Biden’s emphasis on alliances has planted the seeds for future problems. It has made the allies overly dependent on the United States, which is why the specter of Mr. Trump will haunt the meetings in France, Switzerland, Italy and the United States.

“The centerpiece of the Biden strategy is alliances and allies; they’re incredibly proud of that,” said Jeremy Shapiro, the research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “Trump basically thinks allies are relatives who come to your house, borrow your money and use your pool.”

“But the Biden administration has made the problem worse,” Mr. Shapiro said, “because they’ve created so much reliance on the U.S. at the very moment that the world shouldn’t be relying on it, because of Trump.”

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