OPINION - Keir Starmer is arriving at Nato as the world's red warning lights start to flash

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

For most of my journalistic career, a Nato gathering was the byword for a dull international event. No longer. That really is a sign that the risk register is headed into the red zone. Their summits are ordinarily a mixture of purposeful photo opportunities and confidential cabal.

Off-stage, the nuts-and-bolts conversations dive straight in about stumping up the funds and military hardware needed to keep the rousing promises about shielding the free world and supporting embattled democracies. One former UK “def sec” compares the haggling process to “a gigantic bring-and-buy sale — you bring something to the table and hope someone else has brought more”.

This year’s Washington DC event, which Sir Keir Starmer is attending for the first time as Prime Minister, also has a sharp frisson of change and anxiety — not least because the 75th anniversary meeting has run slap-bang into a growing drama of the host, President Biden and his failing health. His position looks alarmingly like the doddering Soviet leaders pre-Gorbachev, issuing vague threats to his detractors. This week’s veer by the Biden team into blaming Democratic “party elites” for trying to oust him has bizarre echoes of the USSR leaders of blaming bourgeois intellectuals for their woes.

Even an infirm Biden is a far more reckonable leader for the Alliance than the impending prospect of Donald Trump. But that is now factored in as a possible or even likely conclusion to election year. The purpose of this week’s gathering is to “Trump-proof” the alliance — in a way that would entice a maverick possible next president to stick with it, rather than act as a rash deal-maker.

The awkward truth is Ukraine is now a quagmire which requires refocus from its allies

The alliance too is in transition from a veteran “gen sec”, Jens Stoltenberg, to new convenor, the Dutch ex-prime minister, Mark Rutte. Baltic states’ leaders, including Estonia’s forthright Kaja Kallas, have made clear that they feel pushed out of the leadership of the defence pact, despite ponying up more spending per capita than western countries to fend off the threat from Moscow.

We tend to get tired of wars before they get tired of us. And as if to prove the point about the need for resilience, the freshly hatched Labour Defence Secretary John Healey, paid his first visit in office to Ukraine to meet Volodymyr Zelensky in Odesa — and ended up having to accompany his host to a bomb shelter under a hail of missiles, a pattern of renewed attacks including one particularly horrendous one on the main children’s hospital in Kyiv.

The awkward truth is that war in Ukraine neither being won nor lost, but is a quagmire which requires a refocus of its allies.

The paradox is that the alliance is in a more cohesive state than it has been since the end of the Cold War. New members like Finland and Sweden have sharpened the defensive edge of the pact, while western Europe has awakened to the folly of assuming that the comfortable “peace dividend” would bring lasting security without additional effort.

It has often been a lot easier to enthuse democracies for disarmament than boosting defences or for favouring cheap energy from hostile countries over investing in their autonomy. Ukraine was a valuable awakening on that score. Yet much of the fragmentation of Europe’s politics undermines the unity Nato leaders seek to project.

Among the jubilation in France at the rout of the far-Right in an alliance of President Macron’s struggling centrists and the far-Left, it’s easy to overlook the fact that France has already swithered under Macron’s leadership, from a thwarted role as the dealmaker with Putin, to an abruptly hawkish position. How does that square with the new “Left Alliance” — many of whose leading voices have long been complicit in finding excuses for Vladimir Putin and are as inward-looking in mindset as their foes on the Right? Amping up funding or even support for the war is not on their wish list.

Next door, there’s gratitude for German funding, but growing frustration about the Berlin government’s internal tensions over sending Taurus long-range missiles to help Ukraine, which led Boris Pistorius, the defence secretary, to complain that he was “annoyed” at a stingy budget settlement. “I wonder sometimes if Europeans think this [war] is just a debating club,” a member of Zelensky’s team told me.

This week in their opening session, Nato’s leaders have gone further than in any previous incarnation in pointing to China’s direct role as an “enabler” of the war, a development which will press the new Labour government to find a clearer view of how it intends to handle Beijing, as well as how to rally behind Kyiv. If it feels like a cluster of inter-related and daunting decisions, that’s because it is. The red zone is growing closer.

Anne McElvoy hosts the Power Play podcast