Don’t Believe the Doomsayers: NATO Has a Future

April 15, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: NATOArticle VWarNational SecurityRussia

Don’t Believe the Doomsayers: NATO Has a Future

Reaffirmation of Article V, however, must occur hand-in-hand with a renewed emphasis on Article III: the self-help provision of the alliance.


It is also important to know what words mean. For thirty years, politicians all across Europe and the United States have spoken nearly identical scripts about freedom, democracy, and “Western” or “European” values. That does not always mean that they have shared similar definitions. In fact, after years of carrying out opinion surveys throughout Europe, the Pew Research Trust, in 2018, was compelled to note that the term “European values” no longer had a single, consistent definition:

“Leaders often cite European values when defending their stances on highly charged political topics. But the term “European values” can mean different things to different people. For some, it conjures up the continent’s Christian heritage; for others, it connotes a broader political liberalism that encompasses a separation between church and state, asylum for refugees, and democratic government … challenging the notion of universal assent to a set of European values.”


It is important to recognize the extent to which Soviet control over central-eastern Europe was an ideological juggernaut which suppressed local political traditions and deprived the nations of the Soviet bloc of self-determination. As Soviet control receded, widespread and enduring opposition to Soviet Communism and Russian domination was subsumed under their supposed antonyms—the banners of “Western democracy” and “European values.” Democracy was about restoring the rights of the nations of the region to actual self-determination, while, particularly for the states of what might be termed the “post-Habsburg space,” the Europe that they sought a return to was the promise of interwar modernism, not postmodern secular liberalism.

Finally, it is important to consider how and why Central European governments implemented the reforms necessary to secure acceptance as emerging democracies and membership in the NATO alliance. Throughout the region, in the 1990s and through to the early 2000s, political leaders faced extreme political difficulties in pursuing free market and democratic reforms, the more so since the European Union was proceeding very slowly in considering its own expansion. As a result, they argued, the only way to sustain public support for painful reforms would be to guarantee full membership in the Euro-Atlantic community. A visible and credible path into NATO would signal that the West was firmly behind their “return to Europe.”

The deal that emerged would allow leaders in aspiring NATO member states to tell their voters that only by supporting and enduring controversial reform measures could they secure NATO’s protection from Russia. The argument was at its core a powerful nationalist case for accepting new and disruptive procedures and policies: to preserve the nation, support reform. Meeting Western conditionality was the price that had to be paid for securing NATO membership and the economic benefits of the European Union.

A common theme heard throughout the region was that, in return for embracing reforms that were imposed from the outside as conditions for membership, NATO (and then the eu) would have to deliver on concrete benefits—a view shared not only from the right-wing but also from centrists as well. In 1996, for instance, Piotr Nowina-Konopka, the foreign policy spokesman for the Freedom Union party in Poland, noted that

“After five years of climbing we can see the peak, but the people are now tired. At the last stage you can’t slow down, you must speed up … NATO, along with the European Union, should give us a hand up the icy slope. There’s a limited window of opportunity, and we’re losing time. We may not want to withdraw, but history may withdraw us involuntarily.”

Yet, as a senior German official lamented to me in 2015, many of the new countries treated conditionality as a ceiling, not as a floor. The legacy states of Europe assumed that, after securing membership, the new members would continue to reform, liberalize and democratize. What has happened, as many of these countries reached the “floor” of membership, they stepped off the reform elevator—or even began to look for ways to reverse those changes once membership had been secured, since there is no provision in either NATO or the EU for expelling members who engage in backsliding on reform.

But there should have been no surprise. In comments in the fall of 1998 on the changes implemented by Hungary in order to comply with NATO requirements, for instance, András Simonyi, who headed the Hungarian mission to NATO, noted that the government would “seek Hungarian solutions which are responsive to our traditions, views and interests.” The following March, Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivered an address to celebrate the accession of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to the alliance which celebrated NATO as the guarantee of the sovereignty, freedom and independence of its national members. Having described Hungary’s membership in the Warsaw Pact as something imposed from without on his country, he concluded as follows: “Our joining the North Atlantic Alliance is a watershed event in our national History. We have been members of this civilisation for thousand years. We belong here.”

Orban’s remarks made it clear that he viewed Central-Eastern European states as part of the West because of heritage and tradition. Reform was about stripping away an imposed and alien values system, but the states of the region did not become “Westernized” or “Europeanized” because of changes in governance. Orban’s perspective, in contrast to the more antiseptic language of conditionality standards put out by Brussels, became increasingly more of a mainstream position in Europe in the 2000s—the definition of Europeanness as culture, not governance.

This, in turn, changed the trajectory of NATO member Turkey’s bid to fully integrate with the Euro-Atlantic world. In 1963, Turkey had signed an association agreement with the European Community, and two years before the “Revolutions of ‘89” had formally applied to join. Ankara’s view was that a Turkey that had sacrificed blood and treasure to help secure Western Europe from Soviet domination ought to reap some of the rewards of the common market. The European Commission’s official response in 1989 laid out some of the further economic and political reforms that would be required for Turkey to be considered for full membership.

Space does not permit a full recounting of Turkey’s failed bid, but by the mid-2000s, Turkey’s progress in democratization and other reform measures that Europe asked for could not outweigh the sentiment that, as a Eurasian Muslim country, Turkey didn’t quite “fit” in Europe. As Turkey’s bid faltered, the government saw no reason to continue to aspire to meet Brussel’s standards of conditionality. Over the last decade, Turkey has swerved off the path towards secular liberalism. From overhauls to the country’s judiciary to an increased role for Islam, Turkey in 2019 is charting a “non-European” course in governance. No one now envisions EU membership for Ankara, but Turkey remains in NATO—although it now defines what its obligations vis-à-vis the alliance are, in terms of its commitments to democratic rule or in terms of Russia policy—by its own internal logic, rather than deferring to the wishes of other alliance members.

For central and eastern Europeans, Turkey’s evolution over the last decade is in the direction that leaders such as Orban also endorse. To the extent that Turkey remains a NATO member in good standing, therefore, it has set a precedent that the erosion of democracy in other NATO members, despite all the rhetoric about “Western values,” is not a particular problem.

IT IS long overdue for the United States—and other NATO members—to have a frank conversation about the type of alliance they want. For far too long, NATO spokesmen have toggled back and forth between NATO as a military alliance fielding concrete capabilities versus a political association supporting and sustaining liberal values in the trans-Atlantic space. What happens if both can no longer be operative at the same time among all members?

Russian president Vladimir Putin has provided one rationale for NATO’s existence in the twenty-first century: the need to confront a revisionist Russia that seeks to upset the post-Cold War order in Europe—especially if this occurs within the context of some sort of authoritarian entente with China to offset Euro-American leadership of the current international system. If containing Russia is the principal task, then, as during the Cold War, what kind of governments NATO countries have becomes less important than the geopolitical capabilities and advantages each country brings to the common task. In the struggle to contain the Soviet Union, the fact that both Greece and Turkey, at times, were ruled by military dictatorships, and that other NATO states were marked by degrees of illiberalism, was less important than the strategic real estate and capabilities different members brought to the table. This approach means that NATO would need to tolerate a much greater degree of illiberal democracies and soft authoritarianism within the ranks of the alliance if it meant retaining a high degree of strategic cohesion to deter and repel Russian advances back into Europe.

Re-establishing the old adage coined by Lord Ismay that the purpose of NATO was to keep the “Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down” runs into difficulties in other parts of Europe, where, even with concerns about Russian activities, there remains a continuing reluctance on the part of governments to spend more or resume a more confrontational stance vis-à-vis Moscow. Even in 2019, the existential threat from Russia that Atlanticists (particularly in the think tank sectors in the United States and Europe) see is not shared by many European politicians.