Certainly Putin—and the contemporary Russian Federation—have few friends in Europe. 2018 polling data from the Pew Research Center suggests that most Europeans dislike the Putin regime. This does not, however, automatically translate into viewing Russia as a deadly foe. Putin’s low approval ratings in Western Europe are still higher, with the exception of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands—two countries with upfront experience of Russian malfeasance—than those of Donald Trump. Moreover, even though a country like Poland sees Russia and the Islamic State as equal threats to its security, terrorism and climate change far outstrip Russia on the lists of the most critical threats in eyes of the French, German and Italian publics. And, in a worrisome sign, despite events such as the annexation of Crimea, the Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine, or election meddling throughout the West, the percentage of Germans who support using military force to defend fellow NATO allies in Europe’s east should they get into a tussle with Moscow remains stuck at 40 percent. The data is clear: the further south and west one goes in the NATO alliance, the less there is support for challenging the Kremlin.
And throughout the alliance, there is not much appetite for NATO helping to contain a rising China, even if Beijing is currently aligned with Moscow. Even the most anti-Russian states in NATO have shown less inclination to turn down investment from China or taking part in One Belt, One Road projects. The expectation of some American strategic planners, therefore, that in an eventual faceoff between the Euro-Atlantic west and the Russo-China authoritarian axis, that the United States will concentrate on Asia while the rest of NATO secures Europe may not prove to be a viable assumption.
If NATO, on the other hand, remains committed to promoting and strengthening democratic values, the alliance will instead have to develop procedures to impose penalties on members who do not live up to these standards. To be meaningful, these penalties will probably have to include suspension of a country’s Article V guarantees or even expulsion from the alliance. There are no indications that countries becoming less democratic are seeking to leave NATO—with the exception of Hungary, where some polling data suggests that the population may be more receptive to the idea of Russia as the country’s strategic partner—the decline in public support for Western-style liberalism throughout Central Europe has not been accompanied by any move to withdraw from NATO. The current “Law and Justice” administration in Poland has repudiated the eu’s criticisms about its changes to the country’s constitution, judiciary and governance and defended the country’s economic and political sovereignty. At the same time, Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki has stressed the vital importance of NATO—and a strong U.S. role in the alliance—to regional security. Central and Eastern European NATO members such as Poland or Romania seem intent on returning the conception of the alliance to a pre-1989 vision of a security community aligned against a threat from the east, with the goal of NATO not to promote a transnational, post-national Europe but the national sovereignty of European states.
On the other hand, the use of democratic criteria as a way to “purge” the alliance could be embraced by some of the legacy European NATO countries that have begun to regret the whole process of NATO enlargement. If, as the Washington Post labeled it in a July 2018 editorial, “democracy’s slow fade in Poland, Hungary and Romania” becomes the pretext for other NATO countries to question their continued participation in the alliance, the Western Europe part of NATO would not only be relieved of their obligations to defend these states in any conflict with Russia but would also remove one of the major barriers to the overall improvement of Europe-Russia relations.
Ahmet Berat Conkar, the head of Turkey’s NATO parliamentary assembly, came away from the 2018 Brussels NATO summit with the observation that the alliance is still struggling with internal conflicts and disagreements. NATO, he noted, needs to redefine itself, not to paper over, but to come to terms with those divergences. That is a process that will take time. There are, however, some measures that can be taken in the short term.
First and foremost, NATO cannot allow any doubt about the commitment of all its members to the Article V commitment for mutual defense. As Nicholas Burns, himself a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, has pointed out, NATO’s ability to deter aggression is only as effective as the perceived strength of that guarantee. “That is what deterrence is all about … [t]he other guy … has to believe in his heart of hearts that he cannot take aggressive measures towards NATO countries because [President] Trump and the other leaders would stand up to him.”
Reaffirmation of Article V, however, must occur hand-in-hand with a renewed emphasis on Article III: the self-help provision of the alliance. This is not merely a matter of increasing defense spending, although that is part of the process. It is also about NATO countries individually and regionally developing more robust “porcupine defense” structures that would make it difficult for any adversary to seek a short-term conflict, moving the alliance away from an overdependence on Article V as the source of security. Countries must also do more to increase their resiliency—of their militaries, economies, political systems and infrastructure. A greater investment on self-reliance, following the adage “Si vis pacem, para bellum” (If you want peace, prepare for war), would help to counteract the negative image of the freeloading ally which has taken hold in America.
Finally, it is time to dispense with the ill-conceived notion of “NATO as social work.” The Euro-Atlantic theater is once again a zone of conflict and instability. NATO’s primary purpose as a security alliance should take precedence over using the alliance as a tool for social change and reform. To the extent that democratization gains greater momentum in times of peace and security, then a return to first principles for NATO is surely the most sensible course to follow.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the Captain Jerome E. Levy chair in economic geography and national security at the U.S. Naval War College. He is also a Contributing Editor to the National Interest. The views expressed here are his own.