NATO’s Enemies Within

How Democratic Decline Could Destroy the Alliance

At a NATO summit in Brussels, March 2017. Pool / Reuters

NATO today faces multiple challenges. Terrorists have attacked European capitals, migration is putting pressure on border and homeland security systems, Russia is both able and willing to use military force and other instruments of influence in Europe, and U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to scrap the alliance altogether. But the most serious problem is not one of these obvious threats; rather, it is the breakdown of liberal democracy within the alliance itself.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has never been a typical alliance. From its inception in 1949, NATO has not only deterred and defended against external threats; it has also advanced the principles of liberal democratic governance. Although its cohesion initially rested on the common threat of the Soviet Union, NATO was more unified than most multilateral organizations thanks to the common character of its members. Nearly all were democratically elected governments that were accountable to their citizens,

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