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, bound by the rule of law, and dedicated to upholding political and civil rights. Article 2 of NATO’s founding treaty committed members to “strengthening their free institutions.”

Countries facing a common threat have often banded together for defense and survival, but most alliances don’t last long once that threat is eliminated. That is why so many observers feared that NATO would disappear with the end of the Soviet Union. But thanks to the internal cohesion created by its democratic values, and the incentives its standards created for aspiring new members, the alliance defied predictions. Instead of disintegrating, NATO adapted to new challenges and became a cornerstone of transatlantic security after the Cold War.

Today, the Kremlin once again poses a serious threat in Europe and beyond. But unlike the last time the alliance faced down Russia, now NATO is in peril. Multiple members are dismantling the institutions and practices of liberal democracy that emerged triumphant in the Cold War, and things may get worse if autocratic demagogues exploit populist fears to gain political clout in other member states. Just when

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