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 the alliance is needed as much as ever to meet challenges from without, the foundations of its power are at risk of crumbling because of challenges from within.


After the fall of the Soviet Union, the liberal democratic credentials of NATO’s members became even more important to the alliance. Although many experts and policymakers hoped that Europe would emerge from the Cold War whole, free, and at peace, others warned that without a shared enemy, the region might return to past cycles of instability and conflict fueled by revanchist, chauvinistic, and illiberal European regimes. Far from being irrelevant, these observers argued, NATO would play a key role in bolstering liberal democracies and creating trust among countries that had spent centuries fighting one another.

As if on cue, border disputes and simmering ethnic conflicts in eastern Europe began to threaten the peace almost immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union. And with the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, they ultimately broke it. In the face of these challenges, NATO sought to leverage the desire for membership to encourage political reforms by requiring that new members meet its standards for good governance. This decision was based on the belief that liberal institutions, practices, and values would prevent a return to the nationalist, nativist, extremist, and intolerant dynamics that had driven destructive conflicts in Europe for centuries. To foster security within Europe, NATO required that new members leave autocratic practices behind. 

Liberal institutions and practices are central to creating security and trust among Europe’s diverse societies.

Fulfilling these requirements was often politically contentious, and aspiring members did not always succeed. Countries that had spent decades under authoritarian communist rule had to root out the lingering influence of intelligence agencies, overturn politicized control of the military in favor of apolitical professional defense forces, establish legislative oversight for military procurement, and implement personnel policies that would combat corruption. All of that has taken time: Montenegro set the goal of achieving membership in 2007 but had to wait ten more years to earn admission. And mere aspiration is not enough: Bosnia, for example, has yet to fulfill the criteria that the alliance set in 2010 for the country to be granted the Membership Action Plan, a procedural precursor to joining. These requirements may have slowed the process of NATO’s expansion, but liberal institutions and practices are central to creating security and trust among Europe’s diverse societies. Anything less would have weakened the alliance instead of strengthening it.

Beyond its stabilizing effect on the broader continent, there is another reason NATO’s liberal democratic character came to matter: in the absence of a shared external threat, the binding force of liberal democratic values and institutions has become essential to the alliance’s effectiveness. NATO’s ability to conduct security operations depends on its political cohesion as much as its members’ military capabilities. Few question NATO’s cohesion when Article 5 of its founding treaty is invoked—that is, when an ally is directly attacked. Common external threats generate unified responses. After 9/11, for example, NATO members quickly joined the U.S. campaign against Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. 

However, when the alliance faces a security issue that does not invoke Article 5, alliance cohesion is less certain because members have different priorities that guide their cost-benefit calculations. In such cases, liberal commitment to the rule of law has played an important role. The alliance has proved cohesive when acting outside Europe and when the stakes are well grounded in international law, as was the case during its 2011 intervention in Libya, which was backed by a UN Security Council resolution. 

In other instances, when the alliance has faced more diffuse and contested security challenges, a common commitment to liberal democratic values has proved even more essential to maintaining cohesion. Consider the Balkans: in 1995, NATO conducted Operation Deliberate Force to protect UN safe areas in Bosnia that had come under attack from ethnic Serbian armed groups. And in 1999, it conducted another air operation against the armed forces of what remained of Yugoslavia to prevent military attacks on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. In both campaigns, Article 5 did not apply because no NATO member had been directly attacked. Nor was the alliance acting under a UN Security Council resolution. These interventions tested the alliance’s political capacity, but ultimately, members coalesced around their common commitment to human rights, a principle that would become enshrined in international law in 2005 as “the responsibility to protect” (or R2P). The alliance’s ability to prevent mass atrocities in non-NATO states was thus as much a product of its members’ values as it was a product of their military assets. 

By contrast, when democratic values and institutions have cut in the opposite direction, the alliance has been divided. Compare NATO’s interventions in the Balkan wars to its disunity over the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Although the Bush administration contended that Iraq threatened global security by pursuing weapons of mass destruction (an area of international law far better established than R2P), NATO was far from unified on the matter. In fact, France and Germany were among the most vocal critics of the invasion. Although NATO’s interventions in the Balkans had been legally problematic, the allies were still united in pursuing them because of their shared commitment to human rights. But when it came to Iraq, without a justification rooted in liberalism, not all of them were willing to support an intervention beyond the purview of Article 5. 

Orban arriving for a NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland, July 2016
Kacper Pempel / Reuters


In the early years of this century, some observers, including me, worried that the credibility of NATO’s admission criteria was being undermined by new members that managed to meet NATO’s standards only to backslide after joining the alliance. When international organizations increase their membership, they often become more unwieldy and slow to act. Greater numbers mean greater diversity in interests and priorities. NATO argued that a shared commitment to liberal democracy would mitigate this challenge, but that would be true only if new members sustained those values after accession. At the time, I feared that long-standing NATO members were being exploited by states such as Hungary that had made promises of political reform they did not intend to keep. Giving backsliders a free pass would harm NATO’s credibility and detract from its ability to cultivate liberal values. And if NATO became unwilling to enforce its membership requirements, the United States’ most important multilateral alliance would become rife with weak links. 

Such fears have since been borne out. It has become clear that there is no price for violating NATO’s liberal democratic standards, and some weak links are indeed backsliding. Consider Hungary. In 1999, the country was welcomed into NATO. In 2002 and then again in 2006, it held competitive elections that resulted in the airing of past corruption and collusion with the Soviet-era Communist Party by officials in both main parties, many of whom were held accountable. In 2004, Hungary pursued EU membership with strong support across the political spectrum. It also made progress on civil liberties and political rights, achieving top scores in all categories from 2005 to 2010 in rankings produced by the nongovernmental organization Freedom House. 

But in 2010, in elections that were widely recognized as free and fair, Viktor Orban’s right-wing party Fidesz won 53 percent of the vote and 68 percent of the seats in the parliament. Armed with a supermajority, Fidesz changed the constitution and weakened institutional checks on government power, especially the judiciary. It increased the number of seats on Hungary’s Constitutional Court, which it then packed with its own people, and narrowed the court’s mandate. By early 2018, Hungary had slipped to the bottom of the “free” end of Freedom House’s scales on political rights and civil liberties. And as the rule of law and government accountability have declined in Hungary, corruption has gone up. In April 2018, Fidesz won 49 percent of the vote but again secured a supermajority in the parliament. Today, the party seems poised to drive the country further away from the values and institutions of European liberal democracy.

Hungary showed early signs of its potential to slide into illiberalism, but few imagined that Poland would join it. Devastated by centuries of war and great-power competition, Poland and its citizens represented the hope that liberal democracy could be an answer to Europe’s past follies of ethnic grievance, demagoguery, and the assault on liberal political institutions. But after taking power in 2015, Poland’s Law and Justice party began to do away with many of the same core checks and balances and rule-of-law protections that Fidesz had dismantled in Hungary, eliminating the power of the Constitutional Tribunal to review laws and executive actions and increasing the power of political leaders to pack the judiciary with sycophants. In Freedom House’s ratings, Poland dropped from 93 out of 100 in 2015 to 85 in 2018. This January, the government passed a law making it a crime to claim that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. Setting aside the question of complicity by some Poles—and there is considerable historical evidence for it—this effort threatens the core liberal democratic principle of freedom of speech, without which governments cannot be held accountable to their citizens.


In 2002, I wrote in this magazine about the risk that backsliding among new NATO members could undermine the coherence of the alliance. It is now clear that I was guilty of a failure to imagine even worse. Today, liberal democracy is at risk not just among new members but also among the original or early members of the alliance—a development that poses an even greater threat to NATO’s unity and effectiveness.

The most egregious case may come as little surprise. Turkey, which joined NATO in 1952, and whose history is checkered with military coups, has long been a problem for the alliance’s commitment to liberal democratic institutions and principles. But after the Cold War, Turkey made progress in expanding legal and civil rights and allowing for political competition. When the Justice and Development Party took power in 2002 under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it at first appeared that progress would continue. Soon, however, the party began backsliding. In 2016, under the cover of investigating an alleged coup attempt, Erdogan’s government put political opponents on trial, persecuted journalists, and went after businesses that had not supported his party. Through pressure on business interests, the Turkish state acquired control of central media outlets and made them instruments of the ruling party. Erdogan also went after the independent judiciary, pushing through a constitutional amendment that enabled his party to stack the judiciary with compliant political appointees. In 2018, Freedom House officially classified Turkey as “not free,” putting it in the same category as China, Iran, Russia, and Syria.

Turkish police detaining a protester, September 2017
Turkish police detaining a protester, September 2017
Umit Bektas / Reuters

Meanwhile, in other core NATO members, there are worrying signs, such as the rise of the National Front in France (after the party’s confessed acceptance of Russian money) and the unimaginable emergence of a far-right nationalist party in Germany: the Alternative for Germany. And in 2017, the Netherlands had a sort of near-death experience with the nail-biting defeat of Geert Wilders, the leader of the radical right Party for Freedom. 

Then there is the United States. Assuming that there proves to be no evidence to the contrary, the 2016 U.S. presidential election was an example of a free and fair election that brought to power an administration intent on disrupting the institutions and practices of liberal democracy. U.S. President Donald Trump regularly advances falsehoods, and he has assaulted the role of the independent press, suggesting that journalists should be imprisoned or forced to reveal their  sources. He and other members of his administration have expressed support for violent racist provocateurs, publicly denigrated religious minorities, and defended acts of sexism and misogyny perpetrated by both elected officials and those seeking elected office. Trump has also repeatedly criticized an independent Justice Department investigation into his presidential campaign and possible foreign interference in the 2016 election. In light of all of this, in 2018, Freedom House downgraded the United States’ freedom score to 86 out of 100, a rating that is barely ahead of Poland’s (at 85).

Of course, some NATO members also experienced authoritarianism or military rule during the Cold War. Greece was ruled by a military junta from 1967 to 1974, and the Portuguese government was an authoritarian regime until 1974. It would not be unreasonable to criticize as a convenient fairy tale the narrative of NATO as an alliance of liberal democracies. During the Cold War, exceptions were tolerated in the interests of enhancing NATO’s military capabilities and its ability to prevent communist infiltration in Western Europe. But the deviations prove the point: under authoritarian rule, Greece and Turkey fought a narrow, revanchist, destructive conflict over Cyprus that weakened the alliance. Still, the divisive effects were sufficiently mitigated by the strong cohesive force of the Soviet threat. The authoritarian failings of certain NATO allies put them at odds with core members of the alliance, but they did not create a fissure that would weaken NATO’s deterrent posture toward its main external security threat. 

The situation today is different. With Russia mounting a renewed threat in Europe and beyond, there is an additional reason the institutions of liberal democracy are important to transatlantic security: illiberal and nondemocratic countries are more vulnerable to subversion. Authoritarianism enables corruption, and in Europe, corruption enables Russian access and influence. After Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine, the NATO members that were most affected by corruption, demagogic populism, and Russian media influence complicated the alliance’s efforts to forge a unified response. Every time European sanctions against Russia have come up for renewal, the United States and other core allies have had to scramble to prevent these countries from breaking with NATO and succumbing to pressure or temptation from the Kremlin.

Liberal institutions and practices are central to creating security and trust among Europe’s diverse societies.

The Soviet threat was primarily military, and political infiltration abroad was advanced through communist ideology and leftist political parties. Russian influence today, on the other hand, operates through shadowy financial flows, corrupt relationships, bribes, kickbacks, and blackmail. To the extent that Russia promotes an ideology, it is the same combination of intolerant nationalism, xenophobia, and illiberalism that is on the rise in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and elsewhere in Europe. Even as Orban and Erdogan have been berated by their allies, they have found Russian President Vladimir Putin to be a source of understanding and support. Unlike during the Cold War, NATO’s illiberal weak links now align with the Kremlin’s tactics. They are the alliance’s Achilles’ heel. One hopes that these countries can still withstand any pressures to break consensus in the event of a Russian strike on a NATO member. But confidence that these allies have not been compromised would be a lot better than anxious hope.

Much has been written about how NATO needs to enhance its military capabilities to counter Russia. That is true, but even more important, the alliance needs to restore its liberal democratic foundations to reduce its vulnerability to Moscow’s subversion through corruption, information warfare, and blackmail. 


In 2002, I suggested mechanisms for putting backsliders on notice, suspending their rights, and potentially expelling them from the alliance. My proposal centered on modifying NATO’s consensus rule, which holds that the alliance’s major decisions require the consent of all members. I believed that a “consensus minus one” mechanism—which would allow other allies to discipline an errant member—would enable NATO to protect itself from weak links and erect a higher barrier against backsliding. I also proposed providing a process for an offending state to reverse course and regain its full stature.  

But these ideas were predicated on the assumption that the alliance would be dealing with only the occasional outlier. With multiple alliance members, new and old, already backsliding or at risk of doing so, that window of opportunity has passed. If the cohort of backsliders grows, NATO may find itself with a bloc within the alliance bent on protecting illiberal democracy.

Given the proliferation of problem members, NATO should consider adopting a form of the EU’s “qualified majority” rule for internal governance. Instead of requiring consensus or consensus minus one (which coalitions of backsliders are likely to subvert), NATO should make it possible for a defined supermajority of members to suspend the voting or decision rights of backsliders. Under the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, most EU decisions require the support of a double majority—55 percent of the member states representing 65 percent of the population of the union. Under this procedure, the EU can initiate a process that revokes the voting rights and organizational privileges of members found to be advancing systematic threats to the rule of law. Indeed, the EU is looking at precisely these procedures to restrict funding and other benefits to Hungary and Poland.

NATO should also make one of its senior officials responsible for monitoring and reporting on the liberal democratic credentials of not only new or aspiring members but also all allies. The assistant secretary-general for political affairs and security policy might be able to take on this role. (To date, this position has primarily focused on external relations and traditional security issues, such as arms control.) Given the centrality of the alliance’s commitment to the liberal democratic institutions and practices of its members, NATO’s institutional leadership should be more involved in holding members accountable to the alliance’s standards.

Finally, NATO should work more closely with the EU. The two organizations share a common focus on good governance, the rule of law, and the rights of citizens and could reinforce each other’s internal strengths. Deepening this relationship by creating official channels of exchange would bolster NATO’s capacity to monitor whether allies were meeting its standards for good governance (the EU already has metrics for evaluating this). And an explicit and systematic process for sharing information would make it harder for members to use their status in one organization to avoid being held to account in the other for any misbehavior or backsliding. For example, Poland often cites its good standing in NATO, where it is a strong military ally that assumes a tough stance on Russia, to excuse its growing illiberalism. 

But procedural fixes to inoculate the alliance against weak links are not enough. NATO might be able to deal with, say, a repressive Turkey by pushing it to the sidelines of core missions and decisions. NATO rules do not formally provide for such an approach, but the organization is good at finding procedural workarounds, and it is at least possible that the Turkish leadership would not object. It would be quite another matter if a core NATO member departed from the alliance’s liberal democratic foundations. How could NATO sideline or work around France, or Germany, or the United States?

The best defense lies within the member states themselves. NATO can structure disincentives and punishments for backsliders, but only citizens can hold elected leaders accountable. Most important, the United States must rise to meet the challenge. The decline of liberalism among core NATO allies is concerning: Germany represents the transatlantic phoenix rising from fascism’s ashes; France is the symbol of resistance through occupation; the United Kingdom was where Europe kept hope alive in World War II. But it was the United States that saved the twentieth century from dictatorship and helped Europe achieve prosperity, security, and stability. NATO might survive European publics toying with fascism (although it should limit the experiments). It cannot survive if U.S. liberal democracy fails.

Americans must face the fact that the biggest threat to NATO today may be the United States itself. Regardless of political party and policy preferences, all Americans have a patriotic interest in protecting the laws, practices, and institutions of U.S. liberal democracy. This is not merely a matter of domestic politics; it is also a matter of national security. Threats to democracy at home have already undermined Washington’s ability to work with allies in a dangerous, uncertain, and threatening world. As the most powerful member of NATO, the United States must take the lead through a bipartisan defense of liberal institutions and values.

Today, fundamental threats to NATO come from its own members. These challenges cannot be resolved in NATO’s shiny new headquarters in Brussels through procedural modifications or by pointing fingers at the worst offenders. They must be defeated at home.

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  • CELESTE A. WALLANDER is President and CEO of the U.S. Russia Foundation and Senior Adviser at WestExec Advisors. From 2013 to 2017, she served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council.
  • More By Celeste A. Wallander