The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is facing an internal problem that could permanently weaken the Alliance. In recent years, we have seen the rise of a nationalist-populist wave in Europe and the United States: Viktor Orbán of Hungary, the Kaczynski in Poland, and President Donald Trump in America. This rise in illiberal world leaders has led to significant democratic backsliding in NATO countries, which pose a grave threat to NATO’s strength in the face of an aggressive and revisionist Russia.
How is Democratic Backsliding Affecting the Alliance?
Democratic governance and strong institutions are as much a cornerstone of the Alliance as is collective defense. Article II of the North Atlantic Treaty (also known as the Washington Treaty) stresses the importance of “states’ promises to strengthen free institutions within their borders,” underscoring the vital democratic aspects of the alliance. Within NATO today, however, some states are shifting away from the core tenets of Article II and are actively conspiring to undermine the same institutional channels that brought them to power. These regressions of democracy create vulnerabilities that can be exploited by NATO adversaries, namely the Kremlin.
In Hungary, Orbán’s increasingly authoritarian Fidesz government has taken an increasingly pro-Russia stance, doling out energy contracts to the country’s oligarchs and calling for Hungary to model itself a similarly to Russia’s illiberal state. In Turkey, the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has resulted in members of the military being sacked and indiscriminate jailing of journalists and academics, while leaving no real opposition to his rule. This in turn has led to closer ties between Ankara and Moscow, especially in matters of defense and the ongoing Syrian civil war. Poland continues to see Russia as both an adversary and a threat; however, Poland’s judiciary reform has effectively turned the high court into a PiS puppet while media repression has simultaneously turned Poland into both a victim and purveyor of disinformation campaigns, further isolating it from its allies and European partners. Democratic backsliding and increased illiberal leaders in NATO countries have opened the door for Russia to engage in an influence campaign, and to pull those countries away from the Liberal Western Order the Alliance is founded on.
Democratic backsliding weakens NATO internally by making cohesion, trust, and operations more difficult. Democracies tend to foster cooperation and trust; autocracies are always looking to blame “the other.” Within NATO, we are seeing bigger wedges being driven into member states, as illiberal regimes criticize their democratic allies, and democracies sanction authoritarian actions. Germany and the EU have become targets of the right-wing populist Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS/Law and Justice) government in Poland. The current government has sought to expunge any guilt the “Polish Nation” incurred during the Second World War by engaging in an aggressive revisionist campaign aimed at denying Poland’s participation in Nazi death camps.
Furthermore, Poland’s attempt to sack its Constitutional Court and replace 27 justices with PiS loyalists has alienated it from France, Germany, and the European Commission, which opened an Article 7 investigation last year into Poland’s actions and is currently threatening to take legal action against it. Likewise, Hungary has taken an antagonistic stance with EU members and their efforts to promote rule of law. Budapest has been in an entrenched battle against the EU, in what Orbán has called “liberal forces acting against Central and Eastern European countries,” while actively opposing and restraining EU laws on immigration, entertaining anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and curtailing individual freedoms within Hungary’s borders. The right-wing populism of both Poland and Hungary, with their villainization of minorities, suppression of dissent, crackdown on civil society, and erosion of democratic norms and institutions, puts them at odds with their NATO allies and EU partners, fostering uncertainty and deep mistrust among them.
Poland and Hungary are not the only NATO members breaking down trust. Traditional allies have taken an unprecedented stance on NATO, one which brings its members uncertainty and lack of trust. President Donald Trump has been a vociferous critic of the Alliance, admonishing members for failing to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense while frequently highlighting the “lion’s share” the United States contributes. Trump has gone to the extent of questioning the alliance itself, asking, “What good is NATO…?” in a tweet. Apart from voicing criticism against NATO, Trump has repeatedly insulted NATO members and their leaders, while directing attention to closer relations with Russia, even though there have not been any significant changes in the Kremlin’s commitment to democracy, rule of law, or its meddling in internal processes of other nations. Russia continues to be a U.S. and NATO adversary. These stances from the current U.S. administration encourage anti-EU and anti-NATO rhetoric from other leaders, while at the same time erodes trust among its members and ultimately plays into the Kremlin’s intentions to destabilize the West and undermine the Alliance.
What Can Be Done About This Problem?
First and foremost, NATO needs to re-emphasize the importance of democracy, free and independent institutions, and rule of law to its members’ security. Research has demonstrated that democracies tend to be more peaceful and stable than autocracies, with the latter being prone to internal conflicts, terrorism, and insecurity. As Russia engages in aggressive international disinformation campaigns, NATO should reinforce the role the independent media plays in countering false information and providing factual reporting of both national and international events. Building resilience along Russia’s periphery requires a continuity of military personnel in countries like Poland and the Baltics and a concerted effort to maintain trust among allies. The accountability that democracies provide through free institutions and rule of law strengthens such efforts.
Second, NATO needs to keep its members accountable to the core tenets of the Alliance, and act accordingly when these tenets are breached. To this end, the Atlantic Council (AC/Council) should take a two-pronged approach to the issue. In the short term, it should appoint a special ombudsman tasked with evaluating and raising concerns over NATO members’ democratic governance practices or over alleged breaches of the Washington Treaty. Thinking ahead, the AC needs to create a new committee dedicated to addressing issues of governance and potential threats to the core principles established in the Washington Treaty. This is key, since NATO currently does not possess a mechanism to suspend, expel, or sanction any of its members for violating its binding tenets. This committee would thus be tasked with revising the governance aspects of the admissions process to the alliance, and making recommendations to the Chair of Political Affairs and Security Policy on any faltering member.
Lastly, it is vital that the rest of NATO’s members continue to voice the core principles of democracy. Members such as Germany and France need to counter the illiberal voices within the Alliance by doubling down on their support of liberal institutions and rule of law, as well as publicly “naming and shaming” those who oppose those values in order to create international pressure. Silence from the democratic camp will only allow its illiberal adversaries to drive the conversation and further erode the strength of the Alliance. Democratic leaders need to present a united front against those voices who wish to get away with delegitimizing their democracies for the sole purpose of gaining power.
Nationalist-populist ideologies and the erosion of democratic institutions are inherently opposed to the international liberal order under which the North Atlantic Treaty was conceived. Their emphasis on an identity in which there is “us” and “the other” fosters an environment where differences are highlighted between countries and nationalities. The growth of authoritarian tendencies puts civilian control of the military at peril and greatly reduces governments’ accountability to their people, while alienating democratic partners. “In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and throughout the Cold War, the NATO alliance saw its share of illiberal and autocratic members. However, a hegemonic America was effective in wielding its influence and acting as a guarantor of the Alliance’s main tenets. This is not the case today given America’s retreat from the world stage; authoritarians are more emboldened to flout and subvert the alliance’s established norms. In a multicultural, multiethnic, and multilinguistic NATO, the only common ground the allies have is their liberal democratic commitment. If taken away, the Alliance will fracture under the weight of its own disunity.”
* * *
David Deulofeu Antúnez is a first-year M.A. candidate in Security Policy Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, with a focus in institutional design and political violence in post-communist countries. He has participated in numerous international Model United Nations conferences, where his positions and performance have gained him international awards. He received his B.A. in political science from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he had the opportunity to step outside political science and use his associates in biochemistry to conduct research on antibiotic resistance of nosocomial bacteria for the Small Worlds Initiative.