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NATO: A Liberal Alliance in an Increasingly Illiberal World?

NATO: A Liberal Alliance in an Increasingly Illiberal World?
A meeting between Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump took place on the sidelines of the G20 summit, 7 July 2017.

By Alexandra Gheciu

Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

In recent weeks, we have witnessed a number of developments designed to signal NATO’s persistent — arguably reinvigorated — role as the key security institution of the transatlantic community of liberal democracies. For instance, on 29 June NATO Defence Ministers met to discuss steps to ensure a fairer burden-sharing among the allies as well as ways to enhance the alliance’s co-operation with the EU.

At the same meeting, NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, also announced a significant increase in defence spending by the European allies and Canada. According to Stoltenberg,  this “means that we are moving in the right direction.” It is also noteworthy that, in contrast to his previous criticisms of NATO, President Trump has finally joined senior members of his administration in confirming the US commitment to Article 5 (concerning collective defence) of the NATO Treaty.

On the surface, then, it would seem that after a period of uncertainty following President Trump’s inauguration, NATO is now navigating calmer waters. Yet, the situation is far from being clear. While the above-mentioned developments — and other affirmations of solidarity on both sides of the Atlantic — are important, they do not erase a series of significant challenges to NATO. A full discussion of those challenges is beyond the scope of this piece. But what is particularly interesting is that many of them are directly linked to the rise of illiberal ideas in several allied states.

To understand that, it is important to keep in mind that NATO is designed to work by consensus. Thus, the Alliance can only function effectively if the allies have a shared understanding of the nature of the security environment in which they are operating. More specifically, in order for NATO to implement the famous collective defence principle, its member states must agree on two crucial points: 1) that an armed attack against one member state has occurred; and 2) who is behind that attack. Yet, domestic politics in several member states might make it difficult to reach agreement on those points.

At present, many voices in NATO identify Russia as a key threat, and would like to see the Alliance do more to address that threat. But this is not going to be easy when several member states seem keen on maintaining good relations with Moscow. The most obvious case is the US. Consider President Trump’s ambivalent (at best) commitment to core principles of the post-1945 international liberal order, his criticisms of the European allies, and his unclear relationship with — and reluctance to criticize — President Putin. In the absence of a significant shift in the American administration’s approach to foreign policy in general and Russia in particular, the extent of Washington’s commitment to the protection of its allies will remain ambiguous. This no matter how many statements of support senior US policy-makers might issue.

To further complicate matters, the US is not the only allied state whose commitment to the values and principles of the transatlantic security community appears to be weakening. Take, for instance, Turkey as well as some of the former communist states — most notably though not exclusively Hungary. These countries increasingly display authoritarian tendencies and have adopted foreign policy stances inconsistent with the prevailing views in NATO. For instance, Turkey has recently increased co-operation with Russia in the area of military operations in Syria. For his part, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has criticised the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the West, urging the American administration to get closer to Moscow.

All these developments suggest that it will be difficult for NATO to maintain a united stance on Russia. This at a time when (re)defining relations with Moscow is increasingly important. The situation is further complicated by the allies facing a security environment in which non-conventional threats/risks are increasingly important, and in which the sources of those threats can be difficult to establish. True, in recent years NATO has taken steps to enhance its ability to protect member-states from different types of non-conventional threats. But implementing those steps in a real crisis could easily test allied solidarity. For instance, should a cyber-attack be launched against, say, one of the Baltic states, and should that state blame Moscow, it is not even clear that the allies would be able to agree on the origins and gravity of the attack, much less on how to respond to it.

In this already complex environment, one more issue must be considered: the evolving relationship between the EU and NATO. In principle, everyone agrees that co-operation between the two organizations needs to be enhanced. But some differences are emerging between key Western European states and Central/Eastern European countries’ interpretations of that co-operation.

Under the leadership of France and Germany, it was decided, at the European Council meeting of 22–23 June, to strengthen EU co-operation on external security and defence. This includes the launch of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Yet, in the former Eastern bloc there are concerns that PESCO — and more broadly a quest for European strategic autonomy — could potentially undermine NATO. For many in Central/Eastern Europe, the priority is to avoid EU initiatives that might weaken the Alliance and dilute US engagement in Europe. In this context, seeking agreement on exactly how the EU and NATO should co-operate could translate into a divide reminiscent of the split between “new” and “old” Europe during the Iraq war.

None of this is to suggest that NATO is doomed. After all, America’s political elites and military establishment still firmly support the Alliance. Canada is also strongly behind NATO, and in Europe there is no sign that even those leaders who are deeply critical of President Trump are prepared to envisage an alternative to the transatlantic Alliance. But maintaining solidarity among the allies and upholding the values around which NATO defines itself is likely to become more challenging in the coming years.

This article is part of a six-blog series that follows from a workshop on International Relations in a Post-Liberal Era. The workshop was hosted by CIPS and marks the start of the Copenhagen–Ottawa Research Exchange (CORE). For other blogs in this series, click here:

After Abdication by Peter Marcus Kristensen

Liberal Interventionism: The Crisis Within by Katja Lindskov Jacobsen

Trump’s Genius by Michael C. Williams

In Africa, “America First” means “Development Last” by Rita Abrahamsen

CETA after Opinion 2/15: Legal Clarity or Confusion? by Jens Ladefoged Mortensen

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