A ‘community of values’? NATO in an illiberal, post-pandemic world

Alexandra Gheciu and Michael Williams





In  June 2020, the Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Jens Stoltenberg,   initiated a comprehensive forward-looking reflection process aimed at identifying ways of adapting the Alliance to a highly competitive world, in which illiberal powers are increasingly assertive. To remain strong, Stoltenberg argued, “we must stand up for our values of democracy, freedom and rule of law that define us as nations and as an alliance” (Stoltenberg 2020). This commitment has become seen as even more important in the pandemic context, when, according to NATO’s Deputy Secretary General, “a new red line” has been reached (Geoana 2020). The pandemic “has amplified pre-existing security challenges,” especially “the Russian military and hybrid activities”, which could pose an existential threat to the liberal democratic world and to the international order.  If “there is, today, a challenge for all the democratic nations …is the ascent of less democratic, totalitarian narratives”(Ibid.).      Yet, maintaining allied unity around liberal-democratic norms and values has become—and will continue to be—particularly challenging.  A key problem is the unprecedented rise of illiberal ideas and political forces not just on the world stage, but also within several allied states—including Central European states (most notably Poland and Hungary), Turkey and the US.  In the pandemic context, those forces have further strengthened their grip on power and have adopted policies likely to have lasting domestic and international consequences.  These developments mark more than shifts in electoral politics.  The rise of illiberal movements has already transformed the political landscape in the NATO area, generating unprecedented tensions among allied states and complicating Alliance efforts to respond to some of the most pressing security challenges. Above all, they represent a momentous disruption of often taken for granted norms and institutions in the Euro-Atlantic area and a potential threat to liberal multilateralism.

Despite their potentially radical implications for the future of liberal-democracy and of multilateralism, there is much that we do not know about the dynamics and implications of the rise of illiberal forces in the Euro-Atlantic space — particularly in the area of security. This project seeks to advance knowledge and contribute to informed policy engagement on these crucial issues.  To do so, it pursues several inter-connected research avenues. First, it examines the intellectual foundations and key manifestations of contemporary illiberal movements in several allied states—particularly, Turkey, Hungary and Poland—and  explains how those are connected to a broader Global Right movement. Second, it analyzes the views and policies of these illiberal forces on international security, and on NATO in particular, exploring how they challenge  key liberal norms and complicate allied efforts to adopt cohesive positions across a range of high-priority issues, including the multi-faceted challenges posed by Russia.  Finally, the project examines the ways in which NATO is responding to threats to its cohesion posed by the rise of illiberal movements, and analyzes the likely effectiveness of those responses and their impact on the international liberal order. Connecting theoretical development with empirical analysis, this project will advance academic knowledge about challenges to liberal multilateralism and the evolution of the security landscape in the Euro-Atlantic area. It will also inform policy debates about the future of NATO, which is of vital importance to Canada.