An inconvenient truth: Addressing democratic backsliding within NATO

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg gestures as he gives a news conference ahead of a summit that will gather leaders of the 29 alliance members in Brussels, Belgium, July 10 2018. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause - RC14D4F06960

The overriding concern of this week’s NATO Summit will be cohesion, with the security alliance facing crises of disunity on multiple fronts. In the West, President Donald Trump repeatedly calls into question NATO’s strategic value and berates America’s closest allies. Already, he has sent hostile letters to the leaders of several NATO member-states demanding they do more to pay their own way. In the East, an aggressive Russia has used conventional and nonconventional weapons to invade sovereign states and undermine European and American security. In continental Europe, migrant and refugee flows not seen since World War II are roiling internal politics within frontline and destination states.

There is also significant democratic backsliding among NATO member states. The cast of illiberal characters—who are leading the charge in the wrong direction—includes the recently reelected and empowered Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) Party in Poland, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the ruling Fidesz Party. Each has proven more than willing to repress free media, dismantle checks and balances, demonize political opposition, clamp down on civil society, and diminish the rule of law. America’s democratic system and norms under President Trump are also under duress; as a result, Freedom House downgraded the country’s score on the basis of weakening political rights and civil liberties.

Despite these alarming developments, NATO leaders have relegated democratic backsliding to the backburner. Opponents of making the case for democracy within NATO might argue that pushing Ankara, Warsaw, and Budapest too hard on their commitments to good governance will exacerbate already tense divisions in the alliance. Others might say that Russia would be the prime beneficiary of a contentious democracy discussion at NATO. Yet this is a counterproductive approach with current and potential costs to NATO’s future. Here are three security-based reasons why the United States and NATO should care about democratic backsliding, and actions the alliance can take to address them.

1Russia is already benefiting from and effectively leveraging its relationships with Hungary and Turkey to exacerbate discord within Europe and NATO. Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin see one another as allies in their disdain for the European Union and Orbán has courted Russian financial and political support as he builds an illiberal democracy in Hungary. Russian propaganda also finds fertile ground in Hungarian media. A 2018 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report noted that Russian state-owned media content “by Sputnik and RT is widely referenced by pro-government news sources in Hungary.” The report cited Orbán as the EU and NATO’s most supportive leader of Putin’s worldview and leadership. Acting as the Russian “camel’s nose under the tent,” Orbán is thwarting Ukraine and NATO’s partnership efforts by blocking the Ukraine-NATO Commission from meeting at the upcoming summit.

In Turkey, Erdoğan has rattled the NATO alliance by pursuing a deal to purchase the S-400 missile system from Russia. In addition to hurting NATO’s ability to cooperate on security, the system is also not compatible with NATO’s defenses. Through arms and energy deals, Putin uses Turkey as a wedge to divide NATO. Similarly, Erdoğan might see his deals with Putin as a way to free Turkey from Western leverage, particularly as European states push back on his brand of authoritarian politics by cutting EU pre-accession funds. After winning the recent twin parliamentary and presidential elections, an emboldened Erdoğan will likely become an even more problematic partner for NATO.

President Putin is building ties with illiberal leaders across Europe while attacking fundamental elements of Western democracies.

Other illiberal and populist governments, including Italy’s new anti-establishment government, could follow suit in enhancing their partnerships with Russia, creating future intelligence-sharing and cohesion problems for the alliance. President Putin is building ties with illiberal leaders across Europe while attacking fundamental elements of Western democracies, including electoral process and open information spaces.

2There is a strong link between democratic governance and security gains. Liberal democracies have historically been less likely to experience intra- and interstate conflict, generate refugees, and harbor violent extremists. They are also better at maintaining transparent institutions, civilian control of the military and intelligence services, and working together on confidence-building measures, all of which are core features of NATO’s ability to collectively defend its members. On the other hand, corruption and insecurity grow under politicized institutions and poor rule of law. This hurts NATO’s renewed efforts to combat terrorism, as military and security communities have long acknowledged the connection between corruption and the existence of criminal networks, traffickers, and terrorists within state borders.

Corruption also opens space for Russian kleptocratic networks close to Putin to operate and gain influence. For example, in 2014 Orbán awarded Rosatom, a Russian state-owned nuclear company, the sole contract to build two nuclear plants in Hungary in exchange for a 10 billion euro loan from Moscow. The Hungarian parliament, dominated by Orbán’s Fidesz Party, then passed a rushed vote to keep data from the nuclear deal confidential for 30 years in the name of “national security.” The deal diminished transparent economic competition within the European Union and solidified Hungary and Russia’s energy ties.

3Distrust among allies hurts alliance interoperability. The PiS Party’s assault on independent media and the Constitutional Court, including efforts last week to summarily force out 27 Polish Supreme Court justices, have isolated Poland from France and Germany, diminishing trust among the European nations. This could make it increasingly difficult for Washington to gain consensus on joint decisions, communications, and operations. If NATO is dedicated to building resiliency along Russia’s periphery by placing multi-national battalions in Poland, then it should not ignore the accountable institutions that would strengthen this joint effort.

Next Steps for the Alliance  

What can NATO do to counter democratic backsliding within its ranks? After a troubling G-7 meeting in Canada, the upcoming NATO summit in Brussels may be a hair twisting exercise in alliance management. Muted cohesion, however, is not enough to address the anti-democratic trends tearing apart the fabric of Europe and NATO. Strong actions and words are needed to counter this democratic crisis.

First, in fighting for the relevance of NATO’s Article V promise of collective defense, we should not forget about NATO’s other founding articles, including Article II: states’ promise to strengthen free institutions within their borders. We should also recall the central governance requirements that states needed to meet in order to join the alliance, including rules around civilian control of the military, legislative monitoring, and transparency of arms procurements—all democratic foundations that make the alliance stronger.

In practice, NATO needs a new mechanism to hold members accountable when there is democratic backsliding and when the principles of the Washington Treaty, NATO’s founding document, are violated. Celeste Wallender, President Obama’s special assistant to the president and senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council, argues persuasively for several measures here. As she and others have noted, NATO currently has no options to suspend, expel, or penalize a NATO member, for example Hungary, for violating a core tenet of the alliance’s democratic values. There is not even a proper venue at NATO—for example the North Atlantic Council (NAC), NATO’s main decisionmaking body—to raise matters that some consider a direct threat to the alliance’s core principles. The NAC already has over a dozen committees, but none deal directly with democratic backsliding and human rights violations in the alliance.

To fill the void, members at the NATO summit and after should consider forming a new governance committee that addresses these issues, established under the chairmanship of NATO’s assistant secretary general for political affairs and security policy. Another idea would be for the alliance to establish a new role of special ombudsperson to raise concerns of violations to the Washington treaty.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and NATO member states also have a key role to play. Stoltenberg should be as ardent at the Summit as he was at the May 28 NATO Parliamentary Assembly where he reiterated that “NATO is an alliance of 29 democracies… based on the rule of law, individual liberty and democracy.”

Beyond the NATO Summit, Stoltenberg must elevate NATO’s commitment to democracy and core values by using his authority as secretary general to propose democracy-related items for discussion in the NAC. Stoltenberg should also make certain that NATO launches a new strategic concept as it celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2019. The current NATO strategic concept, adopted in 2010, is out of date and does not reflect the state of NATO-Russia relations or address democratic backsliding in the alliance. A new strategy is essential to address new global security challenges, including Russian hybrid efforts to undermine democracy and threats from some NATO members themselves to the stability and security of the United States and Europe.

At minimum, member states should ensure that language from the 2016 Warsaw Communiqué on democratic institutions (NATO’s mission is to “ensure that the Alliance remains an unparalleled community of freedom, peace, security, and shared values, including individual liberty, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law”) is strengthened and goes further in this year’s communiqué. Anything less than a reaffirmation of these principles, coupled with a mechanism to enforce them, would look like NATO backtracking on its commitment to democracy, emboldening the likes of Orbán and Putin.

In developing the communiqué’s language, the United States and its NATO allies should use momentum from Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia Wess Mitchell’s recent remarks at the Heritage Foundation, where he reaffirmed that when it comes to NATO, “[w]e have to be clear that we stand for strong democracy as the foundation of our security and prosperity.” Based on this positioning, Washington would likely support NATO allies if they insist that democracy, human rights, and rule of law be a focus of the NATO summit and its communiqué.

Regardless of U.S. leadership or support, other NATO states such as the Nordic countries, Canada, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and other members must play a role in prioritizing NATO’s core values at the Brussels Summit and strengthening democratic institutions. In speaking to diplomats from several member states, it is clear that they recognize the growing democracy deficit in the alliance, and that the United States will likely not lead the charge on championing democratic institutions. In response, officials from such member states can use bilateral meetings and sideline conversations with the Hungarians, Poles, and Turks to raise concerns. Already the European Union is pressing Poland on its violation of EU democratic principles with the threat of sanctions and suspension of voting privileges. The security implications of their transgressions give NATO a role in maintaining this pressure, too.

On the Home Front   

The U.S. Congress has shown its mettle to play a greater foreign policy leadership role through sanctions legislation, hearings, democracy assistance, and blocking arms sales—at times in direct contradiction to Trump. Last year, Congress almost unanimously sought to calm the fears of European allies over Trump’s commitment to NATO by affirming U.S. congressional support for Article V. As Trump aims to cut funding for democracy assistance globally, Congress is ensuring that democracy assistance funding levels meets needs, including in Europe and Eurasia. In April, Senators James Lankford (R-Okla.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) introduced a bill to prevent the transfer of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft to Turkey, citing Turkey’s “reckless governance and disregard for the rule of law.” Congress also passed the Global Magnitsky Act, which authorized sanctions on Russia and other human rights violators.

Moving forward, Congress can continue to make progress on human rights by pressuring the administration to advance three causes. First, to urge the administration to widen and make additional sanctions designations under the Global Magnitsky authority. The administration should encourage allies to adopt their own Global Magnitsky Act targeting international human rights violators, using the NATO summit to rally European partners on this issue. Second, for the administration to use its power to issue visa restrictions on individuals involved in undermining democratic standards or sanction individuals who commit human rights abuses. Finally, to stand up for NATO values of good governance and democracy, and to support critical allies at this week’s summit and beyond. We are already seeing this: Just last week, a bipartisan group of senators emphasized the importance of NATO and democratic values.

Hold the Center Despite the Risks

Holding NATO’s democratic backsliders to account is not without risk or consequence, and the effort is even more complicated amid growing competition between the West and authoritarian states including Russia and China. The United States and NATO allies must carefully navigate internal NATO challenges and avoid pushing some members further from the alliance and closer to Russia. Calling for the defense of democracy could deepen fissures between democratic and illiberal states that are not going away anytime soon.

An even greater risk than Russian short-term exploitation, however, is a possibility that in 10 years’ time the NATO alliance becomes unrecognizable—a hybrid club of autocratic, illiberal, and liberal democratic states that, devoid of shared values, do not agree on security threats or areas for cooperation. In the long term, dictators tend to maintain their power and legitimacy through strongmen power plays at home and sometimes abroad. And almost always, they leave a legacy of destruction, chaos, human rights violations, social strife, and other grievances. They rarely contribute to international peace, stability, and prosperity, which are the central objectives of an effective security alliance.

The alliance should be a clear-eyed about this risk. Like a cancer, illiberal practices can metastasize if not addressed. Deepening autocracy among member states would be a death knell for NATO as an alliance that has provided protection for the Euro-Atlantic community over the last 69 years.

Concerns over democratic backsliding can be raised without grandstanding or high-minded appeals that overly chastise members. Appeals for democratic institutions and good governance should be investments in new security initiatives and efforts that address the challenges all member states face in the fields of cyber, terrorism, and hybrid warfare. All members should be continuously convinced that their security and economic prosperity lies most assuredly in the West. Making appeals for strong democratic institutions and investing in security-based initiatives do not have to be either-or efforts. Rather, NATO’s best hope of succeeding in a world of great power competition is as a security alliance of democracies with transparent institutions, strong rule of law, and leaders accountable to their citizens.