For NATO to ensure its continued strength and relevance for years to come, it must get to the heart of the issues plaguing its own internal cohesion.
By Rachel Rizzo
On 4 December 2019, NATO leaders gathered in London to discuss pressing security issues and to mark the 70th anniversary of the Alliance’s founding. Analysts on both sides of the Atlantic were rightfully worried about what would transpire over the day-and-a-half of meetings, given the number of irritants that could have derailed the entire event. Luckily, it went off with only a little bit of drama — for the most part, allied leaders gathered for the traditional family photo, stressed the importance of collective defence, and talked about issues such as hybrid threats, military readiness, and defence spending. This was largely to be expected: over the last few years NATO countries have tried to put on a united front when necessary.
While this is all well and good, there is no hiding the fact that today NATO is grappling with major strategic challenges. Unfortunately, these challenges aren’t posed only by outside actors like Russia, or trying to answer big-picture questions like NATO’s role in new and emerging security domains. Instead, some of NATO’s most pressing challenges are fundamental, and they are emanating from within.
The first and perhaps most dangerous internal challenge today is democratic backsliding amongst some of its own members, namely Turkey and Hungary. Since a failed coup attempt in July of 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cracked down on freedoms within the country and begun a slide toward authoritarianism. Today, Turkey leads the world in numbers of jailed journalists, its courts work in tandem with Erdogan’s regime, elections are neither free nor fair, and its “democratic institutions” have no real impact. [i] Moreover, Turkey recently purchased a Russian-made S-400 missile defence system, and in October launched an invasion into Kurdish-held northern Syria. Both moves have resulted in strong condemnation from fellow NATO allies.
In Central Europe, Hungary is following a similar concerning path. Prime Minister Victor Orbán proudly refers to himself as an “illiberal democrat,” and says he has a mandate from the people to defend some of his latest illiberal actions. [ii] In 2017 Hungary adopted a law that requires foreign-funded NGOs to register as foreign agents. The law also “threatens human rights activists, limits academic freedom, and strengthens political control of the judiciary.” [iii] According to The New York Times correspondent Patrick Kingsley, “Mr. Orbán’s allies control the Constitutional Court, while loyalists control which prosecutions make it to court in the first place.” [iv] Orbán also has complete loyalty from state-run media outlets, even as pressure tactics have kept independent ventures in line. Meanwhile, he “whip(s) up perceived threats from migrants, refugees and others from abroad, and, like other eurosceptics, cast(s) the European Union as a bogeyman.” [v]
The trends in Hungary and Turkey are deeply concerning, and for now, neither leader shows any sign of reversing course.
The second internal challenge to NATO is continued unpredictability of some of its strongest members, principally the United States. At the beginning of Donald Trump’s term, he called the alliance “obsolete” and made it clear that he felt the US was getting a bad deal from its NATO membership. Every ally is supposed to spend 2% of its GDP on defence, and to this day Trump harps on most NATO allies for falling short, referring to them as being “delinquent.” Trump is not the first president to push Europeans to spend more on their own defence. He is, however, the first US president to question US commitment to Article V. Article V, which states that “an attack against one ally shall be considered an attack against all allies,” is the beating heart of NATO’s spirit of collective defence. Suggesting that the US may not come to the aid of another NATO member weakens the very foundation of the organisation, and only encourages outside actors to test that theory. Luckily, in late November NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced defence spending increases by European members and Canada in 2019, adding that “based on the latest estimates, the accumulated increase in defence spending by the end of 2024 will be $400 billion.” [vi] This has put Trump somewhat at ease, and he has reveled in the opportunity to take credit for these spending increases.
But Trump isn’t the only state leader causing headaches for NATO. In early November, French President Emmanuel Macron gave an explosive interview to The Economist which sent the transatlantic community into a tailspin. [vii] In the interview, Macron lamented the “brain death of NATO,” questioned the validity of the collective defence provision, and called for a reassessment of NATO in light of American threats. The answer to these questions, Macron posited, is more pan-European unity. Reactions from leaders on both sides of the Atlantic were swift and critical. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Macron used “drastic” words, and went on to describe NATO as indispensable; [viii] US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the opportunity to press Europe on the need to increase its defense spending; and Jens Stoltenberg noted that [ix] “any attempt to distance Europe from North America will not only weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance, it is also risking dividing Europe itself.” [x] But Macron has stood by his comments, saying NATO needs a “wake-up” call as well as a re-evaluation of its purpose and ultimate goals.
What’s next for NATO?
Unfortunately, NATO does not have the luxury to pick and choose: even amid an internal identity crisis, it must still be agile enough to develop capabilities to deter and defend its members from outside actors, ensure military readiness amongst the allies, and tackle new domains like space, 5G, and artificial intelligence. To do all these things effectively is no small feat.
So what should NATO do? This is no easy question, but one thing is for certain: for the Alliance to ensure its continued strength and relevance for years to come, it must get to the heart of the issues plaguing its own internal cohesion.
NATO leaders must first talk about how (or if) to deal with members leaning toward authoritarianism. This is not the first time NATO has faced this problem, but the sheer magnitude of today’s challenges means that it is more important than ever for NATO to stay united. The question becomes: is this purely a military alliance? Or should it be an alliance of shared values? If the answer is the latter, then it is time for NATO to have some difficult conversations. Values, after all, are the foundation upon which the alliance stands. If shared values start to diverge, then foundational tenants like collective defence and cooperative security may begin to crumble. As of today, there are no NATO-wide mechanisms for punishing a member who may take undemocratic steps; NATO is a consensus organisation, so all members must agree upon any alliance-wide decisions.
In a paper published by the Brookings Institution, Jonathan Katz and Torrey Taussig suggest a new governance committee, established under the chairmanship of NATO’s assistant secretary general for political affairs and security policy, to address the violation of the principles of the Washington Treaty, NATO’s founding document. [xi] This would be an important step, and one that NATO leaders should get behind. It is also crucial for joint documents from high-level meetings and summits to stress the importance of freedom, democratic values, and liberalism amongst all members.
NATO also needs to desperately shift the conversation away from defence spending. Yes, it is vital that European countries do more to step up to the plate and meet their spending targets, but recent numbers show that Europe is making good strides. Over the last few years, this topic has hijacked every defence and foreign ministerial, and every summit that NATO has had. Discussions about European defence spending even take centre stage at events and expert roundtables in places like Washington, Berlin, and Brussels. At this point, it is impeding the ability of allies to hold more substantive discussions; it is shifting the focus from actual capabilities to arbitrary numbers; and it is feeding into Trump’s criticisms. Defence spending has proven to be a contentious topic. Going forward, NATO leaders should instead focus on capabilities: what are NATO countries bringing to the table? Are they willing to use those capabilities if necessary? And, how can members who may spend less on defence add value in other areas like cyber or fighting disinformation? Hopefully, shifting the topic to more substantive issues could ease the concerns of some NATO leaders.
Indeed, NATO is the most successful military alliance in history. But to stay that way, leaders must be comfortable having deep conversations about the Alliance’s future. These conversations will be difficult, and they will likely be contentious, but they are necessary for NATO to stay strong, united, and relevant in the years to come.
[i] “Turkey leads the world in jailed journalists”, The Economist, January 16, 2019.
[ii] Carisa Nietsche, “How Hungary’s Orban puts Democratic Tools to Authoritarian Use”, World Politics Review, June 10, 2019.
[iii] Pitor Buras, “Poland, Hungary, and the Slipping Façade of Democracy”, European Council on Foreign Relations, July 11, 2018.
[iv] Patrick Kingsley, “On the Surface, Hungary is a Democracy. But What Lies Beneath?” The New York Times, December 25, 2018.
[v] See note 2.
[vi] “NATO Secretary General Announces Increased Spending by Allies”, NATO, November 22, 2019.
[vii] “Emmanuel Macron in his Own Words”, The Economist, November 7, 2019.
[viii] “Germany’s Merkel, Maas defend NATO after Macron’s rebuke”, Deutsche Welle, November 10, 2019,
[ix] David M. Herszenhorn, Jacopo Barigazzi, Rym Momtaz, “Emmanuel Macron’s Transatlantic Turbulence”, Politico Europe, November 13, 2019.
[x] FP Editors, “Stoltenberg to Macron: NATO’s Not Dead Yet”, Foreign Policy, November 7, 2019.
[xi] Jonathan Katz and Torrey Taussig, “An Inconvenient Truth: Addressing Democratic Backsliding Within NATO”, Brookings, July 10, 2018.