Is NATO’s Relationship with Democracy at Risk?


by David Bercuson

Frontline Defence
March 2, 2018

Disquieting events are beginning to shake the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from within, and no sign yet that NATO is preparing itself to deal with the rise of political autarchy in states such as Romania, Poland and Turkey and perhaps a few more, mostly from what used to be Warsaw Pact countries.

In the early days of NATO, there was little concern among the alliance leaders over which members were authoritarian, police states, or anti-democratic. With the Cold War at its full height in the 1950s and 1960s, all it took for membership was a commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, a half decent military, and an anti-communist government. So, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Greece under the colonels, and Turkey (enduring a military coup almost every year), were just fine as alliance members.

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of military government in Greece and Turkey, the rules changed. Member countries now had to be democracies (or aspiring democracies in some form), and for former Warsaw Pact countries, NATO membership practically became a precursor for joining the European Union. Thus, until a few years ago, a NATO country was considered to be a democracy in some form – and could be trusted on our side to receive military aid or assistance and even, in some cases, to share military secrets with.

In the last several years, driven partly by the refugee crisis in Europe – and the rise of far right leaders in several NATO countries – the old NATO is starting to resemble something of a squabbling yard full of chickens arguing over their bird seed.

The most serious example is Turkey, which clamped down very hard on virtually every civil institution after the failed coup attempt in the summer of 2016. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been increasingly authoritarian as to how he handles his political opposition, but in the two years after the coup collapsed, he has become the virtual dictator of Turkey. More recently, he has invaded Syria in a military campaign against Kurdish nationalists who were so instrumental in driving ISIS out of the region. These Kurds are, or were, aligned with the United States, which, needless to say, is not happy with Turkey’s military adventure.

In Poland, a government recently took power under symbols and using tropes of pre-Second World War Polish nationalism. They are unhappy at what they see as the United States’ reneging on an agreement to provide them with anti-missile protection, but they are also backing away from serious efforts initiated under the immediate post-Cold War regime to take responsibility for the roles many Poles took in the Holocaust of European Jewry in the Second World War. The bill recently passed by the Polish legislature, and signed by the president, makes it illegal to discuss “Polish death camps” – of which there were none (they were all German) – but also appears to make it a crime to discuss acts of Polish anti-Semitism during the war, of which there were more than enough.

The Government of Hungary has also showed several authoritarian signs recently as it took a sharp turn to the right after recent elections. In April 2017 the government passed a law to close the liberal-oriented Central European University, which was funded by Hungarian-born American philanthropist George Soros. At the time of the vote, Human Resources Minister Zoltan Balog allowed that the government was committed to stopping education carried out by “pseudo-civil society spy groups such as the ones funded by George Soros.”

The move to the right has even found fertile ground in eastern Germany, where the last election saw right-wing “Alternative for Germany” members elected to the Bundestag for the first time.

There are two paths open to NATO right now. First, it can ignore these disturbing tendencies and return to the days when the only qualification needed to join NATO was a willingness to fight Russia and its allies if a new major war broke out. Under these circumstances, it would be hard for a country like Canada to pretend there is anything noble about NATO.

The other is to begin to either suspend the NATO status of states that drift from democratic norms, such as Turkey or Poland, and give them time to renew themselves and re-join the fold, or throw them out. The problem with this solution is that it probably won’t work and, in the case of Turkey, keeping Russia as constricted as possible in its effort to find warm water ports would be permanently impaired.

The reality is that the world is not perfect and that NATO today is more constrained in what it can do in Europe than it was a decade ago. In the next year or so, these internal pressures on NATO will increase. At that time Canada, and the other NATO stalwarts who put the alliance together in the first place, will have to take a hard look at a possible alternative.

Dr. Bercuson is a Research Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI) and Director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

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  • Val Samonis
    commented 2018-03-05 14:25:57 -0500
    The only sure alternative to NATO in Europe is what the German Iron Chancellor Bismarck told us log ago: Ribbentrop-Molotov type of alliance. And we know what that means.

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