Arsenal of Democracy

When he dismisses NATO, Donald Trump is weakening not only the world's most successful military alliance, but also a powerful force for democracy.

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Since the start of his campaign, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly questioned the utility of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, arguably the world’s most important military alliance. NATO costs the United States a fortune, he says, and “the countries over there don’t seem to be so interested” in what it has to offer. Though Trump has fallen short of saying that he would pull out of the alliance entirely, this week, in an interview with the New York Times, he called into question one of its most fundamental principles: the Article 5 provision, which states that an attack on one member state is an attack on all. Trump said that as president, he would only render military assistance to a member state under attack after evaluating whether it had “fulfilled its obligations” to NATO. By which point, of course, the state in question could already be occupied by hostile forces.

Trump’s preoccupation with the dollars and cents of NATO belies his lack of understanding of the history and meaning of the alliance. Though NATO is primarily a defensive mechanism, it also holds great symbolic weight as a community “founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.” And while NATO’s continued utility in the post-Cold War era has been questioned, rising authoritarianism in Europe presents an opportunity for the alliance to reimagine and reassert itself as the great pro-democratic force the 21st century desperately needs. The United States needs a leader who recognizes NATO’s potential to create not only a safer, but a more democratic Euro-Atlantic community — not one who is willing to throw it away for short-term financial gain.

Donald Trump may take the alliance and everything it represents for granted, but its newer members have not forgotten their long path to accession. Nor have they forgotten the reasons they embarked on that path. After winning their independence from the Soviet bloc, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary pursued ten long years of political, economic, legal, and military reforms before they were admitted. And though military reforms tend to get the most attention, it is the political dimension of NATO membership that most embodies these countries’ endeavor to join the Western democratic world.

Each applicant country negotiates a Membership Action Plan, or MAP, with the alliance, which lays out the specific reforms it needs to complete. Before even discussing military modernization, each MAP has an initial chapter describing criteria on democratic governance, rule of law, human rights, market economics, and civilian control of the armed forces. “Democracy is a bedrock value of NATO,” said former NATO spokesperson Mark Laity. “NATO is there in defense of democratic values. Democratic values include many things, and one of them is a society that is just and fair to all, which produces stable governance.”

When they finally achieved accession in 1999, the new NATO members took pride in the fact that, after nearly 50 years of communist rule, their commitment to the principles of democracy had come to fruition. Their membership in NATO was an outright rejection of the Soviet-imposed antidemocratic values to which these countries had been subjected, and represented their return to Europe and to the West. And they were willing to die beside their new allies in defense of these freedoms. Polish troops fought alongside NATO allies in many conflicts since 1999 under the banner “For Your Freedom and Ours.”

The draw of NATO membership also extends beyond the alliance itself. When the central European countries joined, they showed their neighbors to the east and south that the reforms required of them were possible. This hastened and secured the democratization of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria. As these countries worked to implement their MAPs, they were fortunate to have Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary as mentors.

This trend continues today. It seems that countries that Trump likely cannot find on a map are more committed to the values of freedom, liberty, and rule of law than the candidate himself. Georgia’s aggressive lobbying for a MAP, formally requested by the United States and Poland at the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, famously inflamed tensions that later sparked a five-day war with Russia. Despite continued Russian aggression towards countries that exhibit Euro-Atlantic desires, Georgia remains committed to joining.

The message that Donald Trump sends when he questions the United States’ commitment to the alliance is therefore not one of a smart businessman; it is one of someone out of his depth, willing to put security, stability, and democracy in Europe on the line for personal gain at a critical moment.

It is true that NATO is not an absolute bulwark against authoritarian tendencies. Poland and Hungary have each experienced well-documented anti-democratic backsliding in recent years, and it’s unclear whether Turkey’s status as a member has done much to slow Erdogan’s takeover of the state. (It is also worth noting that Turkey was not a democracy when it joined the alliance in 1952.) But in his nickel-and-diming, Trump would miss the opportunity for reinvention and reinvigoration that has fallen into NATO’s lap. As the alliance enjoys a resurgence in importance in the face of aggression from Russia and the Islamic State, it is just beginning to examine the role it could play as a strong enforcer of democratic standards.

It is already serving as a useful platform. In early July, President Obama used the backdrop of the NATO Warsaw Summit, where Poland saw many of its long-standing requests for countering Russian aggression fulfilled, to rebuke the country’s right-wing Law and Justice party for its assault on the independence of the courts and media. The subtext: Clean up your act, or we won’t go to bat for you next time.

Last week, after supporting the democratically elected Turkish government in the face of an attempted coup, the United States reminded Turkey that its NATO membership carries democratic obligations. Secretary of State John Kerry said quite plainly that the country would come under intense scrutiny should any democratic backsliding occur. “NATO also has a requirement with respect to democracy,” he told the Turks.

Events like these are opening up a new role for NATO in keeping its members rooted in democracy at a time when increased NATO protection and cooperation is hotly sought-after. A truly visionary leader would recognize that the strength the alliance could be one of the most useful levers the United States has to quell the wave of authoritarianism emerging in Europe.

NATO contributes to the peace and stability of the West at large. It serves as a beacon to countries that are battling to democratize. And now, as established democracies face internal challenges, it can be there to uphold the standards that further its mission. If the next administration sows doubt about the United States’ commitment to NATO, the glimmers of authoritarianism we are beginning to observe in Europe could become the picture we see on the evening news every day.

Instead, the next president must remember what brought the NATO allies to the table in the first place. It wasn’t the dream of nuclear silos “rusted so badly that they don’t even know if the rockets are going to pour out,” as Trump so eloquently put it. It was a desire to come closer to the ideals on which the United States and other NATO members were founded, and a desire to bring neighboring states down the same democratic path in service of a Europe that is free, whole, and at peace. 

The views and information presented in this piece are the author’s and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

In the photo, a soldier of the Polish army takes part in NATO’s “Noble Jump” military exercises on June 18, 2015 in Zagan, Poland.

Photo credit: SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images

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