How to Deal with Authoritarianism Inside NATO


NATO allies are ostensibly bound by a shared belief in “democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.” But what happens when an ally shuns those principles and takes up the mantle of illiberalism or even authoritarianism? NATO has confronted such questions before — weathering a nationalist Portuguese regime, a Greek junta, and successive Turkish coups. Given the worrying trends in certain allied capitals today — namely Ankara, Budapest, and Warsaw, to varying degrees — NATO leaders would be prudent to consider what lessons can be learned from managing these difficult moments in the organization’s history. Here are three that stand out:

Lesson 1: Understand NATO’s Limits

The first thing to know when considering NATO’s role is that the alliance’s founding Washington Treaty has no provision for the expulsion of an ally. Allies can leave voluntarily, of course — and there may even be certain coercive steps that would encourage such a decision — but no nation can simply be kicked out of the club.

The treaty, likewise, has no provision for the suspension of an ally — a key difference between NATO and the European Union. In response to Warsaw’s recent pursuit of draconian judicial reforms in breach of expressed E.U. values, for example, the European Commission threatened Poland with the suspension of its E.U. voting rights. Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, the so-called nuclear option, allows the European Union to pursue punitive action against a member state when its foundational values are threatened. NATO has no analogous article with which to punish allies for failing to live up to the key conditions of membership. Thus, absent a far-fetched revision to the treaty itself, the alliance’s ability to address treaty violations will continue to be legally constrained.

As a consensus-based organization, NATO is also somewhat procedurally constrained. For the most part, decisions and statements require unanimous support from all 29 members. This does not mean that there are no options available to the alliance to push back against severe infringements of its core principles — just no particularly satisfying ones.

Understanding the limits of NATO’s ability to play a forceful role in reversing or halting a member’s slide into dictatorship is an important starting point for allied leaders as they consider their options. NATO should not be considered the venue of first resort. While the organization does have a political component to its mandate, it does not possess the necessary mix of carrots and sticks to compel wayward allies to change course (at least not without more robust national efforts).

Here, it is important to make a clear distinction between NATO the organization and individual NATO allies. Individual allies retain the flexibility to conduct their own foreign policy in response to democratic backsliding that may occur within other allied governments — to break bilateral ties, to censure, to sanction, to subvert. NATO qua NATO, under the stewardship of a Brussels-based secretary general, is much more constrained.

NATO, of course, should not turn a blind eye toward serious abuses of power amidst its ranks; it can and should apply pressure. The application of that pressure, however, must be mindful of the alliance’s enforcement limits and carefully navigate the inherent risks of tacking too far in the direction of either extreme confrontation or excessive accommodation.

Lesson 2: NATO Requires Unity; Unity Requires Compromise 

NATO’s chief contribution to the transatlantic community is its ability to effectively deter, defend, and fight. The credibility of the alliance as a force for deterrence depends, to a large extent, on its ability to maintain unity. Internal divisions among allies undermine NATO’s deterrent value; adversaries might come to view the alliance as fractured and weakened. Any attempts to leverage the alliance to deal with politically problematic allies must keep this reality in mind.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, NATO was facing both internal and external criticism of what many considered to be an overly accommodating approach toward authoritarian-leaning allies. A junta had seized power in Greece in April 1967. The Turkish military had twice forced its government from power in the coups of 1960 and 1971. And in Lisbon, the Estado Novo regime, which ruled when Portugal joined NATO as a founding member in 1949, was becoming increasingly controversial due to its colonial wars in Africa. While all NATO allies were unsettled by the presence of these governments inside an alliance founded on liberal values, they varied in terms of what they expected NATO to do about it.

A handful of smaller allies, outraged by the assault on NATO’s moral standards and frustrated by the ineffectiveness of their bilateral policies to change the political calculus in Lisbon and Athens, called upon the alliance to take a more prominent role in condemning the rogue regimes. Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands were particularly adamant that NATO respond to the deteriorating democratic norms with an explicit denunciation and other steps meant to isolate and punish. These steps included seeking the relocation of a planned 1971 ministerial out of Lisbon, pushing for independent investigations into allegations of human rights abuses, advocating against military cooperation and arms sales, creating new meeting formats, and calling for their expulsion from the alliance altogether. Some Dutch and Danish politicians even suggested that their own countries leave NATO rather than retain such close associations with Portugal and Greece.

The alliance’s larger powers — led by the United States, the United Kingdom, and West Germany, and aided by NATO Secretaries General Manlio Brosio and Joseph Luns — were mostly successful in thwarting the efforts of their smaller counterparts. It was the Cold War and, in their view, the alliance needed to prioritize cohesion and geopolitical interests in the face of various détente pursuits, a growing Soviet presence in the Mediterranean, and France’s withdrawal from the alliance’s integrated military structure in 1966. They worried that punitive measures taken against one allied dictatorial regime would mandate punitive measures against all allied dictatorial regimes. In other words, Greece, Portugal, and Turkey — seen as essential roadblocks to Soviet expansion and controlling geographic chokepoints in the Mediterranean (recall that Franco’s Spain was not yet in NATO) — were a package deal that raised the stakes for punishing undemocratic approaches inside the alliance.

There were also national interests to protect. Several of the larger allies had strong economic incentives to retain ties with these regimes, as well as military requirements for continued access to air and naval bases located within them. In the case of Portugal, there was also some concern that coming down too hard on the side of rapid decolonization could further destabilize the African continent and open the door for increased criticism of other allies’ controversial colonial practices.

The larger powers, therefore, oscillated between efforts to keep discussions of domestic political matters out of NATO completely or, in certain cases, offering explicit support to the regimes. Amid a debate within the Johnson administration over how to handle the Greek junta, then-National Security Advisor Walt Rostow argued:

The time has come to separate our NATO relationship from our disapproval of domestic Greek politics … [I]t doesn’t make sense to let our security relationships with Greece — her NATO role, common facilities, Sixth Fleet support — deteriorate further.

In short, the United States felt that differences between allies should be communicated bilaterally, not within NATO.

In the absence of a consensus approach, allies on both sides of the debate needed to set fairer expectations for NATO’s role and avoid ultimatums or overly hard lines that undermined alliance unity. Nations can be as principled or pragmatic as they wish in their national policies, but they must be prepared to bring some flexibility to discussions inside NATO for the sake of solidarity.

The June 1971 meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Lisbon stands out as an example of inflexibility leading to disunity. After unsuccessful attempts to move the location of the meeting and threats of a boycott, allies in the values-first camp geared up to openly confront their Portuguese and Greek counterparts (some at the insistence of their home parliaments). Despite appeals to reconsider by Washington and others, Norway’s foreign minister offered a strong rebuke of the Portuguese and Greek regimes, drawing fiery responses from their respective foreign ministers.

The episode also elicited a firm chiding from NATO Secretary General Brosio:

I hope that the discussion which took place tonight will show how useless, futile and, I think, dangerous for the alliance it is to allow this discussion to repeat itself. If we undermine our solidarity, we run the risk of undermining the substance of our alliance and in such a case it would be of little avail to try to save its image.

In the end, Norway’s principled, yet uncompromising, position had no effect on the behavior of either regime. It served only to isolate Norway and weaken the values-first coalition; shine a spotlight on NATO’s internal divisions; reinvigorate public debate over the alliance’s unpopular association with both regimes; and distract from the core work of the alliance. A slightly more nuanced, less acerbic speech could have precluded the dust up.

Those on the other side of the debate were likewise no model of compromise or restraint. The larger allies frequently took positions that exacerbated tensions and proposed steps they knew would be politically untenable for Northern European nations. In 1971, for example, the West German government proposed using NATO as the vehicle for joint military sales to nations that would otherwise be too controversial to sell arms to directly, namely Portugal, Greece, and Turkey. While rejected before gaining much momentum, such a plan would obviously have been a nonstarter for the smaller allies and could only be seen as inflammatory and unnecessarily provocative.

Another incident — this time involving the approval of a NATO report recommending immediate arms sales to Greece and Turkey — sparked an alliance-wide imbroglio that led to a flurry of competing demarches and unhelpful ally-shaming. The Greeks threatened to leave NATO if the report recommending the sales was not approved while the Danes and Norwegians drew a firm opposing line. Eventually, not wanting to “set off a bomb” within the alliance, Denmark and Norway agreed to a so-called footnote solution, which put their objections on the record but allowed the report to go forward.

Advocating that NATO weigh in so unequivocally in support of the Greek colonels not only crossed known Danish and Norwegian red lines, but also weakened the alliance’s credibility and legitimacy as a “white hat” organization standing up to the evils of communism. It also negatively impacted public support for NATO among allied constituencies. The issue of bilateral arms sales was one NATO should have stayed out of.

In considering how to use NATO in response to democratic backsliding, allied leaders must keep the need for unity in mind. They must consider the prospects for consensus — including an assessment of divergent national interests and domestic political imperatives — before doubling down on controversial policy proposals, and ask themselves whether a sufficient, if imperfect, compromise exists. A divided NATO creates its own problems.

Lesson 3: Beware the Consequences of an Overly Accommodating Approach

While NATO lacks a robust toolset for managing allied dictatorships and requires compromise given competing interests, there are risks to keeping NATO too far out of the fray or advocating that it take an overly accommodating approach.

As the Greek junta began to unwind, relying on increasingly desperate tactics to suppress opposition, NATO’s continued tolerance of the regime became a target of ire among the Greek population and contributed to a growing image problem for the alliance outside of Greece. The Northern Europeans, joined by Canada, were losing their patience inside the North Atlantic Council. Meanwhile, Greece and Turkey, both NATO members, were poised for war over Cyprus. Before things came to a head inside NATO, the 1974 Carnation Revolution swept the Estado Novo regime out of power in Lisbon and the colonels were run out of Athens. NATO survived as an organization, but not without some scars to show for it.

The newly liberated Greece — under the leadership of Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis, a vocal critic of the junta — felt betrayed by its NATO allies, who had failed to stand up to the colonels and proved unable to prevent a military confrontation with Turkey. Athens withdrew the Greek military, a 300,000-strong force, from NATO’s integrated military structure in 1974. NATO’s strict prioritization of geostrategic interests over values had backfired. Instead of preserving its military strength in the Mediterranean, NATO ended up with a massive new vulnerability on its southern flank — giving an advantage to the Soviet Union without it ever firing a shot. Greece remained outside of NATO’s military command until 1980. Anti-American and anti-NATO sentiments, however, persisted long after.

The unintended consequences of NATO’s overly accommodating approach should act as a warning for allied leaders today. In the age of social media and instantaneous news cycles, modern allied leaders will only face increased pressure to deliver real time reactions to ally’s questionable domestic policies. Whereas Brosio and Luns may have been able to focus almost exclusively on maintaining alliance unity, present day Secretaries General — a position now held by former prime ministers as opposed to cabinet ministers — will have to play a more prominent role as defenders of NATO’s public image.

Short-term security interests should, of course, be considered and protected to the extent possible — but the price to NATO’s long-term credibility must also be carefully weighed. The Washington Treaty opens with a recitation of common values for a reason. NATO is more than just a security alliance; it would do well to remember that.


Questions of the present resonate with examples from NATO’s checkered past. As with most hard challenges, the solutions are rarely satisfying or absolute. The lessons are full of middle grounds: NATO should not take the lead, but nor can it cower in the corner; allies must bring realistic expectations to the table and be willing to compromise to preserve unity; NATO must defend its interests and its values. Ultimately, a certain amount of muddling through will be required — along with a lot of patience. If nothing else, the transatlantic community should take comfort in the fact that NATO has been through worse and survived.


Lisa Sawyer Samp is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and formerly the Director for NATO and European Strategic Affairs at the National Security Council.


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