NATO Should Finally Take its Values Seriously


Several NATO allies may be shifting nervously in their seats when President Joe Biden takes the floor at the alliance’s upcoming June 14 summit. Rather than deliver the usual lecture on the importance of equitable burden sharing and increased defense spending, the new U.S. president is more likely to reflect on NATO’s founding principles. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed in his first visit to NATO headquarters, “We also have to hold one another [accountable] to the values at the heart of our alliances. … We all must speak up when countries backslide from democracy and human rights.”

From Russia and China to terrorism and climate change, NATO faces no shortage of external threats. Yet an equally serious challenge now comes from democratic decline within the alliance itself. Left unaddressed, the erosion of democratic values will further accentuate divisions between allies and create vulnerabilities that can be exploited by NATO’s rivals. The upcoming NATO summit is a unique opportunity for allies to tackle this underlying challenge. The trans-Atlantic alliance will only remain strong if members genuinely abide by its founding principles.



The adoption of a “political pledge” in which allies recommit to upholding trans-Atlantic values would be a start. But NATO countries will need to move beyond words if they want to have a meaningful impact. This means regularly reviewing allies’ compliance with NATO values and principles and using incentives and disincentives to raise the political cost for countries breaking the rules. This is a challenging path with potential risks for NATO unity. But turning a blind eye to the ongoing erosion of NATO’s founding principles will be even more damaging to its political cohesion and credibility. Democratic values are not only important to the alliance in the abstract. They also help create the societal resilience that gives it strength. As such, NATO should link democratic progress with its existing resilience metrics and draw on joint NATO-European Union resilience response teams to assist struggling allies. This would enable NATO to take a graduated, collective, and dispassionate approach to addressing democratic decline and shoring up trans-Atlantic values while also preserving its political cohesion.

The Threat from Within

Over the past decade, several NATO allies have taken a turn away from democracy. Hungary and Poland are sliding into illiberalism, while the rule of law has long since unraveled in Turkey. In Greece and Slovenia, press freedom is rapidly deteriorating. NATO’s newest members made substantial progress since the end of the Cold War, but democracy remains fragile in Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia. As a result, internal corruption or malign influence could readily unleash new instability.

From the beginning, NATO has faced tensions over how much emphasis to put on democratic values. On one hand, NATO has always been more than just a military alliance. Its strength and resilience have long derived from the shared commitment of allies to the principles of the North Atlantic Treaty. The preamble to this document stresses democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law while its second article explicitly commits to “peaceful and friendly international relations.”

But the alliance has not always lived up to these ideals. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, NATO debated how to deal with authoritarianism in Portugal and Greece as well as multiple coups in Turkey. Ultimately, members decided not to address the problem, instead prioritizing cohesion and geopolitical interests during a tense Cold War period. As explained by then-National Security Adviser Walt Rostow, “[T]he time has come to separate our NATO relationship from our disapproval of domestic Greek politics.”

This was the wrong choice then and an even worse one today. The risks of ignoring NATO’s internal strains far outweigh the benefits of addressing them. Some of the reasons are longstanding: A country’s treatment of its own citizens reflects, positively or negatively, on NATO’s brand, and an unstable domestic environment inhibits that country’s ability to meet its international obligations.

Today, though, ignoring democratic decline carries new risks. NATO’s adversaries have become increasingly skilled at taking advantage of and, in some cases, actively exacerbating countries’ societal vulnerabilities. A compromised media environment allows disinformation campaigns to flourish, while corruption opens space for Russian networks to operate and gain influence. Moscow is also preying on the grievances of racial and ethnic minorities in NATO member countries in order to weaken national-level governance and cohesion.

In this context, democratic decline has empowered the leaders of some NATO states to take self-serving decisions at the expense of the alliance’s collective interests. In both Turkey and Hungary, for example, hypernationalism and corrupt ties with Russia have led to decisions that have compromised NATO decision-making and weakened the alliance’s military readiness. Turkey recently acquired a Russian S-400 missile system, for example, which can undermine NATO’s integrated air defense, and then launched an invasion of northeast Syria that endangered NATO countries’ forces on the ground. More recently, Turkey also blocked a defense plan for the Baltic states and Poland on the grounds that NATO did not sufficiently support its war against Kurdish separatist forces. Hungary has helped hamstring NATO, as well. In 2019, Budapest blocked Ukraine’s NATO Membership Action Plan and canceled meetings of the NATO-Ukraine Commission over a bilateral dispute regarding Kiev’s treatment of the country’s ethnically Hungarian minority.

When Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appointed experts to examine NATO’s future, they noted that a “drift toward NATO disunity … must be seen as a strategic rather than merely tactical or optical problem.” To date, allies have lacked the political will or legal instruments to effectively address in-house tensions and divergences. The European Union can theoretically address democratic backsliding through its rule of law mechanism and conditionality on its funding. NATO, by contrast, has no legal provisions for suspending or expelling an ally that violates the alliance’s founding principles and no financial carrots that might incentivize good behavior.

Good Intentions Won’t Be Enough

In his first months in office, President Biden has already demonstrated a desire to defend trans-Atlantic values. Recognizing the Armenian genocide and adopting sanctions against Russia and China in coordination with Europe are only the most recent examples. But how Biden plans to translate this democratic agenda into concrete action in NATO remains unclear. A mere declaration of good intentions won’t be enough. As NATO adapts for the next decade through the “NATO 2030” process, leaders should seize the opportunity to adopt concrete solutions to defend democratic values and ultimately uphold NATO’s political cohesion.

A first and most essential step would be the adoption by NATO leaders of a “political pledge” by which allies would recommit to abide by the principles of the North Atlantic Treaty. These principles are often mentioned in NATO’s official communiques but in a cursory way, reflecting the limited attention given to them. The NATO 2030 reflection group promoted a similar idea with its proposed “code of good conduct.” Substance-wise, allies should pledge to uphold trans-Atlantic values — including democracy, individual liberty, and rule of law — but also to respect some principles of good behavior, such as consulting allies on national decisions impacting trans-Atlantic security, refraining from blocking matters external to NATO, and making good faith efforts to settle any dispute with another ally. This “pledge” could be part of the communique adopted by NATO leaders in Brussels or a stand-alone document. At a minimum, these principles should be imbedded in the new strategic concept that NATO is likely to launch at the June 14 summit.

Next, NATO should monitor individual allies’ compliance with these principles. Without any monitoring mechanism, a political declaration risks becoming little more than a declaration of good intentions. First, allies should be able to raise their concerns to the North Atlantic Council or even at the ministerial level when they believe that a serious violation of the “pledge” by a NATO member is occurring. Such discussion would force that member to justify its decisions and create political pressure in itself. Allies could also institute a regular review of each country’s compliance with NATO’s core values and link it to NATO’s baseline requirements for national resilience. This periodic report would be prepared by the International Secretariat under the authority of the assistant secretary general for political affairs or the deputy secretary general. NATO could build on existing metrics used by the European Union or by nongovernmental organizations such as Freedom House. Finally, joint NATO-European Union “resilience response teams” could provide advice or assistance to allies, such as those new NATO members in the Balkans, which might want help addressing their societal vulnerabilities. Their efforts could draw on existing resources such as NATO’s centers of excellence on cyber, strategic communications, and hybrid threats. Taken together, these procedures would provide the basis for a periodic discussion on the political health of the alliance.

A last but challenging step would be to raise the political cost for allies breaking the rules. This is admittedly the most difficult course of action given NATO’s consensus rule and the aforementioned lack of legal mechanisms to sanction or expel. Here, NATO will need to be creative and use a mixture of incentives and disincentives. In terms of incentives, allies should make clear that decisions on NATO leadership positions, facility placement, or ministerial locations will be evaluated in light of the respect for NATO’s values. If this fails to induce better behavior, allies should move to publicize violations or consider restrictive measures such as cancelling exercises or NATO events or limiting participation in military planning or intelligence sharing. For less sensitive measures such as cancelling visits of NATO officials or appointing assistant secretary generals, these measures could be implemented directly by the International Secretariat. For other, more sensitive measures, the alliance might be forced to consider a “consensus minus one” approach. Finally, additional pressure can be brought through bilateral or European Union channels, thereby harnessing other instruments of power such as financial incentives in support of NATO objectives. 

The Price of Unity 

Admittedly, pursuing a tougher course of action on values and principles comes with risks. Even measured steps could create serious rifts among allies, with the potential of paralyzing the alliance. Because NATO operates by consensus, any punitive action on an ally could provoke retaliatory action on other NATO business. In reaction to Norway’s stark criticisms against the Portuguese and Greek regimes at a June 1971 foreign ministers meeting, then-NATO Secretary General Manlio Brosio warned that “if we undermine our solidarity, we run the risk of undermining the substance of our alliance.”

Overcoming this dilemma between prioritizing values and preserving unity requires a graduated, collective, and dispassionate approach. First, NATO will need to be proportionate when dealing with an ally violating trans-Atlantic values. Allies should start with discussions behind closed doors rather than publicize the dispute. Open and frank dialogue among allies should always be the first step before adopting restrictive measures. If NATO moves too quickly or aggressively, it risks being counterproductive by widening divisions in the alliance. At the end of the day, this progressive approach should have a deterrent effect on NATO countries, especially on those that value their membership in the alliance and do not want to be singled out as “bad allies.”

Second, NATO’s response should be as collective and resolute as possible. If pressure is applied by only a few NATO countries, the ally in question may not take the warning seriously and could use the divisions among allies to avoid accountability. If enough allies agree to lean on a problematic NATO country, then accepting short-term disunity for the sake of preserving trans-Atlantic values could be worth it. In 2019, Turkey ultimately decided to lift its longstanding veto to the defense plans of Poland and the Baltic states because it was facing a growing and consistent pressure from numerous allies, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. The unity of the members of the Quad was critical in that case and changed Ankara’s strategic calculus.

Last but not least, all allies must be subject to the same objective criteria and scrutiny. Otherwise, the backsliding ally will simply claim it is being singled out and dismiss the charges. The International Secretariat can be helpful here by conducting an impartial, evenhanded assessment. Strong involvement of NATO’s secretary general will also be key in preserving political cohesion through this thorny process. Recently, Secretary General Stoltenberg played an instrumental role in easing the tensions between Greece and Turkey through the establishment of a bilateral de-confliction mechanism in which he did not assess blame but merely facilitated dialogue to be informed by international rules and norms.

While confronting NATO’s internal challenges is not an easy task, it is an essential one. Left unaddressed, political cohesion will falter and inhibit NATO’s ability to act in the defense of its collective interests. To prevent this, NATO leaders should act now to tackle the alliance’s democratic deficit. In the long run, this is the only way to restore unity and reinforce European defense.



Rachel Ellehuus is deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. and previously served as principal director for European and NATO policy in the Pentagon. You can find her on Twitter at @rach_ellehuus. 

Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program and was formerly deputy head of the Strategic Affairs and Cybersecurity Division in the French foreign service. You can find him on Twitter at @morcos_pierre.

Image: NATO