NATO’s Normative Power

Jacob Kostrzewski. Jacob is the Program Coordinator for the International Rule of Law and Security Program. 

This series will examine the evolving role of regional organizations in a changing world order. This first post will examine the current rule and future of NATO, and subsequent posts will explore organizations including the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Organization of American States (OAS), and others.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has, over the past several years, been under attack from both within and without. President Donald Trump, the leader of the Alliance’s most powerful member-state, derided it as being “obsolete.” Russian President Vladimir Putin openly declared that NATO’s breakup would benefit his country. Democratic backsliding is running rampant through numerous NATO states, putting into question the idea of shared values. It can be difficult to see the Alliance surviving these challenges, yet rather than breaking up, NATO is preparing to welcome its 30th member, the Republic of North Macedonia.

The original purpose of the Alliance, in the words of its first Secretary General, Lord Hastings Ismay, was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” It succeeded in all three regards: the Soviet Union, and now Russia, have not (openly) invaded any European state; Germany never remilitarized; and the United States remains actively involved in European affairs through trade, military cooperation, and diplomacy. Barring regional wars in the Balkans in the 1990s and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Europe has remained largely at peace with itself. If its goals were accomplished, can NATO be considered obsolete?

On the contrary. Rather than becoming obsolete, NATO’s role in the post-Cold War world order has evolved to achieve a different set of goals which are just as critical to Europe’s security as those outlined by Lord Ismay in 1949. These goals emphasize the Alliance’s normative power: aspiring member-states are willing, and often eager, to undergo domestic reforms to align their values with NATO’s to facilitate their membership.

The Preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO’s founding document, states that the Alliance was formed on the “principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.” Article II further emphasizes “economic collaboration” between Allies. Western European states coalesced around these norms throughout the Cold War, differentiating themselves from the Soviets by ensuring basic rights and freedoms for their citizens, and rather than competing for scarce resources, they shared them. The idea that countries united by a shared set of democratic values and committed to economic cooperation will have similar security interests is hardly new: it is the foundation of the democratic peace theory first identified by Immanuel Kant in the late 1700s.

Countries aspiring to join NATO have historically demonstrated willingness to reform their political and economic structures and embrace the norms shared by the alliance. NATO has a certain power of attraction beyond the benefits of collective defense: its members have a sense of legitimacy and respect and the feeling of a collective identity that attract states and compel them to align their laws and policies to those of the Alliance. Democratization and NATO membership go hand in hand. According to Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World reports, every Central and Eastern European country that has joined NATO since the collapse of the Soviet Union has seen increases in its political liberties and civil rights scores, while countries that did not join, namely Ukraine and Belarus, actually saw decreases in their scores.

While democratic backsliding in some NATO member-states causes the alliance trouble from within, NATO’s normative power still leads to positive changes in those countries seeking to join. North Macedonia has made sufficient progress in its Membership Action Plan to begin formal accession talks with NATO allies, a step that is usually just a formality before the country in question is granted admission. NATO’s Secretary General praised reforms in North Macedonia and Georgia, another aspiring member. The hallmark of Montenegro’s foreign policy, NATO accession, guided considerable domestic democratic reforms in the country. Its efforts were recognized and it was granted admittance in 2017, despite last-minute efforts by Russia to assassinate its prime minister to halt accession.

NATO may be the most powerful military alliance on the planet, but democratic reforms were not achieved in Central and Eastern Europe through guns and bombs. The Alliance’s normative strength, its belief in core liberal values of human rights and rule of law, and shared economic prosperity have led aspiring member-states to undergo often challenging reforms to be allowed to join the club. NATO is not obsolete; instead, it represents a beacon of hope for liberalism at a time when it is under attack throughout the world. The Alliance should continue to work with aspiring member-states, including Georgia, Bosnia, and Ukraine, to draw them into the family of democracies through political and economic reforms.

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