If NATO Promotes Freedom, Why Are Some NATO Nations Not Democracies?

July 14th, 2022 - by Council on Foreign Relations & Environmentalists Against War & USNI News

Democracy and the NATO Alliance:
Upholding Our Shared Democratic Values

Testimony by Matthias Matthijs / Council on Foreign Relations

(November 13, 2019) — In testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Dr. Matthias Matthijs assessed the role the United States, European Union, and NATO have played in the democratic backsliding of Poland, Hungary, and Turkey. He recommended the US and EU do more to encourage democratic values among NATO member states by supporting civil society groups and free media in countries experiencing democratic backsliding.

Furthermore, Matthijs reminded policymakers that the US and its allies should focus on long-term results when promoting common values because the current leaders of Poland, Hungary, and Turkey will not be in power forever.


  • Today some NATO member states can no longer be described as liberal democracies but instead demonstrate the traits of competitive authoritarian regimes. The characteristics of such administrations include free but unfair national elections, an erosion of checks and balances on political power, laws that are simply rubber-stamped by the legislature, loss of an independent judiciary, curtailed media freedoms, a stifling of civil society, and severe limitations placed on academic freedoms.

Turkey and Hungary can be more accurately labeled as competitive authoritarian regimes, while Poland is gradually moving in the same direction.

  • Though NATO was founded on a common commitment to democratic values, it has no mechanism for responding to or sanctioning behavior that is not in line with its democratic principles, nor should it. Instead, the United States and the EU should step up to defend democratic values among member states by doing more to encourage common values.

Both the US and EU must play the long game and remember that none of the leaders currently in power in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland will be there indefinitely.

  • Going forward, the US can continue to support civil society organizations and free media in countries experiencing democratic backsliding and emphasize to member states that NATO membership means rights and responsibilities beyond the goal of spending 2% of GDP on defense. NATO has proven strong and useful in the past because of its commitment to shared democratic values, but it cannot continue to prove relevant in the future if this shared commitment is broken.

The appeal of liberal democracy to voters around the world has not diminished. The views of voters have not changed; what has changed is politicians’ willingness to exploit voters’ fears, leading to democratic backsliding and the establishment of competitive authoritarian regimes worldwide.

NATO’s democratic decline could destroy the Alliance

NATO Members That Are Not True Democracies

Environmentalists Against War

At present, the North American Treaty Organization has 30 members. In 1949, there were 12 founding members of the Alliance: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States.

According to Freedom House and other sources, several current NATO members are not functioning democracies. In the following list of today’s full NATO community, a number of countries (indicated in bold) are flagged as “backsliding,” only “partly free,” or actual “dictatorships.”

The other member countries are: Greece and Türkiye (1952), Germany (1955), Spain (1982), the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999), Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia (2004), Albania and Croatia (2009), Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020).

Rise of Authoritarian States
Pose Biggest Threat to NATO

John Grady / USNI News

(June 28, 2019) — Among NATO Members, the rise of populist authoritarian governments eschewing democratic values poses more of a threat to the alliance than an aggressive Russia on its borders or an expansionist China elbowing its way into Europe militarily and economically, a panel of security and diplomatic experts said Thursday.

“NATO should be in this game” of promoting independent judiciaries, free and open political debate and a free press, “and not just the EU” in advocating bedrock freedoms and ways of governing, Charles Kupchan, from the Council of Foreign Relations, said at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.

Nations such as Turkey, Poland, Hungary and Italy needed to be called out by other alliance “members when they see … backsliding” on defending those values domestically and, as an alliance, it should be pushing them overseas, he added.

“If we get this issue wrong, good night” in trying to keep a coalition together on a host of issues — from cyber to migrants to the common defense, Kupchan said. The rise of authoritarianism, reflected in the actions of Russia and China offering themselves as models to follow, “is the premier security issue of our time.”

The alliance needs a restatement of core values in a new strategic document. This would be one way of rebuilding trust among members for the future as the president of the United States often questions the alliance’s value to Americans, said Hans Binnendijk, with the Atlantic Council. He pointed the finger at Russia for undermining trust in political institutions and processes in Europe and the US

“Hybrid warfare is underway and we’re losing it,” particularly on social media and Moscow’s propaganda and disinformation campaigns that have had an impact on elections from the United Kingdom to the Balkans and in the US, Binnendijk said.

“Coalitions are not easy” to build and even more difficult to sustain as NATO has done for 70 years,” said retired Army Gen. John Nicholson, former commander of all forces in Afghanistan.

The autocratic rulers of Turkey and Hungary.

Money cannot buy legitimacy” in pursuing common aims, he said. A different “common aim” for American administrations for decades has been insistence Europeans spending more for their defense and ensuring at least 20 percent of that goes into the modernization of equipment and forces.

“We’re missing the mark on investment,” Nicholson said.

“Two percent was a two-by-four and got some of their attention,” Binnendijk said, referring to the security spending goal set by NATO in the wake of Russian aggression in Ukraine and threats to the Baltic nations. However, the spending goal doesn’t adequately address how to measure members’ effective spending on defense, Binnendijk said.

European members “have to have helicopters that fly,” but that only scratches the surface, Kupchan added. The emphasis should be put on spending wisely. “Europe needs to turn the corner” on security spending — both in amount and where the money goes.

Using the NATO strategic planning model of the alliance being able to respond to two major crises and six lesser problems at the same time as a guide, Binnendijk said one metric for the future could shift the burden to European members to be able to handle one major crisis and three lesser ones simultaneously. The US would be ready and assume the responsibility for the other half.

“NATO will be the cornerstone of European security. I don’t think we need to do what NATO does” in that area, said Dearbhlan Doyle who represented the European Union. Stressing the complementary soft power the EU offers in teaching governance, the rule of law and human rights from the Balkans to Africa to Afghanistan, she said the 28 member nations also realized investment was needed to improve mobility — establish better and standardized rail and bridge sizes, improve highways and add more airfields for their defense.

Other steps include breaking down unnecessary barriers at borders and with customs for the movement of military cargo and equipment.

This new interest in continental security is a direct response to Russia’s move of forces into Crimea followed by a rigged election separating it from Ukraine and its backing of breakaway provinces in Georgia and continued military and economic support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Looking at the other great power making its presence felt in Europe, Doyle said the EU “would like to work together with the US and NATO, on China.”

China is an economic rival, not a military threat.

Beijing presents an economic challenge to the US and EU working together. However, Beijing also is creating a situation where fissures are appearing between European nations as some consider joining the One Belt/One Road infrastructure initiative, as Turkey, Italy and Greece are contemplating.

“Let’s not start finding us undercutting each other” when it comes to relations with China, Kupchan said

A way to exercise more cooperations among NATO members, Binnendijk said, would be for more EU nations to participate in freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. Ideally, EU navies would coordinate their efforts demonstrating these waters are international, instead of creating a situation where just one vessel from France conducts a FONOP, followed by another FONOP conducted by another country.

“Make this more like a multinational statement, Kupchan said.

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