Towards Cardiff and beyond: NATO as a community of values

CIDS policy paper no. 1 (2014)

The legitimacy of NATO as a mutually binding Alliance will, in the longer term, depend on whether the population of the member states continue to see NATO as both relevant and needed in order to face the security challenges that people generally think are decisive for their own country. The mutual solidarity also depends on how trustworthy the other Allies are considered to be, and on the level of political affinity among the member states. In this context, the common values of the Allies are crucial. Unless NATO is seen as a community of values, public support and mutual solidarity may easily become undermined.

How solid is this community of values today? The past decade has included political strain, especially since the long military engagement in Afghanistan has been disputed within some political groups and since its usefulness in terms of results is not necessarily obvious. The Iraq war and the intervention in Libya have pulled in the same direction, even if NATO was not directly involved in the invasion of Iraq and the Libya air campaign basically was a “coalition of willing”. In short, good intentions are not in the longer term sufficient – political and humanitarian consequences of military actions are more visible and harder to reject, and here the picture is less clear. As a result, voices that are critical to the consequences of NATO’s actions may easily question the legitimacy of the Alliance.

This situation illustrates the need to bring NATO “closer to home”. An increased focus on the original rationale of the Alliance – Article 5 in particular – is part of that. NATO’s direct relevance as a guarantee for the security of its member states remains alpha and omega for the legitimacy and credibility of the alliance. NATO as a community of values may easily be seen as rhetoric that belongs to situations characterized by self-congratulation, when notions of democracy, rule of law, human rights and individual freedom are brought to the forefront but without going into the details.

However, the details behind these concepts are what people observe and experience – in appraising politics and in their daily lives. What, then, is factual reality? Is there a direct relationship between rhetoric and reality? Two facts are hard to bypass: 1) Historically, NATO was an anti-Soviet alliance as much as a community of values; and, 2) In an Alliance that has become more heterogeneous, value-based commonalities may be harder to point to in concrete terms.

As an anti-communist alliance, NATO had to live with some member states that were neither a democracy nor characterized by the rule of law. The strategic imperative of the Cold War sometimes required a need to look the other way. Realpolitik came with a price tag. In short, NATO’s policy is still based on non-interference in a member state’s internal affairs. The issue of how to strike a balance between political diversity and a value-based unity has never been properly dealt with.

Today, NATO counts 28 member states, and fifteen years of enlargements have been based on solid political and strategic arguments. In that sense, realpolitik has continued as a guideline but it still comes with a price tag. Has the in principle fundamental importance of values like democracy, rule of law, human rights, etc. been decisive factors in NATO’s enlargements? In theory yes, but in practice the verdict is less clear. Applicants for NATO membership have, on paper, modernized their legal systems in line with NATO’s requirements and in principle subscribed to everything it took to be able to enter through NATO’s open door. But NATO has paid relatively little attention to how the new legislation has been implemented in practical terms and, instead, paid more attention to defence reform, military interoperability, and the political will and military ability to contribute to ISAF.

The regrettable fact is that several new member states hardly fulfil all requirements that are part of a genuine Western community of values. To some of them, the required reforms were a means to qualify for NATO membership and not necessarily based on a genuine political commitment to the values that these reforms were meant to promote and ensure. As a result, and in combination with achieved NATO membership halfway through an incomplete reform process, the reform process stalled in some countries once NATO membership had been achieved. In certain countries, the process was even reversed.

As a result, NATO today includes member states that may best be characterized as states in a transition between an autocratic and non-democratic form of government and a fully-fledged Western democracy based on the rule of law, free elections, a politically autonomous civil society, and respect for political and other fundamental rights. And once NATO membership had been achieved, most of the active support from outside, for the reform process to continue, dissipated. As already noted, NATO has no tradition in involving itself in the domestic affairs of its member states and the main objective – NATO membership – had been achieved.

The EU has experienced the same as part of its own enlargement process, even if the requirements (the conditionality) for membership were more extensive and concrete than in the case of NATO. Common to both NATO and the EU was an in hindsight naïve idea that once membership had been achieved the new member states would, on their own, pursue the reform process in order to become more similar to prominent examples of good governance among the original member states. That never happened.

The financial crisis, euro crisis and brutal exposure of bad governance, failed policies, and inefficient public management in a number of countries represented a shock to the established self-image of the Western community of states. When put to the test, reality proved many established “truths” wrong. Also in NATO, this has generated political consequences, and the threshold for membership has been raised as a result. Behind this reaction, there is an obvious “enlargement fatique”.

Consequently, NATO today seems to have raised the bar of the political requirements that are presented to candidate members. To some degree, that may be perceived as demanding more from countries that are not a member of the Alliance than from countries that are already inside. The risk of being charged with a double standard is inherent: NATO seems to set higher standards for others than it does for itself.

What could – or should – NATO do to avoid being charged with double standards? The obvious answer is to pay renewed attention to real implementation of the common values of the Alliance, and that as part of a universal policy and not only aimed at partners and candidate countries. The fundamental approach should be that we may all do better and that real life implementation of values that are part of good governance is a challenge we all have in common. That implies that NATO, to a larger degree than before, must include a political focus on the situation within the Alliance – in each separate member state – and not only promote political standards linked to good governance in dealing with PfP partners and applicants for NATO membership. This reorientation of focus might be achieved without any attempt to make NATO a supranational organization, as opposed to an intergovernmental one.

NATO’s Building Integrity Programme may, in this respect, serve as a tool. The Programme has an approach that goes far beyond anti-corruption in the economic or financial sense – the essence of the Programme is the implementation of good governance based on a set of values and standards that are part of a large number of international agreements and conventions that the large majority of countries has signed up to. Integrity as a concept is directly linked to the need to act in accordance with these common values and standards – to behaviour and actions that fulfil these values and standards in practice. Just like democracy as a system of government is not something that is achieved once and for all, other common values, too, must be protected, maintained, and renewed.

Which brings us back to the question of NATO’s credibility and legitimacy. NATO must be seen as – and function as – a tool to protect, maintain, and renew common values. Only then will the Alliance be seen as a real community of values, only then will that community of values be credible.

The NATO Summit in Cardiff in September 2014 will mark that NATO is in the process of putting Afghanistan behind – not completely but as a military theatre of operations and as its main focus. In this situation it is crucial to bring the Alliance “closer to home”, and to emphasize that NATO has more fundamental tasks to fulfil than to combat extremism and terrorism in countries far away. The alternative would be to risk establishing a political vacuum, a situation in which many people might ask whether NATO still has a role to play, whether NATO still remains relevant.

Norway, as well as a number of other Allies, is particularly concerned about NATO retaining its relevance and credibility in a concrete and convincing way. That requires both military capability and political solidarity. A good way to emphasize relevance and political solidarity is to underpin NATO’s position as a community of values – the Alliance as a solidary community of states that first and foremost promotes certain standards and values without needing a particular counterpart to oppose. This summarizes the kind of positive message that the Summit in Cardiff ought to highlight.

The credibility of such a message, however, depends on concrete political initiatives that go beyond self-congratulation and the usual rhetoric of summitry. That requires a group of like-minded Allies to push the message of the Alliance as an agent of good governance.