The recent North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels was dominated by President Trump’s focus on burden-sharing, against a backdrop of numerous challenges facing the alliance from a revanchist Russia to transnational terrorism. Members of the alliance contributing to their collective defense is an important goal. But, at the same time, the summit did not sufficiently address an even bigger problem eroding the alliance’s foundation of shared values: democratic backsliding among some members.
A common set of values is written into the foundation of NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty, the organization’s charter, signed in Washington on April 4, 1949, explicitly states its purpose is to “safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” At a time when these principles are under threat from internal and external forces, the NATO summit was a prime opportunity to aggressively affirm these values. Instead, the focus was on defense spending.
Since taking office, Trump has repeatedly criticized NATO member states for not paying their fair share to the alliance, claiming that they are cheating American taxpayers. Trump also scolded NATO allies at last year’s summit. Other presidents, including Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have expressed some similar concerns but were not as outspoken.
Trump repeatedly returns to the commitment made by NATO member states at the 2014 Wales Summit to spend 2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on their militaries by 2024. As of July 2, 2018, five of the 29 NATO states had hit this 2 percent threshold: the United States, Britain, Latvia, Estonia, and Greece. Three others – Poland, Lithuania, and Romania – have laws or political agreements in place that mandate them to hit the 2 percent threshold in 2018. France is at 1.93 percent, while several other large states currently fall substantially short of the mark, including Germany at 1.24 percent, Italy at 1.15 percent and Spain at 0.93 percent.
Differing accounts were given at the end of the summit about whether any new agreements had been reached. In a news conference, Trump claimed that he had secured new defense spending commitments from NATO allies. President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy, however, both denied that any new financial commitments had been made beyond the previously established 2 percent by 2024 goal.
The summit did not sufficiently address an even bigger problem eroding the alliance’s foundation of shared values: democratic backsliding among some members.
At the summit, the assembled leaders signed a communique in which all members underscored their commitment to the alliance, to countering Russian aggression, and to fighting terrorism. Notably, the alliance agreed to bolster its defensive posture in Eastern Europe by adopting the U.S.-proposed 30-30-30-30 plan in which NATO will have 30 land battalions, 30 air fighter squadrons and 30 naval ships ready for action within 30 days.
Burden-sharing and collective defense are obviously key dimensions of the NATO alliance, but there are growing political threats that if ignored could fester and threaten the basic foundation of the pact. Among these is the risk of creeping illiberalism and authoritarianism within the alliance ranks that directly threaten NATO’s identity as a league of democracies.
There were some references to the importance of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in the Brussels Summit Declaration. In Article 1 of the communique, the alliance affirmed the importance of protecting the democratic character of its member states, proclaiming, “We are determined to protect and defend our indivisible security, our freedom, and our common values, including individual liberty, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.” The declaration also stressed in Article 74 that NATO “leads by example in upholding the principles of democracy and human rights.”
While Trump focused almost exclusively on increased defense spending in Brussels, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives simultaneously overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding resolution expressing their support for the NATO alliance. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who introduced the motion, explained that the resolution “reaffirms the United States’ commitment to NATO as a community of shared values, including liberty, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.”
Even with these statements of support for democratic values, the NATO summit did not go far enough toward addressing the accelerating illiberalism in at least half a dozen of its member states. While the Brussels Declaration mentioned the importance of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, these references were either broad platitudes or discussions about the need for Eastern European states who might have a future in NATO to adopt democratic practices.
Members of a bipartisan working group before the summit had called on NATO to specifically address protecting the institutions and liberties essential to a democratic society — a free and independent media, an empowered civil society, democratic checks and balances on power, and protection against racism, antisemitism, and other forms of discrimination—that are currently being undermined in NATO countries such as Hungary, Poland, Turkey and others.
The unspoken message to leaders like Viktor Orban of Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey was clear: as long as you don’t fall short on your spending commitments, you can muzzle the press, pack the judiciary, and attack civic society.
Trump even reportedly had words of praise for Erdogan. After listening to other European leaders complain about the domestic legal hurdles that prevented them from raising spending, Trump reportedly turned to Erdogan—who, in addition to undermining democratic freedoms in Turkey, has agreed to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defense system that would not be interoperable with NATO defenses and might run afoul of U.S. sanctions—and said “He does things the right way.”
This is a dangerous message for the transatlantic alliance to convey. No matter how much money NATO has, as the working group previously argued, “if our allies no longer share our values, they will have little reason to help shoulder the burden of protecting our interests.” The NATO alliance will become a shadow of its former self if it is strong on paper but abandons its values.