The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has had a rough few years. The president of its most powerful EU member, France, has written it off as “brain-dead.” Its second-most powerful member, Turkey, has been causing problems all over the Middle East and the Mediterranean, including an ethnic cleansing against the northernmost Rojavan Kurds and illegal resource extraction from the territorial waters of Greece and Cyprus. Its most powerful member, the United States, has been holding its finger over the “withdraw” button over the past four years, a blow that surely would destroy NATO as we know it.

These problems are numerous, but the core problem is unitary: NATO, as Emmanuel Macron pointed out, is in a way, brain-dead. It lacks a modern-day purpose. Formed in the liberal-internationalist post-war era, NATO was a formalization of the ‘Western Alliance,’ with the United States and the pre-EU European states, along with a few friends and allies, drawing a line in the dirt on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Any attempt to step over would be met by the wrath of a unified western world.

Today, NATO has expanded to include most member states of the European Union, even those which were once part of the Warsaw Pact or even the Soviet Union itself. Expansion has continued up until the present day, with Montenegro and North Macedonia being granted membership in 2017 and 2020 respectively. With Donald Trump out of the White House, NATO’s fundamental problems are less pressing. But they are no less present. For those of us who value a codification of the transatlantic alliance and coordination between the armies of the EU, the US, and their allies, NATO needs to change.

This author suggests that NATO should return, in a way, to its roots: protecting liberal democracies against those who would seek to harm them. During the most heated periods of the Cold War, there was a valid reason for recruiting countries without the best pro-democracy track record into NATO’s ranks. The fight against communism, just like the fight against fascism before it, necessitated making strange bedfellows. Control over the Mediterranean and the Dardanelles were more important to those in power than NATO’s membership roster reflecting its values. In an age where international tensions are somewhat more relaxed, (if not completely calm,) the membership of certain states should be reconsidered. 

This is not to suggest that states which are backsliding democratically should be publicly pushed out of NATO, but that the possibility of such an event should be used as leverage to push them to change their behaviour. The organization should publicly make clear that it is a community of values, and as such demands that its members uphold the rule of law and practice liberal democracy, as per the preamble of the North Atlantic Treaty: “[NATO members] are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”

A decision to publicly draw a line in the sand for the NATO states which are reversing democratic standards is undoubtedly strategically questionable if one’s priorities lie solely with the military aspects of NATO. But the importance of military matters cannot, in times of peace, overrule the ideals by which democratic states seek to abide. Trading a better military standing in a hypothetical future war for our democratic values is a Faustian bargain. No matter what happens, NATO will change. The Biden Administration, especially given the United States’ recent and public flirtation with autocracy, should take the opportunity to try to change NATO for the better, and publicly declare that if certain members continue to dismantle their own democracies, they will have no home in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Image by NATO under fair use policies