Online Exclusive

Why NATO Is More Than Democracy’s Best Defense

On its 75th anniversary, the Atlantic Alliance should be celebrated for being more than the world’s greatest military compact. It’s an engine of democracy’s advance. 

By Robert Person and Michael McFaul

April 2024

NATO celebrates the 75th anniversary of its founding on 4 April 1949. Much of the coverage of this momentous occasion will focus on the strength of NATO’s famous Article 5 guarantee that “an armed attack against one [NATO ally] … shall be considered an attack against them all.” Faith in this bedrock principle of the alliance has been shaken in recent years, not least because of former U.S. president Donald Trump’s well-documented skepticism of NATO and his occasional threats to withdraw the United States, even going so far as to invite Russia in February 2024 to do “whatever the hell they want” to NATO allies who “don’t pay.” But these discussions risk overlooking an important truth that should also be celebrated on this anniversary — the powerful and successful role that NATO has played in defending and advancing democracy in Europe. As an instrument of democracy promotion, NATO has been fantastically successful.

During the Cold War, NATO played an essential role in defending democracy in Western Europe. After World War II ended, uncertainty lingered over the type of governments that would consolidate across the continent. Communist parties in Italy and France threatened to win power through elections and other means. Communist insurgents in Greece triggered a civil war while Soviet meddling in Turkey threatened political stability in the region and beyond. It was the 1948 communist coup in Czechoslovakia that helped to finally convince leaders of the United States, Canada, and Western Europe to create NATO as a defensive alliance against Soviet aggression.

From the very beginning, the alliance was not just about security, but also democratic values. The preamble to the founding 1949 North Atlantic Treaty declares, “The Parties to this Treaty … are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage, and civilization of their peoples, founded on principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.” Article 2 of the treaty affirms, “The Parties will contribute toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, by bringing about a better understanding of the principles upon which these institutions are founded, and by promoting conditions of stability and well-being.” With the memory still fresh of Hitler’s Nazi war machine sweeping across Europe only a few years earlier, Europe and its North American allies knew the staggering cost they would pay if Joseph Stalin’s equally aggressive and violent totalitarian regime was not prevented from dominating the European continent. NATO was the answer.

Defending Democracy in the Cold War

One of NATO’s founding members, Portugal, was not a democracy at the time. Not until the mid-1970s would Portugal’s dictatorship be replaced by a democratic regime. Although Greece was considered a fledgling democracy when it joined NATO in 1952, a military junta ruled the country from 1967 to 1974 while Greece remained a member of the alliance. The same was true for Turkey, which joined NATO as a democracy but experienced several military coups and democratic reversals over the next decades. But all the main powers in the alliance were consolidated democracies. As the threat of communist usurpation faded within NATO autocracies, the probability of democratization grew in these countries. Collective security provided by membership in NATO facilitated the reemergence of democracy even in these countries that fell short of democratic ideals for parts of the postwar twentieth century.

Security provided by NATO — which also kept American military power rooted in Europe —created propitious conditions for economic growth and prosperity in Europe. The Marshall Plan first, and the European Union later, were the main instruments for fostering economic recovery and growth on the continent. But neither the Marshall Plan nor the EU could have achieved their successes without the security provided by NATO. In turn, economic prosperity in NATO countries inspired those living in more impoverished countries in the communist world to demand political change, a decades-long struggle for freedom that eventually prevailed in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991. The economic success of Europe’s democracies played a direct, causal role in eliminating the threat from the Soviet Union and its forced military alliance in Europe, the Warsaw Pact. NATO’s provision of security facilitated that economic success.

Expanding Democracy After the Cold War

After the Warsaw Pact dissolved and the Soviet Union imploded, some policymakers argued that NATO was no longer necessary since the security threat to Europe from the east had disappeared. Some scholars also predicted that without the Soviet threat to justify the alliance, NATO would dissolve and Europe would revert to its familiar pre-WWII patterns of great-power competition, plunging the continent into major war once again. Thankfully, these arguments were decisively proven wrong as it became clear that NATO still had a vital role to play in expanding democracy to those countries recently liberated from communist rule and Soviet imperialism, consolidating a post–Cold War peace in Europe that realism still struggles to explain more than thirty years later.

At the 1990 NATO summit in London, the allies declared their intent to “build the structure of a more united continent, supporting security and stability with the strength of [their] shared faith in democracy, the rights of the individual, and the peaceful resolution of disputes.” The enlargement project moved slowly so as to not antagonize the leadership in the newly formed Russian Federation. NATO leaders, especially U.S. president Bill Clinton, wanted to support Russian president Boris Yeltsin and his reforms while also admitting new members to NATO.

Clinton, for instance, urged his NATO counterparts to wait until after Yeltsin was reelected in 1996 before announcing the invitations to three former communist countries: the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. These countries all joined in 1999, a long decade after communist collapse in Eastern Europe. After the success of the first round of peaceful NATO enlargement, President George W. Bush pushed for the start of the second “big bang” round of NATO expansion in 2002, a year of high cooperation between the United States and Russia in fighting global terrorism. That round was completed in 2004, with democracy at the forefront of the agenda.

The process of joining NATO for all these new democracies in Eastern Europe included undertaking political reforms to strengthen democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as spelled out in their Membership Action Plans (MAP). In fact, although Slovakia had pursued NATO membership in the first round of enlargement, it was denied an invitation due to concerns about the incumbent government’s antidemocratic practices, poor human-rights record, and systematic delays in economic liberalization. Only after these democratic deficits were addressed was Slovakia invited to join the 2004 round of enlargement with Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovenia upon successful completion of their respective MAPs.

With the exception of Finland (2023) and Sweden (2024), which had already fully met membership requirements, every round of enlargement in the last twenty years has relied on individually tailored MAPs to encourage, incentivize, and support aspirants to bring their institutions in line with the standards and values embedded in the North Atlantic Treaty. EU membership required similar kinds of democratic reforms, but for all the postcommunist countries admitted, NATO membership came first — literally and figuratively. While membership in the EU would bring economic growth and development, this prosperity could only be achieved if they were first secure. NATO did just that.

A wide range of empirical research shows that among new and aspiring NATO members, the “carrot” of possible NATO membership has contributed to the strengthening of democracy in applicant countries. In addition, NATO membership has helped build consensus in favor of democratic civilian control over the armed forces in new members. And while the factors supporting democratic development are complex, studies have shown that NATO membership is one of the factors that has facilitated democratic stabilization in aspiring and new members.

Each country that has joined NATO has done so through its own sovereign, democratic political processes — usually through ratification by a democratically elected national parliament, sometimes in conjunction with a national referendum. In other words, each act of joining is a democratic act of sovereign people. Furthermore, the invitation to join NATO is extended only when approved by unanimous consent of the democratically elected national leaders of allied nations and approved by national legislatures. Unanimity is the highest bar to reach for democratic decisionmaking, yet it has happened sixteen times since the end of the Cold War. NATO enlargement has always been an exercise in multinational democracy, not one of imperial hubris as some critics claim.

Within the alliance, democracy has eroded recently in a few member countries, most notably, Hungary and Turkey. To date, the alliance has few mechanisms to directly check democratic backsliding in member countries since there is no provision in the North Atlantic Treaty to suspend or expel an ally. In the future, NATO leaders should consider amendments to the charter to give the alliance the power to suspend or even oust members that fail to maintain basic standards of democratic rule. The bar for suspension let alone dismissal should be very high. But the absence of any such punitive mechanisms has sometimes encouraged perverse practices: Hungarian president Victor Orbán has frequently bucked Hungary’s democratic allies in Europe, instead pursuing friendly ties with Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin and slow-rolling Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO-membership bids. Orbán and Hungary, however, are the exceptions, not the rule among the countries that joined NATO after the Cold War ended: The vast majority of these new NATO members today are consolidated democracies. NATO membership, like EU membership, ranks as one of the most successful instruments for promoting democracy in the post–Cold War era.

Opportunities Lost?

Given how successful NATO has been in both protecting new members and helping them consolidate democracy, was it a mistake not to enlarge the alliance even faster and further? Should NATO have accepted for membership those countries left in the gray zone between NATO and Russia, such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine? While not obvious at the time, the answer in retrospect is “yes.” Back then, NATO leaders were trying to strike a delicate balance between growing the alliance, fostering democratic consolidation and market reforms inside Russia, and cultivating closer ties between NATO and Russia. The landmark 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which pledged a shared commitment with Russia to “democracy, political pluralism, the rule of law, and respect for human rights,” was a gamble, but a gamble worth taking as long as leaders and society in Russia signaled a commitment to democracy at home and peaceful relations with its neighbors abroad.

Alas, Russia’s commitment to democracy and peace did not last long. In the years since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 and gradually consolidated his dictatorship, Russia has become ever more belligerent toward its neighbors, especially as they have experienced their own democratic breakthroughs. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now obvious that the real mistake was not NATO enlargement. The mistake was failing to hedge against the possible return of Russian imperial impulses and autocratic belligerence. The time to rapidly expand NATO as far as possible to those frontline countries was back in the 1990s when Russia was both weak and still leaning toward democracy and the West. A democratic Russia, after all, would not have been threatened by NATO, but would have instead sought to join the alliance.

History would soon reveal the gravity of this mistake: A stronger Russia under an emboldened Putin successfully used military force to stop NATO expansion, first by invading and occupying part of Georgia in 2008, and later by doing the same in Ukraine in 2014. With Russian soldiers occupying parts of these countries, there was no consensus within the alliance to extend membership to them. In keeping Georgia and Ukraine out of NATO, Putin simultaneously helped to slow democratic consolidation in both countries. Though democratic erosion was halted in Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity (or Euromaidan) in 2014, it continues in Georgia where the absence of a MAP withholds the “carrots” that might incentivize Tbilisi to reform its political system.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia has not always been politically popular. Even after the Orange Revolution in 2004, most Ukrainians were against NATO membership and focused instead on EU membership. In Georgia today, the government leans toward Moscow, not Brussels. Moldova has never pushed hard to join NATO, and like Ukraine has focused instead on the EU. Thus the “demand side” of NATO membership may not have been there in the 1990s and 2000s given the domestic politics of countries that retained strong ties to Russia. But greater foreign assistance from NATO and EU members to support the development of democracy, civil society, and rule of law could have built greater consensus on these countries’ European future.

After Putin’s second, larger invasion of Ukraine in 2022, NATO must reconsider its passive policy of expansion to the east. When the war ends, NATO should invite Ukraine immediately to join. If some parts of Ukraine are still occupied at that time, a condition of membership could be that Ukraine still has the right to seek reunification but only through peaceful means. NATO membership for Ukraine, which will deter a future Russian invasion, will be necessary for economic reconstruction and democratic consolidation. The prospects for democracy to take root in Ukraine will be radically reduced if the country is left again in the gray zone between NATO and Russia.

Defending Democracy Again

Tragically, Putin’s wars in Europe, including his barbaric war in Ukraine today, have compelled NATO members to refocus on the alliance’s original mission — deterring an attack from Moscow. The paramount objective for NATO is once again to defend existing democracies, and the most obvious and efficient way to do this is to aid Ukraine. In helping Ukrainian soldiers defeat Russia’s invading army, NATO will also be defending frontline states with weaker militaries than Ukraine’s. NATO aid to Ukraine will also promote democracy in Ukraine: The sooner Russia is defeated and peace is restored, the easier it will be for Kyiv to consolidate and strengthen its democracy, just as security facilitated democratic consolidation in Europe after WWII. Moreover, the victory of a democratic Ukraine over an autocratic Russia will inspire democratic leaders and movements in the region, including in Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, and yes, even in Russia.

A Ukrainian victory will make it less likely that Putin will threaten NATO allies in the future, but the converse is also true: A Ukrainian defeat will encourage Putin to threaten NATO countries because it will have proven that war works and democracies are too divided to prevent it. And a Putin success in Ukraine might embolden Chinese leader Xi Jinping to invade Taiwan. More broadly, the victory of a dictatorship over a democracy in Ukraine will strengthen the autocratic world and weaken the democratic world. The stakes in this war couldn’t be higher.

So as NATO turns 75 this week, its members should take a day to celebrate the alliance’s impressive achievements not only in keeping the peace in Europe, but also in spreading democracy on the continent — and then the next day, get back to work. The mission is not yet complete.

Robert Person is associate professor of international relations at the United States Military Academy and director of West Point’s curriculum in international relations. He is a resident fellow at West Point’s Modern War Institute and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Michael McFaul is director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies at Stanford University, and the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He served as U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2012 to 2014.

The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or government.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP via Getty Images



APRIL 2022

What Putin Fears Most

Robert Person and Michael McFaul

Forget his excuses. Russia’s autocrat doesn’t worry about NATO. What terrifies him is the prospect of a flourishing Ukrainian democracy.

APRIL 2022

The Rebirth of the Liberal World Order

Lucan A. Way

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has done something for the world’s democrats they could seemingly not do for themselves—given them a renewed unity, purpose, and resolve.

APRIL 2009

NATO at Sixty

Zoltan Barany

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization played a key role in safeguarding Western democracy during the Cold War. With that conflict over, NATO must continually adapt and evolve in a fast-changing world.