Thursday

28th Oct 2021

Column

Nato's biggest enemy hides within

Nato remains the most powerful military alliance, but in terms of its core political values it has never been so vulnerable.

Discussions about increasing the military budget or responding to the ambitions of other powers will be in vain if the members of the alliance do not rediscover what they are supposed to defend, or, as the North Atlantic Treaty makes it clear: "the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law."

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Nato countries depend heavily on authoritarian suppliers of consumer goods and fuel. They allow competitors to run large trade surpluses which their state capitalist system often turns into a weapon against Western companies

Hard military defences required this soft and delicate core of Western society to be preserved first.

After all, it will be difficult to justify to citizens that the alliance must be preserved, that they must make financial sacrifices to modernise armed forces, and that vital economic infrastructure needs to be guarded, if that same citizen does not know what it means to live in a dictatorship or has come to doubt even about the desirability of democracy.

Preparing Nato's defences against new authoritarian rivals starts in the class rooms, in the echo chambers of social media, and, most of all, in the daily lives of citizens. What does this entail?

In the first place, Nato countries need to acknowledge that democracy, freedom, and dignity remain ideals. They are never finished and require permanent effort. In the last decades, Nato countries dragged their heels on that effort and this has to be reversed.

Civic education must be given priority. History education, crucial to understand the vice of authoritarianism, must be reinvigorated. Civic empowerment is a democracy's ultimate bastion, against internal fragmenting and external competitors.

Three-dimensional chess with China and Russia

It is often said that China and Russia aim at compromising the functioning of our democracy. Nato countries must stop giving them an easy time and fight the tide of cynicism, intolerance and racism at home.

But it is not enough to know about the value of democracy. Democracy must also perform better. It is not normal that three decades of relative prosperity and peace among most Nato countries has remained so disappointing for tens of millions of citizens in terms of purchasing power, dignified work, and social cohesion.

Just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, intellectuals like Paul Kennedy and Francis Fukuyama warned that a democracy cannot be preserved on utilitarianism and capitalism alone. That warning has only become more urgent.

Society and economy must transform from a voracious machine of consumerism into an industrious studio in which beauty, sustainability, dignity and honour are central, an 'atelier' in which the ordinary and the great can be expressed positively.

Many Nato member states seem to feel what this requires: building an inclusive society around core ideals. It needs to be clear again what it means to be a citizen. But that also entails that those citizens can channel their labour, imagination and wealth into activities that bolster a society of democracy, freedom, dignity – and sustainability.

This is what article two in the North Atlantic Treaty is about: "promoting conditions of stability and well-being". To stop the military advance of competitors, Nato countries must stop allowing them to turn dictatorship into a competitive advantage.

This is not evident.

Nato countries depend heavily on authoritarian suppliers of consumer goods and fuel. They allow competitors to run large trade surpluses which their state capitalist system often turns into a weapon against Western companies.

Many European countries still turn a blind eye to such economic power politics. Some have lost trust in the United States and fear that Trumpianism is still very much alive. Better thus, they assume, to tread carefully, and to compete with authoritarian states without getting too explicit about the disconnect in terms of values.

This posture is flawed. Cautious economic, diplomatic and military competition cannot work if the internal tissue of values is not restored. Diplomats might like to think about the world as a giant play of chess. Still, it entails that you first create the desire to play and to stay focussed. There must be skin in the game, but many countries do not event want to be part of the game.

And even if we factor in that no partnership in international politics is rock-solid, upping the game against common authoritarian competitors remains first and foremost a matter of preserving national power and guarding the legitimacy of this most delicate project called democracy.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University Brussels and guest lectures at the NATO Defense College. His latest book is World Politics since 1989 (Polity, September 2021).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Nato chief backs Belarus sanctions

Western allies reiterated plans to punish Belarus for a recent air hijack after Nato foreign ministers held video-talks on Tuesday

Analysis

Sweden's Nato debate resurfaces

You might have seen headlines about a majority in the Swedish parliament backing the 'Nato option'. But before you conclude that Sweden anytime soon will apply for membership - hold your horses! There is still a vast majority against.

Nato and US urge Russia to back off on Ukraine

Nato and the US have put on a show of solidarity with Ukraine over Russia's military build-up, with American president Joe Biden offering to hold a summit with Russia to defuse tensions.

Column

Europeans are Russian pipeline addicts

In the eyes of the Russian elite, most of Europe is just a bunch of spoiled, decadent, pipeline addicts that takes its illusions for reality, and can be easily played with.

Column

When 'peace' becomes self-defeating

When one member state is threatened, Brussels will come up with its usual denouncements and superficial sanctions, just to let the other member states relapse into their habit of trading with rivals, and focussing on the next election campaign.

Europe's deadly border policies

EU institutions and states abdicated their responsibilities for search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, deputising Libya to take their place, withdrawing naval assets from high-seas corridors, and obstructing, even criminalising, NGO groups, writes the European director of Human Rights Watch.

News in Brief

  1. US to add last three EU states to visa-waiver list
  2. German ministry gives thumbs up to Russian pipeline
  3. EU regulator foresees endless battles with Facebook
  4. UK fears three migrants drowned in Channel
  5. Israel joins EU science scheme, despite Palestine clause
  6. Upcoming flu season 'could be severe', EU agency warns
  7. Ukraine wins Dutch case on Crimea gold
  8. Most Poles want Warsaw to back down in EU dispute

Column

Nothing as destructive as radical change

With Poland throwing the legal order of Europe in disarray, Russia rationing Europe's gas supply and the UK reneging on its Brexit commitments, perhaps the moment has come again to read a few essays by French philosopher Michel de Montaigne.

EU Green Deal is too dependent on private finance

What we call for is another approach to the financing of the European Grean Deal. While a lot of attention is being paid to decarbonisation, the other two aspects - de-financialisation and democratisation - are largely ignored.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew report reveals bad environmental habits
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersImproving the integration of young refugees
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNATO Secretary General guest at the Session of the Nordic Council
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCan you love whoever you want in care homes?
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNineteen demands by Nordic young people to save biodiversity
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable public procurement is an effective way to achieve global goals

Latest News

  1. Environment ministers continue dogfight on energy price hike
  2. Most lawmakers unhappy with lead MEP's asylum bill
  3. More transparency on EU media owners planned for 2022
  4. Europe's deadly border policies
  5. 'Brussels So White' needs action, not magical thinking
  6. How to break the political deadlock on migration
  7. Hedegaard on the hazards of stalling climate action
  8. Belarus exiles in EU fear regime-linked murderers

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us