NATO in the democratic arena

NATO is “brain dead.” NATO is “obsolete.” NATO is “a relic of the Cold War.” These are the familiar tropes espoused by NATO’s critics who have become drowned out by the Russian onslaught in Ukraine. With Putin’s brutal invasion, the march of authoritarianism has quickened its step. NATO, however, has responded with a demonstration of unity and resolve capable of redefining the future of the Alliance, if we can bring ourselves to admit an uncomfortable truth: the fight for democracy in the 21st century is an existential one and NATO is an indispensable party to the conflict.

When Teddy Roosevelt visited Europe in 1910, the former President toured the continent extensively before giving his delayed Nobel lecture. He had won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for ending the Russo-Japanese war, a war that started, in part, due to Russia’s imperial ambition for a warm water port. That war was mediated to peace only after Russia suffered a substantial and humiliating military defeat.

On his way to Oslo, President Roosevelt delivered a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris entitled, “Citizenship in a Republic.” In that speech, which later came to be known as the “Man in the Arena” speech, President Roosevelt proclaimed, “It is not the critic who counts… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause…”

And so goes the history of NATO. As critics have hurled taunts of obsolescence, NATO has remained the steadfast practitioner of peace, the man in the arena upholding the collective defense commitment enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, and building and maintaining the deterrence and defense capabilities that sit at the very heart of transatlantic security. Witness the transatlantic solidarity at the recent commemorations of the 80th anniversary of D-Day. Would those bonds have held for 80 years if not for the binding force of an enduring collective security pact? History says no.

Time and again, NATO has had to redefine itself to meet the next major emerging threat to Allied security. When the Cold War ended, many rushed to write NATO’s obituary. Instead, the Alliance set out on a new European project, one that would eventually give rise to robust democracies and extend NATO membership to areas of the continent previously shrouded behind the Iron Curtain.

In 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine meant to capture the capital of Europe’s largest country and bring 40 million people under the heel of a Muscovian marionette, some lamented NATO enlargement as the cause of Putin’s murderous ambition. It is, however, that very enlargement of the Alliance that keeps Tallinn and Helsinki out of Putin’s grasp. The difference between what happened to Europe at the hands of Hitler in the 1930s and the threat posed by Putin’s Russia is NATO. NATO territory is a redline Putin dare not cross. Article 5 is ironclad.

At the NATO Leaders’ Summit in Madrid in 2022, the Alliance adopted a new Strategic Concept that further enshrines the founding democratic principles of the Washington Treaty in how we define and organize ourselves as a political-military alliance. For the first time ever, we resolve that NATO will “safeguard our freedom and democracy,” and “reinforce our shared democratic values”. Also for the first time ever, the Strategic Concept identifies authoritarianism as a challenge to our “interests, values, and democratic way of life.” Not just Russian or Chinese authoritarianism, but authoritarianism in general.

After 75 years of existence, we believe it is time that NATO establish architecture – concrete architecture – dedicated to the protection and advancement of democracy, which is why the NATO Parliamentary Assembly has repeatedly called on NATO to establish a Center for Democratic Resilience at NATO Headquarters. We believe that any differences with countries opposed to the establishment of the Center can be resolved and consensus can be reached on this timely proposal.

The next front for NATO evolution will be in the battle between democracy and authoritarianism. Putin is drawing those battle lines right now in the Donbas, on the outskirts of Kharkiv, and winding along the banks of the Dnipro River. Across the battlefield, support from China, Iran, and North Korea is finding its way into Russian trenches. We must support the people of Ukraine to demonstrate our resolve to resist a revanchist Russia bent on denying the world a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace.

Last March, when Xi Jinping visited Russia, he said to Vladimir Putin, “Change is coming that hasn’t happened in 100 years. And we are driving this change together.” Trade between the two countries was up 23%in 2023 despite a growing multilateral sanctions regime against Russia, and the United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence has assessed that China has become “an even more critical economic partner for Russia.” Russia has enlisted China’s help in evading monetary sanctions, with the renminbi replacing the U.S. dollar as the most traded currency in Russia. China now supplies Russia with 90% of its semiconductors, which are critical to the weapons Russia is deploying in Ukraine. Iran is supplying Russia with ballistic missiles and helping Russian troops deploy thousands of Shahed drones, to devastating effect. North Korea is providing Russia with millions of rounds of artillery ammunition and North Korean-manufactured ballistic missiles.

In many ways, the threat of authoritarianism and how NATO rises to the latest challenge to transatlantic security remains the same. Democracy alone will not maintain NATO’s defense and deterrence. We must maintain our nuclear deterrent. Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea have dramatically transformed their nuclear postures, investing in new long-range capabilities while escalating their threatening rhetoric. NATO members must maintain nuclear arsenals and invest in a modernized, scalable, and integrated missile defense system. Allies must also invest in space-based sensors and radar satellites to better track these threats and counter escalatory behavior.

NATO members must continue to build strong militaries. As the Alliance moves beyond the Wales Defense Investment Pledge, 2% of GDP must be a floor, not a ceiling, for defense spending, to keep Article 5 strong and credible.

Ahead of the NATO Summit in Washington, D.C. in July, the United States Congressional delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly will convene the NATO Parliamentary Leaders Summit. All 32 members countries will be represented when we meet at the United States Capitol, our citadel of democracy and a symbol of democratic freedom the world over. At the Summit, we will have the Washington Treaty on display, opened to the page that contains the preamble to the Treaty and NATO’s founding commitment to democracy. As parliamentarians, we have dedicated our lives to the democratic pursuits that bind us to the people we represent and to the people NATO protects. The Parliamentary Summit in the 75th year of NATO will be a rededication to strengthening our shared democratic values and the security investments and capabilities that ensure NATO remains the world’s preeminent political and military alliance. And its most successful.

The world needs NATO in the arena. Putin and Xi would welcome a West that succumbs to the critic’s refrain that NATO is brain dead, obsolete, and a relic of the Cold War. The Alliance, however, can and will meet the challenges posed by authoritarianism by preserving our defense and deterrence capabilities, and rededicating ourselves to our founding democratic values. Now more than ever, prioritizing democratic resilience and strengthening the Alliance is critical to ensuring peace and security, both in Europe and across the globe.

Congressman Gerald E. Connolly is the President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. In the U.S. Congress, he is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and House Oversight and Accountability Committee.

Congressman Michael Turner is the head of the U.S. Delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. In the U.S. Congress, he is Chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee.

To read this OpEd as it appeared in NATO Review, click here

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