NATO’s sin of omission
In Catholicism, one commits a sin of omission when failing to do that which is required. The sin of omission hanging over the June 14 summit with NATO Heads of State and Government is a potential failure by allies to recognize the existential threat posed by the global march of autocracy, which is quickening its step by the day. The alliance stands at a critical juncture. As we confront a new global competition of values and systems of governance, our leaders must rededicate the alliance to the democratic foundations of the Washington Treaty and anchor our commitment to democracy within NATO by establishing a Center for Democratic Resilience within NATO headquarters.
The United States can lead the effort and do so with great humility. We know that democracy, while resilient, is also fragile. The armed insurrection at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6 opened the eyes of America and the world to this fact. Democracy prevailed that day, and we must ensure it will do so tomorrow.
President Biden is a committed transatlanticist. I know because I worked for him as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His commitment to the alliance has never wavered. He is also a president helping our country emerge from a period of substantial political turmoil and direct attacks on our democratic institutions. His response is a bold pro-democracy agenda both here at home and abroad. His mission at NATO should be no different and no less bold.
After World War II, 10 European nations, the United States and Canada came together to save Europe from looming communist aggression and domination. NATO’s founding fathers had the foresight to define this alliance not by what it stands against, but what it stands for: a commitment to shared democratic values. Ever since, Europe and North America, through NATO, have sought to safeguard an international rules-based order based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. This order has come under fire.
Competition between great powers has returned. Russia, China and others are modernizing their militaries in ways that undermine strategic stability. But we face no mere contest of military might. We are in the middle of a contest of values. Autocrats in Moscow, Beijing and elsewhere are promoting alternative models of governance and targeting the principles and institutions at the heart of our democratic societies.
We must strengthen democracy at home. Democracy unites us. It makes us stronger, and it makes us safer. Citizens, legislatures, governments and international institutions must constantly work to protect it, expand it, and strengthen the ability of our democracies to resist and counter attempts to undermine it — both from within and without.
NATO must play its part too. Its commitment to shared democratic values distinguishes NATO from other alliances. Without it, NATO would be just another military bloc.
This understanding has always been at the heart of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s raison d’être. Institutionally separate from NATO, we bring together legislators from across the Atlantic Alliance determined to protect our citizens and defend our democratic way of life. Defending democracy must be acknowledged as a key pillar of NATO’s core mission.
That is why, as NATO leaders prepare to meet in Brussels, we call on them to consider the establishment of a Center for Democratic Resilience within NATO. NATO has a well-oiled machinery to deter adversaries, defend its citizens, manage crises and cooperate with our partners. But it lacks a body which is fully focused on defending democracy. This must change.
Such a center, located within NATO headquarters, would be a resource and clearinghouse for democratic best practices. Operationally, it would provide consulting to those who seek guidance and practical assistance in establishing or enhancing democratic architecture like an independent judiciary, election security, or parliamentary oversight functions. It could monitor and identify challenges to democracy, human rights and the rule of law among member states in addition to facilitating democracy and governance assistance to member and aspirant states when requested.
We were encouraged the independent group of experts supporting the NATO 2030 reflection process also saw the need for a center on democratic resilience when they recommended such urgent action to the NATO secretary general last November.
We must demonstrate our commitment to shared democratic values, in both words and in deeds. This would send a strong signal to our citizens as well as those who want to do us harm: the alliance is equally committed to defending our democratic values as it is to collective security. The importance of shared democratic values can no longer be just a mantra that our leaders trot out regularly in summit communiqués.
Come June 14, we hope our leaders heed the call and make operational the foundational commitment enshrined in the 1949 Washington Treaty: safeguarding “the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”
Gerald E. Connolly represents the 11 District of Virginia. He is president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.