Despite all the debate about NATO's relevance and continued viability, the foundation of the Alliance in its values of "democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law" remains fundamentally sound. In fact, as the uprising of Middle Eastern peoples in pursuit of these values demonstrates, they are no less relevant today than they were at the time of NATO’s formation more than 60 years ago. But while the relevance of the principles has, if anything, increased, NATO's role in their pursuit has been fundamentally transformed over the past two decades. During the Cold War, the essential task of the Alliance was to protect and defend these values at home, against the threat of an imposition by the Soviets of their own ideas on Europe, and potentially the world. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the general demise of Communist ideology, that is no longer an immediate priority. At the same, Atlantic values have been increasingly embraced by individuals, social groups, and entire nations all around the world – in no small part due to the direct and indirect encouragement of NATO countries and their citizens: officially through good governance programs, human rights dialogues, and public diplomacy initiatives, but also privately through the spread of Western pop and consumer culture, intensifying exchanges between individuals and groups across nations and societies, and via the internet.
While this process of spreading transatlantic values has long become detached from Cold War institutions, it does not absolve them from a responsibility for the ideals and principles on which they are built. In fact, it may well undermine the legitimacy of an institution like NATO not only internationally, but also internally, if it stands idly by while activists and ordinary citizens in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria risk their lives in a struggle for the precise values Western institutions claim to defend. Internationally, the growing acceptance of a Responsibility to Protect makes it increasingly difficult to justify its selective application according to political expedience. Domestically, Western populations that can, by the many virtues of globalization, much more immediately relate to the victims of the atrocities they see nightly on TV than two decades ago are much less likely to tolerate inaction in the face of gross violations of human rights and fundamental values most anywhere on earth. The Arab Spring has demonstrated, however, that inaction in the face of an attack on these fundamental values is more than just a moral or political problem for an institution like NATO: Sticking with autocratic regimes for too long in the name of stability may quickly work to undermine not only the legitimacy of the Alliance, but also the very stability it seeks to promote.
From our conscious and unconscious spreading of values like democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law thus flows not only a moral responsibility, but also a genuine self-interest to protect those who have embraced them at our own behest. Sometimes, the private sector and social networks can do a lot in this regard, as is illustrated by Google’s decision last year to make access to Twitter available through landline telephones for Egyptian protesters blacked out from access to the internet. Sometimes, however, more forceful action is required – as it was in Libya. NATO has a role to play here because it has always been not only a mere security community, but a community of values as well. And just as we have painfully learned that the military protection of our security can no longer start only at the border, we have to realize that the political defense of our values can no longer be confined to member states of the Alliance either.
Obviously, the aim and ambition of such an outward-looking political role cannot be for us to go out and impose our values on everyone, or to intervene everywhere they may seem to be in peril. Rather, it should be to uphold a credible offer of support for those who have themselves embraced these values and are in need of help in implementing them. In a benign environment, such support might come in the form of assistance with constitutional and administrative reform, election monitoring, and the like. For the offer to be relevant, however, it must also be extended to those operating in less fortunate circumstances. NATO must be willing to build ties and relationships with democratic reform movements and opposition groups at an early stage. This will not only signal determination, but also provide ample time for a thorough vetting process, allowing for an informed decision, on a case-by-case basis, on the provision of assistance in organization-building, funding, and training in non-violent means of protest and resistance. In more dire situations, like the one in Syria, such established ties might also help in determining whether, for whom, and how more far-reaching support should be provided.
Implementing such a policy may not be easy institutionally and politically it may indeed require a thorough reassessment of the West’s ambitions. However, in an age where Western power is declining and a fundamental reordering of the global power structure appears only a matter of time, firmly establishing and enshrining our values as broadly as possible in the prevailing global order may well be worth the while.
Karsten Jung is a research associate at the department of political science and sociology at the University of Bonn, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. project on the role of informal concert diplomacy in post–Cold War security policy.