NATO remains in a transition period. The dilemma of establishing shared values amongst alliance nations depends upon a prior question: what is NATO's purpose and why does it exist?
Historically, the NATO alliance was established to combat the threat of Soviet communism; it is a defensive league of polities bound by certain, extremely broad, common values. This basket of values represents a general expression of liberalism - belief in individual liberty (personal and economic), firm commitment to the rule of law, procedural democracy, and a universal vision of human rights.
In contrast to the USSR, these values appeared self-evident. Soviet communism embodied the antithesis of Western liberalism: authoritarianism, collectivism, and a vision of human rights subordinated to the state.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the NATO consensus fragmented. In the absence of a clear antithesis, the alliance turned inward, on relatively narrow divergences within the overarching framework of its liberal consensus. The obvious example is the divide (smaller than many believe, but still present) between the Anglo-American and Continental European variants of the welfare state. Focus on such divisions has engendered a fragile alliance, unsure of itself and its purpose in the world.
The prescription is rather straightforward: redirect the attentions of NATO outward, towards external challenges rather than internal divisions. There are two possible means of achieving this end: orienting NATO towards the offensive expansion of liberalism or reorienting the alliance towards a defensive union of all broadly liberal states.
The former philosophy aims to direct the alliance towards the active support of liberalism, broadly understood, around the world. While allied nations may have minor disagreements, the world outside remains largely illiberal. This form of aggression has been the essence of post-1991 NATO policy. It has also been muddled and incoherent.
Citizens of allied nations do not seem to be sure what NATO is attempting to achieve. Supporting the right of national self-determination, for example, may or may not conform to the alliance's liberal consensus; targeting some illiberal regimes for destruction but not others suggests either policy incoherence or implies that the alliance is being used as a tool to advance the interests of the United States. Neither qualifies as an institutional commitment to exporting shared values.
The second possibility is to redefine the NATO alliance as a defensive union of liberal states. This philosophy has become a part of the alliance's operations in recent years, but has not yet diffused into popular visions of the organization, nor has it been fully embraced by the institution itself. In policy terms, it implies abandoning offensive activities not explicitly tied to preventing attacks against member states, accepting the impossibility of constructing new liberal states from scratch, and concentrating attention on global intelligence and joint special-forces capability.
Military commitments need not be large in number, but ought to be sizable in quality - the challenges of our time are better met with small units of highly trained experts than divisions of infantry and heavy artillery. Greater integration will be facilitated through cooperative military interactions among specialists and intelligence services, as well as through a shared sense of commitment and sacrifice among national populations.
It bears repeating that, to create a sense of shared sacrifice, NATO must remain a defensive alliance. Aggressive action creates inevitable division; save when it is universally obvious that action must be taken. Any combat operations that fall short of this standard sow the seeds of distrust and invite internal dissension. Bringing more of the world into NATO will encourage this objective, in addition to pressing the broader liberal project further. Adherence to a defensive posture of strength and restraint will be easier with more voices at the table. So long as the alliance is seen primarily as a mechanism for projecting force it will be used towards ends that subvert its purpose.
This is a final, essential element of the NATO project - it cannot remain a solely Western alliance. NATO must embrace membership from all qualifying nations who fall within a broad liberal consensus. Bringing Eastern European members into the fold is an excellent start.
Potential member-states remain that have their differences with the West, but embracing those nations (and individuals) that follow liberal procedures and arrive at unique results is the essence of liberalism. It ought to be the essence of NATO as well.
Scott Atherley is a doctoral student in Political Science at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, USA.