When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, NATO was comprised of 16 members. All were in Western Europe and North America, and all had benefited from decades of security, stability, and democratic political and economic development. People trapped behind the Iron Curtain in Central and Eastern Europe found their first opportunity in over 45 years to build democracy and secure their freedom for future generations.
Today, NATO has 29 members (soon to be 30) and in addition to North America and Western Europe, well over 100 million people in Central and Eastern Europe now live in freer, more prosperous, and more secure societies than at any point in history. This is a remarkable historical accomplishment that must not be underestimated.
The domestic democratic challenges faced in Central and Eastern Europe today are no different than those same challenges being faced in Western Europe and the United States. They are not a result of NATO enlargement, but of other factors. Meanwhile, external threats mount, and over 60 million more people in Eastern Europe are still at risk and are still struggling to achieve the same degree of freedom and security as in the rest of Europe. The answer is not to question our accomplishments, but to extend them to these people in vulnerable societies as well.
It’s about Humanity, after All …
In the field of governance, the great achievement of humanity over millennia has been the establishment of governments where people choose their leaders, and leaders serve the people. This is vastly different from having powerful leaders who “rule” their subjects. Putting into practice the rule “by, for, and of the people” was first achieved at scale in the West, but the longing for governance based on human values is universal. When the dust of World War II settled, people in Western Europe and North America, who had nurtured and protected this form of governance for decades, were able to build a system of collective security aimed at preserving these gains for future generations. That is why NATO was created: to provide collective defence of the West against external threats so that the West could preserve human freedom.
People in Central and Eastern Europe, who had also been part of Europe’s long history and development, and who yearned for the same guarantees of freedom and security, were trapped under governments imposed by the Soviet Union.
They struggled to regain this freedom on their own—in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in the 1980s, and the Soviet Republic of Georgia in April 1989.
It was only in late 1989, however, after over 40 years of Soviet-imposed rule in Central Europe, when cracks in the Iron Curtain emerged, the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union lacked the will to impose its rule by force, and people in Central and Eastern Europe were again able to assert their demand for freedom and security.
The Soviet Union collapsed two years later, in 1991, and people in territories that had been forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union—particularly the Baltic states, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova—also sought to define and preserve their newly gained freedom.
That is the background to the enlargement of NATO: the 40-year success of NATO in the West, and the aspirations of newly free people in the East to make sure that their freedom would never be taken away again. There was a sudden, historic opportunity to ensure that the gains of humanity, which the West had long realized, would not now also be available to people in the East.
NATO did not agree to take in new members right away. Indeed, when Poland and others sought immediate membership in NATO, the alliance pushed back. It was hesitant to draw new lines in Europe, having just seen the Iron Curtain come down. NATO was insistent that newly free countries actually demonstrate democratic performance, market reform, civilian control over militaries, good-neighbourly relations, interoperability with NATO, and contributions to security in Europe as a whole.
It was not until 1999, 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the first three new members of NATO assumed their full rights as allies. Further members only assumed their places later—in 2004, 2009, and 2017.
What Did NATO Enlargement Achieve?
NATO enlargement since 1989 has ensured that an additional 100 million people in Europe are now able to live in free, more prosperous, and secure societies. Before 1989, this was not the case. This is a tremendous advance for humanity, and a remarkable accomplishment at the end of the 20th century, which otherwise saw the greatest destruction of humanity in history.
The process by which NATO enlarged was useful. It insisted on reform first, with the promise of membership later if reform was achieved. This promise was mirrored by the European Union’s own promise of openness to new European democracies as well. As a result, NATO enlargement provided a huge incentive for far-reaching reform in Central and Eastern Europe that benefited the citizens of those countries—achieving far more, and more quickly, than would have been done otherwise.
NATO enlargement also strengthened security in Europe as a whole. New members have benefited the “old NATO” by adding territory, populations, military capability, economic capacity, and a fresh commitment to core values of freedom and democracy when many in Western Europe took those for granted. Aspiring NATO members and new members have made major contributions to NATO operations—for example, in Afghanistan—which have had a significant multiplying effect on NATO’s force-projection capability.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, questions were immediately raised as to whether NATO had now outlived its usefulness. Should NATO also be retired? But the determination of newly free countries to join NATO—as well as NATO’s decision to engage in out-of-area crisis management, supported by new allies and partners—put to rest questions about NATO’s obsolescence. Enlargement, alongside crisis management, helped give NATO a new lease on life.
So What Went Wrong?
Given the striking success of NATO enlargement, the question “what went wrong” is jarring. The short answer is: nothing. The United States, Western Europe, Central Europe, and even people in non-members such as Ukraine and Georgia are all better off today than they were before NATO enlarged. And the opposite—a NATO that never accepted new members—would have left all of these states in Central and Eastern Europe in a state of limbo. Indeed, through the addition of new members, the EU and NATO have helped build a stronger, more inclusive, and more resilient Europe, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Nonetheless, the question deserves serious examination. “What went wrong” is an oblique reference to concerns about the current trajectory of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe (particularly Poland and Hungary). The assumption is that after 1989, these nations were avidly embracing democracy, but in the past few years, they are now undoing democratic institutions.
There are many problems with this assumption. First is that the challenges we are seeing in Central Europe are somehow a uniquely Central European phenomenon. The view is that if we had somehow done something differently over the past 20 years, since the first NATO accession, we would not face these challenges today. But the fact is that the trends affecting Central Europe are affecting Western Europe and the United States as well. This is not an issue of a poorly performing Central Europe, but rather an issue of public disenchantment with established politics and politicians at a time of great disruption caused by everything from globalisation to immigration to perceived threats to national identity. A second problem with this proposition is that it assumes that policies being implemented by Central European leaders are inherently anti- democratic. That is not necessarily true. Again, it is a case of Western (and some Central European) elites looking at Central European populists as somehow different, when in fact the same populist political pressures are changing established Western democracies as well.
For the most part, established European elites have tended to favour a particular form of liberal democratic politics, which includes a high degree of multi-nationalism and multi-culturalism, secularism, social liberalism, and status quo politics. In Western and Central Europe alike, substantial and growing political parties are challenging this mindset and this set of policies. In Western Europe, this is seen as change taking place within democratic systems. In Central Europe, however, this same phenomenon is often cast as anti-democratic.
What we see in many Central, Eastern, and Western European societies alike is not a rejection of democracy, but a rebellion against these particular elite attitudes and policies, which many voters see as riding roughshod over national interests. They are using democratic systems to demand radical change, and to attempt to defend national identity, traditional social views, and economic and cultural protection. They harangue a liberal media, which they see as part of the liberal establishment, just as the liberal media criticizes these populist leaders and political parties.
Above all, the touchstone issue has been immigration, where populist nationalists fear mass immigration as threatening everything from national identity to social welfare systems to the rule of law. They see established political elites as having failed to tackle this problem adequately.
When they can, these populist forces seek to use their acquisition of political power to replace entrenched elites from key positions, much as any other victor in a democratic election would seek to do. It is simply that their choices of policies and people are at odds with the establishment itself. This is not the tearing up of democracy, but voters making choices within democracy. We must respect the choices, even if we disagree with them, and not see that as equivalent to destroying democratic institutions. The third problem with the “what went wrong” question is that it carries an inherent sense of finality. Political issues and politicians rise and fall. Today’s darlings are tomorrow’s outcasts. We are indeed going through a difficult phase in all of the West, including in Central and Eastern Europe. But our strong commitment to core values and the strength of our democratic institutions will outlast all the particular individuals and policies that cycle through. Indeed, we may even see the beginnings of that now, with new political movements or protests changing the landscape in Armenia, Moldova, Slovakia, Georgia, and Ukraine, as well as the discrediting of the far-right leader in Austria, and the strength of Green Parties in European Parliamentary elections.
What to Do Now?
If we think of the problem as described above—as populist and nationalist choices being made within European democracies rather than a Central European reversal of democracy—we can identify a number of policy steps for European and American leaders.
First, is the embrace of diversity in political views. Diversity usually is used to mean embracing ethnic and religious minorities and liberal social causes. But just as important is embracing those of our citizens who have conservative social and political views, a strong attachment to national identity and culture, and a scepticism of multinational structures that take over pieces of national sovereignty. We must not demonise these people or their ideas but must recognise that in a democracy, we need to recognise that others have different views and engage in a healthy competition instead.
Second, we need to stop thinking of Central Europe as a second-class adjunct to Western Europe. True, the political and economic systems have had less time to mature. But the citizens of Central Europe are no less European, no less committed to core values, and no less legitimate in their aspirations than any others. Indeed, the challenges faced in Central and East European societies are the same as those faced in the West, and we have a shared need to work together to address them.
Third, we must reinforce our explicit commitment to core, universal human values: freedom, democracy, market economy, rule of law, human rights, and security. Even as we face populist and nationalist challenges within our democracies, these core values are still shared on all sides of the spectrum. We need to uphold them as the central element of our societies, which will give us strength and resilience in dealing with different political views and external challenges over time.
Fourth, both sides of the Atlantic need to work harder to forge common positions on addressing external challenges. All of us in the West, whether in Central Europe, Western Europe, or North America, face an immediate security challenge from an authoritarian Russia, and a growing strategic challenge from a China that is amassing and using political, economic and military power. China is seeking to supplant the democratic, rules-based, free-market global economic order that has produced the success of the transatlantic community of today with its own non-democratic, state- driven economic model, that will instead benefit China.
Differences of policy among Europeans, or between Europe and the United States, are natural and inevitable. But we must not allow ourselves to lose sight of the fact that even with these differences, Europe and the U.S. are part of one community that shares core values and interests.
Finally, we need to think outwardly, not defensively. Because of the successive rounds of NATO enlargement, over 100 million people in Central and Eastern Europe now live in safe, democratic, and increasingly prosperous societies. Yet, tens of millions of others—in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Belarus, and even Russia itself—have still been left out.
We should continuously work towards an inclusive Europe—a Europe “whole, free, and at peace”—where all people have equal access to freedom, prosperity, and security, not just those who are already safe. Why should people in Tbilisi, Kyiv, or Chisinau not enjoy the security that has brought confidence and prosperity to people in Berlin, Paris, and Rome?
Some argue that NATO and the EU are fatigued. Or, that they must address their own internal challenges first. Or, that states in Eastern Europe are simply not ready to join NATO or the EU. These are all relevant considerations to shape future policy, but they are not reasons to freeze things as they are.
Some argue that further NATO and EU enlargement would provoke Russia. The reality, however, is that Russia invaded Georgia and Ukraine, and still occupies part of Moldova—countries that do not have NATO or EU membership. Where NATO has a defensive guarantee, there has been stability and security. It is only where NATO and the EU have left a “grey zone” that Russia seeks to impose itself on other European nations.
Are there risks? Of course, but no more than NATO was designed to face in the past when it brought a divided Germany into the alliance, manned the checkpoints at the Berlin Wall, or patrolled the seas and skies of the North Atlantic.
As a defensive alliance, NATO would need to be clear that it would not support any military effort to retake territories that Russia has seized from Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova. NATO would only act to protect those territories that remain under their sovereign control while supporting only peaceful reintegration of territories currently occupied by Russia. Nor are NATO and the EU seeking regime change in any non-democratic countries in Eastern Europe. Rather, the West should uphold the principles of freedom and democracy—enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act—as beacons to people throughout the Euro-Atlantic area, with the hope for change from within, and without any imposition of external change.
NATO recognized that the building of a Europe whole, free, and at peace is incomplete when, at its 2008 Bucharest summit, the Alliance assured Ukraine and Georgia that they would eventually become members. Since then, however, no further steps have been taken.
To be sure, these states still have much work to do in strengthening democratic institutions, the rule of law, and open, competitive economies. But as they continue to develop, soon the only obstacle to NATO membership will be Russia’s seizure of territory.
That is where Western policy will face a dilemma. How can we be true to our own values, protecting our own freedom and security, when other European democracies who share our values live under the shadow of constant, immediate security threats? Isn’t that why NATO was founded in the first place? And isn’t our ability to move beyond that problem the key lesson we should learn from the success of NATO enlargement until now?