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Edition #2
Networks and Labyrinths
Zsófi Lázár
Edited by Andrei Andronic

NATO and the struggle for democracy

Truman’s past dreams for NATO fade into impossibility in face of the shelling in Mariupol. The Ukraine conflict and the subsequent invasion has been an education in indecision as Russian aggression has undermined NATO values like democracy, the rule of law and emphasis on human rights. Though the establishment of this organisation in 1949 had previously been cited as a turning point in the history of the West, the current crisis has sharply revealed its bureaucratic inefficiencies and organisational flaws. Moreover, it has shown a fundamental reluctance to stand for its principles in threats toward countries outside the traditional “Western” sphere.

“An armed attack against one or more of them…shall be considered an attack against them all”. This central role taken by Article five in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation agreement should be seen as an effort to caution those seeking to undermine its stability, and a deterrent against nationalist militarism in Europe. With Soviet expansionism perceived as the greatest threat to democracy after the end of the Second World War, it was seen as necessary to include the option to retaliate following any attacks against NATO members and their allies, with “such action as (NATO) deems necessary, including the use of armed force” (NATO, 2011).

However, the refusal of NATO to induct Ukraine into its membership body represents a serious failure of strategic insight and a surrender to Russia’s basest tactic of intimidation. Since 2020, Ukraine has been one of the body’s “enhanced opportunity partners”, making “significant contributions to NATO-led operations and missions” that has its roots in the 1997 Ukraine-NATO commission. This originally allowed for discussion on security issues and enabled the furthering of a Ukraine-NATO relationship without a formal membership agreement. Further, since the accession of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, Russia has demanded a formal veto on a potential Ukrainian induction and has recently threatened “political and military” consequences towards other traditionally “non-western” countries like Finland or Sweden if they attempted to join. The acceptance of countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary in 1999 into NATO through the Partnership for Peace program marked a milestone (NATO, 2011) for the organisation. Despite its aggressive stance and the atrocities that are now being committed in its invasion of Ukraine, it would be a severe miscalculation to allow Russia to dictate terms. The policy of appeasement is one that has historically been futile - for NATO to adopt the hope that Putin might be satisfied with Ukraine is not only insulting to the Ukrainian population and NATO values, but highly unrealistic.

Without acknowledging merit in Putin’s criticisms of the alliance, it is clear that NATO’s significance and focus as an organisation has shifted since its inception in 1949. An early focus can be seen on minimising the recurrence of nationalist movements in Europe, as the organisation originally claimed to do in the 1950s. However, the détente of the 1960s marked a tangible shift within NATO towards using the sphere as a political instrument, which has continued until today. Moreover, the role of the Alliance as a ‘stabilising’ tool for Eastern Europe and Central Asia emerged only in the 1990s through new partners and Allies from the former Soviet bloc. This can be seen in the early 2000s with the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council (NATO, 2011) and other attempts to coordinate on security matters of joint interest, highlighting that to some extent NATO endeavoured to cooperate with Russia and other non-traditional Western partners.

On the other hand, NATO’s policies and membership process have seen much criticism.  To achieve NATO accession, member-state hopefuls must upgrade their militaries in line with modern ‘western’ standards and even make political changes in accordance with NATO values. They are requested to settle ethnic or territorial disputes peacefully, show their commitment to human rights and the rule of law, and promote social justice and economic freedom. These changes are often made through the issuing of a “membership action plan”. Though some changes are important and valuable in upholding human rights, it is clear that it also forces countries to conform to traditionally “western” working methods and structures that may not necessarily be suitable.

This has also led to allegations of NATO “expansionism” which can be seen as undermining the basis upon which the cautious agreement and geopolitical stability was established. In particular, an alleged ‘‘pledge’’ (Itzkowitz Shifrinson, 2016) by Secretary Baker to Gorbachev in 1990 that NATO’s borders would move “not one inch eastward” brings contention to this debate and has been invoked by various Russia leaders as a promise barring NATO from its expansion. The American rebuttal points to hypothetical phrasing and the lack of a formal, written agreement afterwards. Moreover, declassified materials show unmistakably that no formal pledge between countries was ever made. Even President Bush opposed the plan. Though formality states that no breach was committed, Russian criticism of NATO expansionism should therefore not be seen as unfounded. NATO has amassed a number of member states eastward of its original position, and has made no promises to stop its expansion.

In part, this can also be seen in the hugely problematic nature of NATO’s foreign influence. Its many military interventions can and should be called into question for their short-sightedness and lack of efficiency. Examples can be found during the Yugoslav wars, the intervention in the Kosovo-Serbia conflict in 1998 and the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan. The first two examples can be seen as arising in the wake of strong nationalist mobilisations in their countries which lead to a power vacuum that destabilised huge regions of Europe. Despite clear violations of human rights and ethnic cleansing, NATO’s indecision during these conflicts led to the displacement of thousands of people prior to intervention. Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan aimed at promoting conditions for “self-sustaining peace”, though it ultimately exacerbated many of the tensions and hostilities within the area and worsened Afghanistan’s geopolitical state.

Questioning NATO is now more essential than ever. In some ways it has been a force for good, promoting peace and stabilising international diplomacy as an unmistakable deterrent. However, it is far from being the “foundation stone of transatlantic peace and freedom” (NATO, 2011) that its establishment had aimed for. Its indecision, lack of efficiency and its use as a political arena to propagate those issues most important to “Western” states has irreparably damaged its credibility - or, perhaps worse yet, it has exposed that the NATO Truman had dreamed of may have never existed at all.


NATO, A short history of NATO. [online] NATO (2011). Available at:

NATO-Russia Council - About page (2011). Available at: Accessed 5 Apr. 2022.

Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson; “Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer to Limit NATO Expansion”. International Security (2016); Volume 40 (4): 7–44

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