NATO’s Price: Shape Up or Ship Out

Celeste A Wallander. Foreign Affairs. Volume 81, Issue 6. November/December 2002.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization remains today a unique and invaluable alliance. The single most important international institution serving U.S. national security interests during the Cold War, NATO has since continued to function as a reliable instrument for multilateral military cooperation. The alliance’s outreach programs and the lure of membership for former Soviet bloc countries have constituted the core of U.S. security policy in central and eastern Europe for a decade. Just as a healthy and effective NATO is vital to U.S. national security, a strong U.S. commitment to the alliance is vital to NATO’s future health.

The conventional policy debates about NATO’s uncertain future focus on the challenge that terrorism poses to the alliance’s military missions and capabilities, as well as on which countries should be next in line for accession—both key topics at the November NATO summit in Prague. But these debates lose sight of a more fundamental problem: the very qualities that make NATO work are at risk. Nato is a uniquely effective multilateral military alliance precisely because it is a political security community of countries with common values and democratic institutions. NATO works only because it is both military and political in nature. Dilute NATO’s political coherence, and the result will be a one-dimensional traditional military alliance that cannot operate effectively.

The Golden Ring

Regrettably, the current obsession with how military missions will be defined and whether members spend two percent of their GDPS on defense has obscured a more urgent crisis: NATO needs to take steps to ensure that old, new, and prospective members live up to its political standards, thereby securing the organization’s coherence and relevance. If NATO is truly dedicated to protecting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, its own members cannot be exempt from upholding those principles.

The golden ring of NATO membership has certainly served as a powerful incentive for internal reform and Westernization throughout central and eastern Europe. But what happens now that these new democracies are members? What is their incentive to continue on the path of reform and convergence with the Western security community that is NATO? Actually, there is none. Nearly alone among international institutions, NATO does not have procedures for dealing with members that violate its rules and standards.

NATO members must therefore agree to amend the North Atlantic Treaty to allow for sanction, suspension, or even expulsion of backsliding members. The objective of such a revision would be to sharpen members’ incentive to perform and live up to political standards so that the alliance can continue to work. Right now, NATO operates like a soccer team that holds tryouts to select players but then can never cut delinquent ones from the roster if they break training and lose their skills and conditioning. If NATO is to remain a successful team, it needs a credible mechanism to bench, and ultimately drop, flabby members.

Earning One’s Keep

There are two reasons why NATO members need to get tough on their own. First, it is generally accepted that one of NATO’s most important contributions to transatlantic security has been the incentive that the prospect of membership creates for former Soviet bloc countries to engage in costly and controversial reforms. Assert to a NATO official that the alliance has lost its purpose with the end of the Cold War, and she will explain how Poland achieved important improvements in civilian control of its defense forces because it was made clear to the country’s leadership that without such changes Poland would not become a member. If challenged on the notion that NATO today prevents cycles of mistrust and diffuses threats that led to centuries of war in Europe, she will point out that Hungary agreed to peacefully resolve historical territorial claims against neighbors who often count substantial Hungarian minorities as citizens. When questioned on the wisdom of the next round of enlargement, she will talk about how membership incentives contribute to Lithuania’s acknowledgment of the country’s antisemitic past and its role in the Holocaust.

Because NATO membership is not freely given and must be earned, aspirants have strong incentive to leave behind their nationalist and nondemocratic past for a Western orientation. In fact, this incentive effect is one of the main arguments for the future importance of the alliance. If it is true that countries’ adherence to NATO standards advances U.S. security, then the question of holding members to those standards is not only legitimate but vital to American interests.

The second argument for taking NATO’s political standards seriously should concern even those who care only about its military effectiveness. American defense officials know that what makes NATO work as an effective military alliance is the daily participation of its members in its committees, military planning, and exercises. The integrated military command and NATO military interoperability—the unprecedented hallmarks of NATO’s capability and effectiveness—work only because of the alliance’s practical problem-solving and consensus principles that allow it to pursue a unified, and thereby stronger, policy. Willingness to operate by consensus rests on trust and confidence among the members. These traits, in turn, are rooted in the common purposes, values, and institutions of NATO’s members.

Furthermore, policies achieved by consensus in NATO, unlike those similarly achieved in most international institutions, are actually meaningful. Getting agreement in the huge and diverse United Nations often means promoting weak policies to which no country would object. In contrast, as one NATO official recently said, although NATO positions are the lowest common denominator on whatever issue is at hand, that lowest common denominator is often highly meaningful because NATO members share interests, objectives, and values. If that were not the case, the consensus process would likely yield meaningless policies hardly worth implementing, especially in the military arena.

Ultimately, then, NATO works as a military alliance because its members share a common heritage of transparent and just government and military professionalism in the service of civilian authority. The alliance’s effectiveness is unavoidably rooted in the qualities of its members, primarily their democratic values and institutions. A NATO with a member or two ruled by xenophobic, authoritarian, or corrupt leaderships would be not merely an embarrassment but an ultimate failure. Like a team, NATO is only as good as its members.

What would happen to this effective institution if one of its members could no longer be trusted? How could NATO committees function if one of the organization’s members could not be relied on to sustain democratic procedures, root out corruption, or ensure that civilian authorities exercise control of military actions? How could its military commands plan operations if they had to include officers from countries with smoldering irredentist claims against their neighbors? The answer is, they could not. Under those circumstances, NATO would lose not only its political coherence, but also its capacity for joint military action in support of consensus-based alliance policy. Whatever NATO’s military future, it must be based on a common political commitment.

A Hazardous Condition

Even worse, membership standards without teeth actually create incentives for delinquency. NATO is a highly valued security institution; many countries seek to join it to be more secure. Without some mechanism to ensure that they contribute to upholding its standards, the lure of membership will itself become the poison pill that will destroy NATO’s effectiveness.

This problem of “moral hazard,” a condition in which one does not have to pay the price for risk-taking or rule-breaking behavior, is well known in financial and economic circles. Consider the case of a lender who extends credit to a prospective debtor country knowing that the International Monetary Fund will not allow the debtor country to default. Normally extending loans is risky, and, when the market works properly, bad risks will not be accepted, and bad loans will not be made. When a loan is guaranteed by some outside agency, however, the market fails. Moral hazard alters otherwise prudent calculations, breaks down the system, and actually encourages risky and irresponsible behavior.

The problem of moral hazard drove the European Union to require member countries adopting its common currency, the euro, to sign on to its Stability Pact as well. Under the Stability Pact, members have to commit to preventing government deficits or risk facing sanctions. If this safeguard were not in place, countries with weak economies and large deficits would be eager to join to benefit from the prosperity and responsible budget policies of others; these irresponsible members would reap the rewards of low inflation and sound policy in other EU member countries without having to pay the costs or reduce their own deficits. The project of a strong common European currency would be doomed before it had even begun. Similarly, NATO must take its own political membership standards seriously to escape the disastrous downward cycle that moral hazard can generate. If no penalty is put in place for those who violate NATO’s membership criteria, rule breakers are apt to become the alliance’s most eager applicants.

All this reasoning may sound abstract and academic. But just take the word of the former Hungarian defense minister Gyoergy Keleti, who admitted on Hungarian radio in June 2002 that in order to achieve NATO membership the country had made commitments it was not prepared to keep. “If a country is not a NATO member yet,” Keleti said, “it can—to put it bluntly—say many things about which it is hardly called into account.” Obviously, given the pressure to achieve membership in NATO’s exclusive club in the late 1990s, Hungary made its own moral hazard calculations.

Unless NATO establishes some way to hold members accountable for their commitments, it cannot escape the inherent threat of weakened membership standards, incentives for pathological and destructive behavior, and ultimately its own decline into irrelevance. For NATO to remain strong and effective—an asset to American security interests rather than a liability—membership criteria have to be maintained, not only for aspirant countries but for members themselves.

Slipping Standards

Perhaps it is fair to be sanguine and assume that all NATO members in the future will strive to be the very best they can be. NATO membership, after all, did not lead West Germany to cease its progress toward democracy and liberal values during the Cold War. Similarly, officials generally agree that Poland not only made extraordinary progress to become a NATO member but has continued, since joining, to improve in the areas of democratic governance as well as military reform and preparedness, and to assume a leadership role in constructive consensus-based NATO policy.

Unfortunately, the evidence is that other new members are already falling behind on their commitments. Recently, a senior figure in European security remarked that “Hungary has won the prize for most disappointing new member of NATO, and against some competition,” citing the previous Hungarian government’s antisemitism, extraterritorial claims against its neighbors, and failure to play a constructive role in Balkan security. Indeed, Hungary seems to have accepted this dubious distinction. The new Hungarian defense minister, Ferenc Juhasz, even admitted on local radio after meeting with NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson that Hungary has failed to meet its NATO commitments over the past four years to such an extent that the alliance has unofficially told him that Hungary would already have been expelled if an expulsion were possible.

Hungary appears to be back on the right path after the defeat of Victor Orban’s nationalist government in elections earlier this year. But future elections may well bring to power regimes antithetical to NATO principles in other current or prospective member countries. Attention had been focused on the prospects for the authoritarian Vladimir Meciar to win or claim a place in Slovakia’s government after the elections, with an offer of membership hanging in the balance. And what if Hungary’s own elections had gone the other way? Under current NATO rules, Europe would be stuck with a regime that, among other threats, claims the right to speak for Hungarian minorities living in neighboring countries, in direct violation of the commitments Hungary made to join NATO in 1999.

Elections that threaten to bring in nationalist throwbacks are not the only problem. The Czech Republic, which had achieved a very low corruption rating in the process of qualifying for NATO membership in the 1990s, is currently rated the fourth most corrupt country in Europe. Here is moral hazard at its worst: promise enough to qualify, and then revert once the goal of membership has been achieved.

Corruption in NATO member countries poses a serious problem because it raises questions about sharing sensitive information in pursuit of joint defense policies, particularly counterterrorism. How can NATO function if its members cannot trust one another with the sensitive information on vulnerabilities that must be shared to enable cooperation in preventing terrorist attacks? Compounding the problem of resurgent corruption is the recent legacy of the influential security institutions that served to protect authoritarian regimes. Romania has been warned by NATO officials that it must screen the large number of former Securitate agents who still work in the country’s security services to be sure they are not allowed to handle NATO secrets. Member countries fear that once in the alliance, Romania will be unable to prevent these agents from leaking information. But even if Romania is able to assure NATO members that it is now dealing with this threat to alliance security, there is no guarantee that it will remain vigilant after achieving the objective of accession. With evidence that new members have already slackened on their commitments, the time to address these concerns is now.

The Ins and Outs

The bottom line is that, absent some mechanism for sanctioning, suspending, or expelling unqualified members, NATO membership will not continue serving as an effective incentive for democratic reform, and the alliance will cease to be an effective political and military institution. To prevent this failure, a solution should be adopted at two levels: first, within the organizational procedures of the alliance itself, and second, at the level of the treaty.

At the level of internal NATO organizational procedures, the alliance should create a Membership Monitoring Committee subordinate to the North Atlantic Council (NAC). As provided by Article 9 of its founding treaty, NATO can create committees subordinate to the NAC. Since NATO has already created committees for defense planning, air defense, and nonproliferation, among others, a committee formed specifically to monitor and discuss members’ political performance and progress would fit seamlessly into NATO’s established practices. The committee would operate on the basis of NATO’s standard principle of consensus. It need not make decisions, but individual members whose performance has raised concern could be made aware of that fact through discussion and could have the opportunity to correct problems and demonstrate acceptable progress. The committee should be required to report at regular intervals to the NAC on these ongoing discussions and evaluations. It could adopt the ready-made standards set forth in the North Atlantic Treaty itself and in NATO’s Study on Enlargement of 1995, as well as the more detailed membership standards established by the Membership Action Plans (MAPS) and Annual National Programs (ANPS) to which each new prospective member agrees.

Such a committee would play a formidable role in securing adherence to NATO’s political standards but could not do so alone. The treaty, too, would need to be amended to provide for two new NATO features. The first would be a matter of practical necessity. Since no member is going to agree to sanction, suspend, or expel itself, decisions on membership status must be taken by “consensus minus one.” Second, Article 10 of the treaty, which provides for membership, would have to be amended to allow for three levels of disciplinary action against problem members. The first would be sanctions for failure to address concerns raised by the Membership Monitoring Committee. These sanctions should include suspension from participation in specific committees, military planning or exercises, outreach programs of the Partnership for Peace, as well as denial of the right to send personnel to the international staff of the secretary-general. At this level, sanctioned members could still participate in the NAC, and at the levels of head of state, foreign minister, and defense minister. Although publicly warned, they would remain participating members. As a result, lagging members would not bog down NATO’s day-to-day work while being put on notice and would stay involved enough to foster a renewed commitment to the alliance.

Should this probationary measure fail, the second level of action would be suspension of membership. A decision to suspend would be taken by the NAC and would remove the noncompliant member from not only NATO’s subordinate committees, but also from overall participation in the NAC. Heads of state and defense and foreign ministers would not be able to participate in NATO summits or ministerial meetings during the suspension period. Regular evaluation of suspended members would enable them to regain full membership status quickly once the problem was corrected and would serve as the same kind of incentive to reform as does the prospect of membership.

In all likelihood, these measures of monitoring, selective restrictions, and suspension would serve as sufficient incentive to keep members from sliding below the benchmark standards to which they have committed. The ultimate third level of sanction, however, would have to be contemplated and made available to make the threat credible. If, after a period of time under suspension, a member did not resume its progress toward meeting the set standards, the NAC would have to report to member countries that the suspended member was a candidate for expulsion. Since new members have to be ratified by all existing members, the decision to expel would likewise have to go back to the national institutions responsible for ratifying membership. In the case of the United States, that institution is the Senate. In this way, the democratic processes by which the United States makes its international security commitments would be sustained and reinforced.

In keeping with the serious ramifications for a member country, expulsion would be a difficult and extreme measure. The several steps required would ensure it was not taken lightly, nor on a hair-trigger or legalistic basis. Expulsion would be a serious political decision requiring strong consensus among the national security leaders of member countries. In all likelihood, the very possibility that it could be made would create a strong incentive for NATO members to never find themselves in a position to face expulsion. Faltering members who waver in their commitment would face the same incentive that proved so effective when they were prospective members; most would find the resources to support their progress. But ultimately, the alliance must be safeguarded from the failures of its own members. Even if after all the measures have been tried, a member cannot achieve conformity with NATO standards, the alliance could still save itself from an enemy in its midst. As NATO exists today, none of this can be achieved.

The question facing NATO members, not least among them the United States, is whether transatlantic security is important to their national interests and whether they take seriously NATO’s past and potential future role in helping to meet the political and military security missions before them. If so, then the next round of NATO enlargement must be accompanied by a clear and effective mechanism for sanctioning and expulsion that would serve as a deterrent against exploiting moral hazard and as a bulwark in the event deterrence fails. If NATO does not seriously address this dilemma and reinforce the political standards that lie at its very foundation, then the justification for enlargement is at best hollow. The alliance is in danger of becoming an empty vessel rather than continuing to serve as a partnership of unique flexibility and strength. Surely NATO is worth the price of membership.