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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Democracy and Human Rights: A Mission for NATO?






Democracy and Human Rights: The Next Steps
Nato´s Influence on Spreading Democracy and Human Rights


The question posed: “Should NATO have a role in promoting democracy and human rights outside the territory of its member states?” is itself a telling sign of the transformation of our alliance. Time was – and not so long ago - when it was hardly considered good form to ask such a question. To suggest to others that they should change their system of government to conform to our own preferences was “rocking the boat”; it contradicted the all-important requirement for stability and weakened our security.

But we have moved on since then. Straight talk about the need to bring democracy, human rights and other Western ideals to lands far and near is no longer risky or irresponsible. Instead, such ideals are seen as an integral part of our approach to security. When NATO, for the first time in its history, resorted to the use of armed force against a sovereign state, in Kosovo in 1999, it did so largely in the name of human rights and humanitarian law. The armed forces of Allies are now busier than they ever were during the Cold War and the language used to justify this activity is typically the defence of human rights.

It might seem then that our values and interests as members states of NATO have at long last come together in a way that was not possible during the Cold War; that the fostering of democracy and human rights outside the NATO area has been successfully matched to need to ensure our physical security. But has it, and if so, how?

A Catalyst of Reform

The widening of the role of NATO to include major political as well as military tasks, is largely in response to external circumstances. The Alliance has been drawn into crisis management operations in the Balkans. Relations with Russia and Ukraine continue to require delicate handling. Ever more partner nations have sought to join the Alliance. Last but not least, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, familiar distinctions between civil and military, between “in” and “out of” area, and between the global and the regional have lost some of their earlier relevance.

All of those changes - and there are more – bear testimony to the broadening scope of the member states´ activities and the need for NATO to involve itself in cultivating the habits of democracy outside its borders.

Mostly, those activities have been remarkably successful, including the various peace support missions undertaken in the name of the organization in the Balkans or as part of wider coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the showcase example of the vital post-Cold War contribution of NATO to democratization has without a doubt been the process of enlargement.

The fall of the “iron curtain” led many to believe that it was pointless to expand NATO. It was like “getting on a horseback on a ship”, to borrow Samuel Johnson´s memorable phrase. However, by holding out the prospect of membership, NATO has been a powerful catalyst for democratic, market and human rights reform in all aspirant countries, many of which have joined the organization as full members. Together, the old and the new members have in this way extended the zone of peace, security and prosperity in our part of the world.

The Essence of Genuine Democracy

We sometimes take democracy and human rights for granted, forgetting that there are large parts of the world that are either not ripe for or interested in the democratic way of life. In many countries, political legitimacy derives not from individual choices made at elections, but from brute power, kinship ties or religious authority. Western ideas about human rights are similarly often suspect, not least in the Islamic world, where they tend to be seen as either intrusive or culturally subversive.

But there are valid reasons why democracy carries a particular appeal to the member states of NATO. Democracies, it is sometimes said, are not prone to make wars. This is the old idea, derived from the writings of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant; that free and prosperous societies will lead to a more peaceful world. But like all sweeping judgements, this one has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Ancient Athens fought three out of every four years in the 5th century B.C. and the Roman Republic battled almost constantly in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. In only the last twenty years, the United States, a bulwark of democracy, has fought battles in at least a dozen countries around the world.

Yet it is true that democracies do not often fight one another. We can say that, because when speaking of democracy, we usually assume something more. In a strict sense, democracy is only a process for electing leaders. But as the history of Latin American democracies demonstrates, elected governments can collapse, yield to authoritarian coups and even transform themselves into authoritarian regimes. Therefore, in order for a democracy to remain stable and survive more is required than a simple majority vote; there must be a culture of liberty and human rights that the state may not infringe, including the freedoms of speech, assembly and conscience, the rule of law, sanctity of contracts etc. In other words, we find constitutionalism at the heart of a genuine democracy.

A Constraining Environment

As relevant as the theme of democratization may be from the point of view of NATO security, there are at least two limitations, one external, the other internal, that anyone envisioning a greater role for NATO in this area must bear in mind:

The first is that NATO is but one component of the multilateral scheme that has been in existence for more than half a century. A regional organization, it defines itself in relation to the Charter of the United Nations, which recognizes the right to collective self-defence. But the Charter contains other principles that constrain NATO´s role and responsibilities. One is the principle of the non-use of force in international relations, another the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of states, although nowadays it is widely assumed that human rights can no longer be regarded as belonging exclusively to the internal jurisdiction of sovereign states.

The second caveat dervies from the nature of NATO as a consensus organization. As the concepts guiding NATO strategy have moved from “threats” through “security challenges” and now to “risks”, the responses discussed among the member states become more susceptible to controversy and the need to address a plurality of perspectives. Consensus in NATO, beyond certain core activities, becomes harder to maintain. For an organization with a reputation for taking action, that might not be a good thing. One is reminded, in this context, of Clement Attlee´s warning: democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking!

Let us look more closely at each of those two constraints in turn.

Restoring Credibility to Institutions

One of the most belaboured questions of international politics over the past six years is the legitimacy of military interventions in sovereign states supposedly obtained through “mandates” of the United Nations Security Council.

When NATO took action against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the Spring of 1999, many feared that the intervention would set a new pattern of behaviour, enabling states or coalitions of states to reserve to themselves the right to act outside the established mechanisms for enforcing international law.

There were a number of Security Council resolutions, all with reference to the threat to international peace and security, pertinent to the situation in Kososvo. But from a strictly legal point of view, there was no Security Council resolution specifically authorizing the air strikes of NATO. No agreed legal clarification of the operation was adduced by the member states. But that does not mean that the Alliance acted unlawfully. Although interpretations varied, all member states had satisfied themselves beforehand that the air strikes were legal and the right thing to do under the circumstances. Moreover, they had come to the conclusion that allowing a reckless autocrat to engage in repression and ethnic cleansing on their very own doorsteps would set a precedent far more dangerous for the future of Europe than taking action in the absence of the desired authorization of the United Nations. Six years later, this policy of the Alliance has been vindicated; the situation in Yugoslavia is stable and both Kosovo and Serbia – Montenegro are on a path to freedom with democratically elected governments.

Did the Kosovo episode set a precedent for NATO or was it a one-time event, never to be repeated? In many ways, the Kosovo situation was unique. But the main point that needs to be made is that it was never a question of choosing between the United Nation´s way and NATO´s way in dealing with that situation. In the end, the action taken was not so much a challenge to the Security Council as an effort to shore up NATO´s own credibility, as well as that of the United Nations. But it was always a decision that only Alliance member states, three permanent members of the Security Council included, could take on their own responsibility.

Anarchy or Perpetual Peace

The second issue, the need for the Alliance to operate on the basis of consensus, is a thornier nettle to grasp. On Kosovo the Alliance obtained a hard-won consensus and then proceeded while no one in the Security Council pulled a veto. On Iraq there never was consensus to begin with. A coalition of states then took action, a latent Security Council veto notwithstanding.

Although the intervention in Iraq was not carried out in the name of NATO, it throws an interesting light on the different approaches of the United States and some of the leading member states of the European Union to operations conducted outside the NATO area. This is especially the case as the objectives of the Iraq operation gradually shifted from the need to remove the threat of weapons of mass destruction to the wholesale social and political reconstruction of the country.

Three years ago an American author, Robert Kagan, published a small book, Of Paradise and Power, explaining his view of the evolution of the transatlantic relationship. Europe and America, he argued, are divided by a power gap as well as an ideology gap. Not only is there an overwhelming disparity in military-technological power between the two players, but Europe has in effect rejected power politics of the traditional kind in favour of a moralistic approach. Kantian idealism has replaced Machiavellian statecraft. As a result, Europe now embodies a commitment to settling disputes through multilateralist rules and negotiations, while the United States clings to enforcing world order through the exercise of national sovereignty and armaments.

In some respects, Kagan´s thesis draws a simplified picture of the real world. Most interesting theories do. In fact, close to a half of Americans regularly demonstrate “European” attitudes, while many Europeans, including eight leaders of E.U. member countries, expressed sympathy with “American” policy towards Iraq.

Nevertheless, no one can argue with the view that our Allies on the two sides of the Atlantic do not always see eye to eye on major issues. Sometimes these differences are of a political nature, but there are also cases where basic philosophical perspectives diverge. Take the area of human rights, for example, where the United States claim that rights derive their legitimacy from the consent of their own citizens and not from international declarations or covenants. Disagreements over the International Criminal Tribunal or the death penalty are but two applications of this particular dispute.

Frank discussions in NATO are nothing new and one should not think that every little tiff spells the end of the organization as we know it. Nonetheless, if allowed to drift, a situation like the one sketched out by Kagan could obviously strain the cohesion of the Alliance and limit its ability to play a useful role outside its traditional area in the future. Therefore, it is not surprising, perhaps, that invitations to NATO to remake itself abound. At a meeting in Munich in February, for example, the German Chancellor suggested replacing NATO with a kind of an E.U. – United States condominium, in a partnership of equals.

The Need for Leadership

Managing the all-important transatlantic relationship will, without a doubt, continue to occupy NATO member states over the coming years. Time will tell whether the ongoing EU experiment with a post-democratic form of governance, partially transferring political decision-making from elected representatives to transnational arrangements, agreements, institutions and bodies, is ultimately reconcilable with a tradition of self-government and democratic constitutionalism practiced by some of the other member states.

But however this fascinating debate will play out in the future, an argument can be made that the security interests of Alliance member states have been quite well served in the recent past by the leadership of the United States, whether in joint Alliance activities or other coalition configurations. In less than four years following the first invocation by NATO of article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, Afghanistan and Iraq are making solid progress on the road to freedom and democracy. This is already having demonstrable effects throughout the entire region. Elections have taken place in the West Bank, there is modest liberalization in Syria and Egypt is conceding for the first time that rival candidates can stand against the sitting President. It looks, indeed, like “the start of a new Arab world”, in the words of Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

To be sure, the reconstruction of countries like Afghanistan and Iraq will not succeed without the active support of the international community. Democratic advance, as President Bush put it in his inaugural address in January, is “not primarily the task of arms”. At the same time, we should recognize that the advances made have not been brought about mainly by fancy footwork undertaken within international institutions, by summit meetings, negotiation or conflict-resolution. We owe them to those who had the courage of their convictions and were prepared to put the lives of their soldiers on the line to defend them.

The Added Value of NATO

We come back, then, to the question raised at the outset: Has the value that we as NATO members attach to democracy and human rights finally been matched to the need to ensure our physical security? Do we strenghten the latter by promoting the former? Are they, perhaps, two sides of the same coin?

Unfortunately, this is not a question of a kind that allows for a straight, let alone a dogmatic, answer.

Let us look at the “no”- side first. NATO is one part of a multilateral system, sharing the stage with the United Nations, the Council of Europe and others with competence to address the norms of international conduct. The Charter of the United Nations has been duly ratified by all member states and resolutions passed by the Security Council are legally binding for them. If only for this reason, NATO has an interest in working within that system to the extent possible and not outside it.

Also, while we may share a general idea about the requirements of democracy, the same does not necessarily apply to one of the constitutive elements of genuine democracy, human rights, except in a most basic sense where the life and the dignity of persons are concerned. It is now commonly assumed that human rights are universal. But human rights principles frequently conflict among themselves, liberty cannot always be reconciled with equality or freedom with security. The value placed on human rights can clash with our interests, as was often the case during the Cold War. The right to self-determination, to take one example, may in a given case actually undermine the stability that is a precondition for protecting human rights. Therefore, every time we are confronted with a call for a human rights intervention we must undertake a critical appraisal.

Finally, even if out values were universal, our means to defend them are finite. We must therefore be careful not to raise expectations beyond the resources we have at our disposal to deliver on them. Supporting human rights does not require us to sign on to the obscure but far-reaching agendas of international judicial activists.

Turning to the “yes”- side, we are learning in the Balkans and the Middle East that promoting democracy and human rights is in fact a very pragmatic principle upon which to build an effective security policy. It is, indeed, a supreme example of the cunning of history that 9/11 should now be bringing on the onset of democracy in the Middle East. Given the strictures contained in the North Atlantic Treaty and the need to work with others, NATO may not always be the most appropriate instrument for history to use to this end. But in cases where our values and our interests as NATO member states actually do coincide, our security will always benefit from the contribution we can jointly make to the fostering of democracy and human rights.

At the risk of provoking an outcry of protest, let me say this: The “value-added” NATO can bring to democracy-building outside its borders is not of the therapeutic kind. It does not consist in looking for the “root causes” of conflict and then addressing grievances, suspicions and misunderstandings. For such a task there will always be other takers. Where NATO can make a difference is in offering the best framework in existence for building warfighting coalitions that can back our ideals, our prosperity and peace, with force and conviction when necessary. Let us by all means put our faith in covenants, but we should be equally mindful of the truth of Thomas Hobbes´s famous observation four hundred years ago, that covenants without swords are but words!


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