Online Commentary

Jan 19, 2021


Transatlantic Action Plan
Thousands of protesters walk down Budapest’s famed Chain Bridge during an anti-government march in central Budapest, Hungary, Friday, Dec. 21, 2018.
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The nations of the transatlantic alliance have taken democracy for granted: as the foundation of their domestic constitutional orders, as the foundation of the alliance, and as the source of the West’s global soft power. Yet they currently find themselves on the defensive against populists and authoritarian powers, at a time when democracy worldwide is in retreat. This undermines the credibility of NATO as an alliance of democracies and as a model for the rest of the world.


This Transatlantic Action Plan originally appeared in Stronger Together: A Strategy to Revitalize Transatlantic Power, a collaborative report from the German Council on Foreign Relations and the Harvard Kennedy School.

The aftermath of the November 2020 U.S. elections will be a watershed moment for democracy in America. And although many of Europe’s populist movements have struggled for traction during the pandemic, the grievances that feed them are not resolved. Germany’s national elections in 2021, in particular, will be a bellwether for the health of democracy in Europe.

At this critical moment for the alliance, the Biden administration and its transatlantic partners should recommit to the defense of liberal democracy as a foundational value of the transatlantic alliance: within our domestic orders, in NATO, and abroad.


For the West, democracy has been a competitive advantage, as well as a source of legitimacy and soft power. Yet in recent years the members of the transatlantic alliance have either taken democracy for granted or faltered in its defense. This is a key reason why they now find themselves on the defensive against populists and rising authoritarian powers.

The term “democracy” is used here as shorthand for “liberal democracy,” a set of principles that includes popular sovereignty, representation, separation and balance of powers, the rule of law, the protection of individual rights and freedoms, as well as political pluralism. Together, they are the foundation of Western constitutionalism, but they also reflect a universal human quest for an order that protects people from abuse by limiting and dispersing power. Democracy is not immune against flaws; it needs to be tended, protected, and renewed. But when it works, it is superior to all other forms of governance because it provides a peaceful and inclusive way to change a country’s leadership, to resolve internal conflicts, and to self-correct mistakes. Democracy maximizes liberty, equality, and fairness; it fosters human development and dignity.

The transatlantic alliance, born out of the crucible of World War II and the Holocaust, always had democracy at its heart: the defense of free Western nations against the Communist Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Membership in NATO, together with the U.S. security umbrella, allowed postwar western European nations to shift resources to growth and welfare, helping to strengthen their democratic institutions. Essential preconditions for stable democracy were thus present or re-created on both sides of the Atlantic: functioning states, open market economies, and inclusive social contracts. Yet Portugal (a founding member in 1949) was under authoritarian rule until the mid-1970s; and when Greece and Turkey took authoritarian turns during the Cold War, other member states turned a blind eye.

Nonetheless, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, alliance membership—together with entry into the European Union—once more helped democracy take root in Central and Eastern Europe. The alliance and the EU together leveraged entry against domestic reforms. 

The alliance’s original members, meanwhile, interpreted the events of 1989 not just as a validation of their own democratic model, but also as a harbinger of an inevitable global convergence towards it; they found affirmation in a series of genuinely democratic revolutions in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Thirty years on, it has become clear that both these assumptions were flawed. 

For the first time since the end of World War II, the commitment to liberal democracy is being challenged by populists and ethno-nationalists within most member states of the alliance. The causes for this shift are almost entirely homemade: an erosion of postwar architectures of governance, of economic policies geared towards opportunity and fairness, and inclusive social contracts, catalyzed by technological disruptions and globalization.

In some cases, the attacks come from opposition parties or movements, e.g. Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland or France’s Yellow Vests. In others, the authoritarians are in government. The latter include (to varying degrees) the governments of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, of Viktor Orbàn in Hungary, and of Andrzej Duda in Poland. For the past four years, they have also included the government of the postwar liberal international order’s anchor democracy, the United States. 

The attacks on democracy perpetrated by authoritarians in power vary, but there are repeating patterns: constitutional changes that enshrine one-party rule and disenfranchise minorities; attempts to undo the balance and separation of powers; efforts to undermine government institutions and agencies; weakening the rule of law; relinquishing the state’s monopoly on the use of force in the public space to extremist private actors; attacks on freedom of speech and the media; creating permissive environments for corruption and the capture of public goods by special interests and collusion with external adversaries.

Elsewhere, the enemies of democracy have been kept at bay, on the fringes of organized politics. But still some continue to mount offensives against the institutions of government or the organizations that mediate between the institutions of representative democracy and civil society (political parties, unions, and publicly funded media). More often than not, they have contributed to an enduring fragmentation of the political landscape and permanently changed the scope of acceptable public discourse.

This democratic backsliding in member states threatens the security of the alliance in multiple ways. It undermines internal trust and cohesion. It limits intelligence sharing. It reduces the effectiveness of diplomacy, deterrence, and operations. It allows adversaries like Russia and China to subvert our internal orders, to create dependencies, to capture political, economic, physical and digital assets, and to exploit our vulnerabilities with disinformation and propaganda. Finally, it gives authoritarian leaders a welcome pretext to dismiss critiques of their own failings.

Democratic backsliding in member states also undermines the already shaky credibility of Western democracy promotion efforts abroad. The alliance’s post-1989 record on post-intervention stabilization, nation-building, and democratic transformation is mixed at best. In the 1990s, it intervened (belatedly) in the former Yugoslavia to stop genocide and war crimes. It ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001 after the attacks of 9/11, and for a while brought peace to the war-ravaged country. In 2011, a coalition of alliance members intervened in Libya in the name of the principle of “responsibility to protect,” to prevent imminent crimes against humanity. Several post-Yugoslav nations have joined NATO and/or the EU. But whatever stability and order was achieved in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan has mostly eroded.

Still, there are grounds for optimism. Many institutions, government servants, and civil societies across the alliance space have proven remarkably courageous and resilient. The attacks on democracy have led to healthy self-examination and a renewed understanding of the value of democracy and the need to defend it. And civil societies worldwide continue to fight heroically for democracy—from Ukraine and Belarus to Hong Kong and Taiwan. 


Democracy in the member states: Member states should help each other think about whether their democracies are fit for purpose in an age of competition and interdependence. Issues to discuss include:

  • The state: How can the effectiveness and independence of the state be assured? How can it be made more resilient against disruption and corruption? How can it be responsive to citizens while preserving its neutrality? How can it maintain its monopoly on the use of force? What is the proper threshold and scope for emergency powers, and how is their use to be reviewed?
  • The economy: What must be done to make economies fairer and more inclusive, so they are less likely to fuel the grievances that undermine the legitimacy of democracies? What will the pandemic’s impact be on the nature of work? How can our economies be made more resilient against future shocks?
  • Civil society: What basic protections and services should citizens be able to expect from government? How can liberties be protected against technological encroachment? How should the public arena be protected against hate speech? How can integrity of elections be assured? What can be done to improve civic literacy? What must be done to overcome slavery, colonialism, and racism?

Democracy in NATO: The North Atlantic Treaty does not provide a mechanism for sanctioning members for democratic backsliding. But member states could coordinate political censure, the use of leverage, targeted sanctions, visa restrictions, and support for civil society organizations. Legislatures have other options: hearings, oversight, sanctions legislation, and restrictions on arms sales. Civil societies have a role to play in protests or in organizing support networks.

NATO should adopt a new strategic concept that reasserts democracy as a core value. It could establish a new governance committee, create a special ombudsman or supermajority voting rules on internal governance issues, or empower the Secretary General to place the topic on the council agenda. New members should have to comply with democratic standards not only before, but also after entry. NATO should exchange best practices and coordinate leverage with the EU. Member states should use fora like the G-7 or the G-20 to assert support for democracy.

Democracy in relations with the rest of the world: The transatlantic alliance should re-commit to democracy as a foundational principle for its relations with the world. In relations with authoritarian-ruled nations, it should acknowledge that it is engaged in systemic competition. It will have to collaborate with some of its competitors on global issues. But it should do so on a basis of transactional pragmatism; and it should not be silent on questions of alliance values.

Peace, economic development, and democratic transformation are in the alliance’s strategic interest. It should refuse to accept spheres of influence, and practice solidarity with nations and civil societies that seek self-determination, freedom, and democracy—on their own terms. It should underscore that its goal is not a hegemony of Western-style democracies, but an expanding collaboration of countries that derive their legitimacy from good governance and the free consent of their citizens.

Bibliographic data

Stelzenmüller, Constanze. “Democracy.” January 2021.

Action Plan from the report "Stronger Together. A Strategy to Revitalize Transatlantic Power" by the Transatlantic Strategy Group convened by the Harvard Kennedy School and DGAP.