Threats to democracy and challenges to transatlantic security top agenda of NATO PA Visit to the United States

29 October 2021

NATO legislators from 12 Allied countries travelled to the United States this week for wide-ranging consultations on some of the main challenges to transatlantic security. The need to safeguard and strengthen democracy in the light of growing internal and external threats emerged as a central theme of discussions. 

Addressing the visiting delegation on Wednesday 27 October, NATO PA President Congressman Gerald E. Connolly, stressed that “The Alliance finds itself at a pivotal moment, marked by renewed geopolitical competition”.  As NATO incorporates this new strategic reality into its next Strategic Concept – the Alliance’s main guiding policy document, which NATO Heads of State and Government are due to adopt at a Summit in Spain in June 2022 – Mr Connolly urged fellow legislators to “strengthen NATO as an Alliance of democracies, placing our shared democratic values at the very heart of NATO’s response to today’s challenges.” The Assembly has recommended the establishment, within NATO Headquarters, of a Democratic Resilience Centre as a way to operationalise NATO’s commitment to shared democratic values. The Centre would serve as a clearinghouse of best practices and cross-fertilisation on democratic benchmarks. 

Strengthening democracy was also a key theme of discussions the delegation conducted with Biden Administration officials and experts. Suzanne Spaulding, a Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the delegation that reinforcing national and collective security now demands sustained efforts to foster societal resilience in the face of misinformation campaigns carried out by malign anti-democratic international and domestic actors. 

Spaulding warned that the goal of adversarial state actors and anti-democratic domestic forces is to undermine state legitimacy and the democratic processes that govern it.  This dynamic was evident both in Russia’s efforts to influence US Presidential elections in 2016 and in the January 6 attack on the US Congress. In both campaigns, the goal was to foster widespread despair about the United States and its institutions, while suggesting that democracy itself is a rigged game serving only the interests of a narrow elite. “A post-truth society motivates people to mistrust information and facts”, she said, but “this trust is precisely what democracy requires”. Democracies need to fight back by shedding light on the truth, resolutely countering disinformation, revitalising civics education and resisting the impulse to rely on secrecy, Spaulding concluded. 

The delegation’s engagements during their week-long visit highlighted the complex transnational threats which NATO Allies currently confront. These include traditional military challenges as well climate change, terrorism, cyber-attacks, disinformation, pandemics and authoritarian rivals that seek to undermine democracies in order to maintain authoritarian control over their own societies. NATO needs to adapt to these changes, and this is driving the push to revise its Strategic Concept. 

The growing challenge to US and Allied security posed by China is probably the most significant of these shifts and featured extensively throughout the delegation’s meetings. China today is not the China of the 1990’s, one interlocutor told the delegation. Twenty years ago, many in the West harboured hopes that economic liberalisation in the country would ineluctably lead to greater societal pluralism and openness. But sadly, this has not transpired, and the United States, its Allies and partners must remain clear-eyed about the mounting threat a significantly more authoritarian and aggressive China poses, the delegation was told.

The Biden Administration itself remains very focused on this particular threat and wants the United States, in partnership with its Allies, to proactively shape the global space and not concede that role to China, delegates heard. At the same time, Allies need to operate from the premise that relations with China will likely remain competitive, cooperative and adversarial at once. This, in turn, demands subtle multifaceted policy approaches to China on a broad range of matters including the Indo-Pacific, strategic trade, space policy, climate change and cyber security.

The threat of proliferation and specifically efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) with Iran were another main concern. These efforts remain hampered by mutual distrust, Suzanne Maloney from the Brookings Institution told the delegation, warning that time was running out to avoid Iran crossing the nuclear threshold. China plays a role here too, she noted, as Beijing has been willing to skirt international sanctions to continue to buy Iranian oil, thereby providing a lifeline for the Iranian economy and disincentivising Tehran to reach a deal. 

In Washington, DC, the delegation of 36 members of the Sub-Committees on Transatlantic Economic Relations and on Resilience and Civil Security, led by Ivans Klementjevs (Latvia) and Muhammet Naci Cinisli (Turkey) also met with officials from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank before travelling to New York City. There, NATO parliamentarians paid homage to the victims of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 during a visit to the 9/11 Memorial. They will also hold meetings at the United Nations, the New York Police Department and the City’s Watch Command/Emergency Operations Center.

This programme marked the first in-person Assembly fact-finding Committee visit in a year and a half. 

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