On 4 December 2019, NATO leaders gathered in London to discuss pressing security issues and to mark the 70th anniversary of the Alliance’s founding. Analysts on both sides of the Atlantic were rightfully worried about what would transpire over the day-and-a-half of meetings, given the number of irritants that could have derailed the entire event. Luckily, it went off with only a little bit of drama — for the most part, allied leaders gathered for the traditional family photo, stressed the importance of collective defence, and talked about issues such as hybrid threats, military readiness, and defence spending. This was largely to be expected: over the last few years NATO countries have tried to put on a united front when necessary.
While this is all well and good, there is no hiding the fact that today NATO is grappling with major strategic challenges. Unfortunately, these challenges aren’t posed only by outside actors like Russia, or trying to answer big-picture questions like NATO’s role in new and emerging security domains. Instead, some of NATO’s most pressing challenges are fundamental, and they are emanating from within.
The first and perhaps most dangerous internal challenge today is democratic backsliding amongst some of its own members, namely Turkey and Hungary. Since a failed coup attempt in July of 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cracked down on freedoms within the country and begun a slide toward authoritarianism. Today, Turkey leads the world in numbers of jailed journalists, its courts work in tandem with Erdogan’s regime, elections are neither free nor fair, and its “democratic institutions” have no real impact.1 Moreover, Turkey recently purchased a Russian-made S-400 missile defence system, and in October launched an invasion into Kurdish-held northern Syria. Both moves have resulted in strong condemnation from fellow NATO allies.
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