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NATO, liberal internationalism, and the politics of imagining the Western security community



International Relations scholars often assume that NATO represents the institutional expression of a pre-existing, liberal-democratic Western security community. However, far from simply representing a pre-given community, NATO has always been involved in power-filled processes of constructing “the West.” At the heart of those processes lie practices of collective (re)imagining of the Western world, as well as the representation of internal tensions as feuds within a community united by liberal values. Today, the task of managing internal differences has become particularly complicated due to the rise of radical conservative political forces in several allied states. This has translated into an unprecedented clash between liberal and illiberal interpretations of the Western community. This paper also shows that, contrary to conventional wisdom, middle powers have played important roles both in the construction of the liberal Western security community, and, more recently, in articulating an alternative—radical conservative—vision of the West.
Scholarly Essay
NATO, liberal
internationalism, and
the politics of imagining
the Western security
Alexandra Gheciu
Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of
Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
International Relations scholars often assume that NATO represents the institutional
expression of a pre-existing, liberal-democratic Western security community. However,
far from simply representing a pre-given community, NATO has always been involved in
power-filled processes of constructing ‘‘the West.’’ At the heart of those processes lie
practices of collective (re)imagining of the Western world, as well as the representation
of internal tensions as feuds within a community united by liberal values. Today, the task
of managing internal differences has become particularly complicated due to the rise of
radical conservative political forces in several allied states. This has translated into an
unprecedented clash between liberal and illiberal interpretations of the Western com-
munity. This paper also shows that, contrary to conventional wisdom, middle powers
have played important roles both in the construction of the liberal Western security
community, and, more recently, in articulating an alternative—radical conserva-
tive—vision of the West.
NATO, security community, liberal internationalism, middle powers, illiberal ideas,
conservatism, the West
International Journal
2019, Vol. 74(1) 32–46
!The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0020702019834645
*Contribution to the Special Issue
‘Middle Power Liberal Internationalism in an Illiberal World’
International Journal
Guest Editors: Rita Abrahamsen, Louise Riis Andersen and Ole Jacob Sending
Corresponding author:
Alexandra Gheciu, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, FSS 6037,
120 University Private, Ottawa, Ontario, K1N 6N5, Canada.
In recent years, there has been renewed interest among International Relations (IR)
scholars in the ability of the Western security community to protect itself from a
variety of threats and challenges. In this context, longstanding debates concerning
the role played by the organization that is widely regarded as the institutional
expression of that community—NATO—have recently taken on new dimensions.
Scholars and policymakers often disagree in their interpretations of the relative
strength of NATO, but many agree that the alliance needs to play a central role in
protecting the West from a mix of conventional and non-conventional dangers,
ranging from an increasingly assertive Russia to transnational terrorism. One of
the key assumptions underpinning many analyses is that NATO constitutes the
institutional expression of a pre-existing Western security community united
around liberal-democratic norms and values. However, a close reading of the alli-
ance’s history shows that, far from simply representing a pre-given community,
NATO has always been involved in constructing ‘‘the West.’’ At the heart of that
process of social construction lie practices of collective (re)imagining of the
Western world in specific ways, as well as the representation—and management
of—internal tensions as feuds within a community united by shared liberal values.
Today, the task of managing internal differences has been rendered particularly
difficult by the rise of radical conservative political forces in several allied states.
This has translated into a clash between liberal and illiberal interpretations of the
Western security community, which has the potential to seriously complicate inter-
allied relations in the foreseeable future. As this paper shows, contrary to conven-
tional wisdom, middle powers have always played important roles in the constitution
of the Western security community. More recently, they have also played significant
roles in contesting liberal interpretations of the security community, and articulating
an alternative, radical conservative vision of the West. Recent developments in allied
countries such as Turkey and Poland are a potent reminder that not all middle
powers are alike; on the contrary, based on their socially constructed, historically
specific definitions of identity, they can perform a diversity of international roles—in
support of, or, conversely, as obstacles to liberal internationalism.
The narrative of Western unity and the politics of collective
forgetting during the Cold War
One of the most influential narratives of international security put forward by
liberal IR scholars and practitioners centres on the Euro-Atlantic security commu-
nity, consisting of a group of countries united around a set of key liberal norms and
institutions that generate ‘‘dependable expectations’’ of peaceful resolution of con-
flicts that might arise among them.
From that perspective, NATO is an institution
1. See in particular Karl Deutsch et al., Political Community and the North Atlantic Area: International
Organization in the Light of Historical Experience (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), and
Thomas Risse-Kappen, ‘‘Collective identity in a democratic community: The case of NATO,’’ in
Peter Katzenstein, ed., The Culture of National Security (New York: Columbia University Press,
1996), 357–399.
Gheciu 33
that was created in the context of the Cold War to protect the pre-existing security
community from the threats posed by the West’s dangerous other: the communist
bloc. Yet, as a series of constructivist scholars have persuasively argued, there is
nothing natural about the Western security community.
In Emanuel Adler’s
words, ‘‘security communities are socially constructed and rest on shared practical
knowledge of the peaceful resolution of conflicts.’’
Furthermore, the absence of
violence should not lead us to conclude that the construction of security commu-
nities in general and the Western community in particular were power-free pro-
cesses. On the contrary, as Adler and Barnett explain, central to the establishment
of a security community is the dialectic between power—primarily symbolic
power—and knowledge.
Thus, in the physically non-violent context of security
communities, power is primarily ‘‘the authority to determine the shared meanings
that embody the identities, interests and practices of states, as well as the conditions
that confer, defer or deny access to goods and benefits.’’
Applying this logic to the
specific case of NATO, we can see the alliance not as the institutional expression of
a pre-given community, but, rather, as an organization that has been deeply
involved in power-filled practices of construction and reproduction of that
Historical evidence indicates that the founders of NATO—policymaking elites
from the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, France, and the Benelux
states—did not take the Western security community for granted. Instead, they
engaged in a systematic set of practices aimed at constructing a sense of community
around a shared set of liberal-democratic norms in the Euro-Atlantic area, and
placed the newly created North Atlantic Treaty Organization at the heart of those
practices. In the intergovernmental debates leading up to the establishment of
NATO, the threat of military confrontation with the Soviet Union was regarded
as less worrisome than the danger of communist subversion within the weakened
societies of Western European states.
In that context, as Louis St. Laurent—then
Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs—argued, the best way to prevent
a third world war was by confronting ‘‘the forces of communist expansion with an
2. Emmanuel Adler, ‘‘Imagined (security) communities: Cognitive regions in international relations,’’
Millennium: Journal of International Studies 26, no. 2 (1997): 249–277; Emmanuel Adler and
Michael Barnett, Security Communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Vincent
Pouliot, ‘‘The alive and well transatlantic security community: A theoretical reply to Michael Cox,’’
European Journal of International Relations 12, no. 1 (2006): 119–127.
3. Adler, ‘‘Imagined (security) communities,’’ 257.
4. Adler and Barnett, Security Communities.
5. Adler, ‘‘Imagined (security) communities,’’ 261.
6. Emmanuel Adler, ‘‘The spread of security communities: Communities of practice, self-restraint, and
NATO’s post–Cold War transformation,’’ European Journal of International Relations 14, no. 2
(1998): 195–230; Bradly Klein, ‘‘How the West was one: Representational politics of NATO,’’
International Studies Quarterly 34, no. 3 (1990): 311–325; Michael Williams and Iver Neumann,
‘‘From alliance to security community: NATO, Russia, and the power of identity,’’ Millennium:
Journal of International Studies 29, no. 2 (2000): 357–387.
7. Alexandra Gheciu, NATO in the ‘‘New Europe’’: The Politics of International Socialization after the
Cold War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005a).
34 International Journal 74(1)
overwhelming preponderance of moral, economic and military force on the side of
At the level of top Western political elites, the fear of communism inspired a
collective (re)definition of political identity in the Euro-Atlantic area. The ‘‘spectre
of Communism’’ provided the defining other against which decision-makers on
both sides of the Atlantic were able to subordinate their differences to a collective
definition of a Western community. That community was seen as based on the
common heritage of political and cultural ideas of member states; its defining mark
was the set of shared values of individual liberal freedoms, the rule of law, and
This view is clearly reflected in the preamble to the Washington Treaty
(NATO’s foundational treaty), which stipulates that the alliance is based on prin-
ciples of democracy, individual liberty, and law.
Contrary to what conventional (realist) wisdom suggests, NATO was not simply
set up as the hegemonic instrument of the US. On the contrary, political actors
from other states—most notably Canada—played key roles in driving the process
of establishing NATO and defining its key foundational principles.
In fact, one of
the key articles in the Washington Treaty is informally known as the ‘‘Canadian’’
article, precisely in recognition of the influential role played by Canadian policy-
makers in its formulation.
Article 2 clearly shows that NATO was expected to
play a role that went far beyond that of a conventional military alliance. That
article succinctly summarizes the precepts of the Kantian-inspired democratic
peace theory, as it stipulates: ‘‘The Parties will contribute toward the further devel-
opment of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free
institutions, by bringing about a better understanding of the principles upon
which these institutions are founded, and by promoting conditions of stability
and well-being.’’
To decision-makers locked in a competition with forces regarded as representing
communist otherness, it was imperative that countries of Western Europe, Canada,
and the US cultivate a sense of shared liberal-democratic identity—set in oppos-
ition to communism—among their peoples. In that context, they sought to articu-
late a narrative of Western unity, and disseminate it as widely as possible in the
countries of the Atlantic Alliance. As Erik Ringmar has argued, identities are
constructed, maintained, and transformed via the telling of ‘‘constitutive’’ narra-
Narratives provide a set of meanings within which an actor’s identity,
8. Louis St. Laurent, cited in Debates of the House of Commons of Canada (Ottawa: Parliament of
Canada Library, 1948), 2303. See also Dominika Kunertova, ‘‘The Canadian politics of fair-share:
The first burden-sharing debates about NATO,’’ Journal of Transatlantic Studies 15, no. 2 (2017):
9. Norbert Wiggershaus and Roland Foerster, eds., The Western Security Community, 1948–1950:
Common Problems and Conflicting National Interests During the Foundation Phase of the North
Atlantic Alliance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
10. Gheciu, NATO in the ‘‘New Europe.’’ 34–76
11. John Milloy, Article 2 and the Non-military Development of NATO, 1948–1957 (doctoral thesis,
University of Oxford, 1994).
12. Erik Ringmar, Identity, Interest and Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 76.
Gheciu 35
the situation within which they are located and the actions deemed appropriate are
brought together.
The process of telling constitutive narratives is especially
important during periods of fundamental transformation, when new identities
are being formed and old ones are being pressured to evolve.
In the eyes of Western leaders, the narrative of unity among NATO members
had to not only cultivate a sense of shared identity, but also to delegitimize—by
casting them as inconsistent with Western identity—communist forces that were
becoming increasingly powerful in many allied states. Once again, some of the most
influential voices in favour of disseminating a narrative of Western unity and using
that to legitimize community-building practices within NATO were its middle
powers—particularly Canada. For instance, the Canadian Foreign Minister,
Lester Pearson, repeatedly argued in the early 1950s that NATO’s long-term
goal had to be the creation of a community of free nations in the Atlantic area.
More broadly, Canadian officials, together with NATO supporters from Norway,
the Netherlands, Denmark, and the UK, were acutely aware of the fact that, in
order for the alliance to be able to help build ‘‘a community of free nations’’ united
around liberal values, it had to find a way to help publics from allied states tran-
scend recent memories of war among Western states. What was required, in other
words, was a collective reinterpretation—and a selective forgetting—of the recent
After all, the newly identified enemy, communist Soviet Union, had
emerged from the war as a hero in the eyes of many in the West.
The view of the ‘‘West as one’’ became central to a collective (re)reading of
Western history following the establishment of the alliance.
Collective efforts at
history (re)writing found expression not only within the public discourse articu-
lated by NATO, but also in confidential documents. Recently declassified docu-
ments from the 1950s reveal a set of shared understandings among NATO’s
decision-makers regarding the way in which the history of member states should
be interpreted in order to foster a sense of Western community. In addition, NATO
mobilized its substantial material and symbolic power to widely disseminate the
discourse on Western unity in all the allied states and, simultaneously, to delegit-
imize alternative readings of history—especially those that focused on ideas of
solidarity—and memories of friendship—with the Soviet Union.
In particular,
as Patrick Jackson has demonstrated, the discourse of Western civilization played a
key role in orchestrating the collective (re)reading of Germany as a member of the
Western community, and on this basis legitimating its incorporation into NATO.
This is not to suggest that the West was an essential entity that objectively deter-
mined a field of outcomes. Rather, ‘‘Western civilization’’ needs to be understood
as ‘‘rhetorical commonplace,’’ used by allied policymakers as a discursive resource
for de-legitimating policy options opposed to Germany’s incorporation into
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid.
15. Gheciu, NATO in the ‘‘New Europe,’’ chapter 2. 54–60.
16. Klein, ‘‘How the West was one,’’ 311–325.
17. Ibid.
36 International Journal 74(1)
American-led institutions.
In the official NATO discourse, Germany was inter-
preted as a member of the Western family that, under the Nazi regime, had tem-
porarily deviated from its core values. Following the end of that regime, however,
(West) Germany—acting under the close supervision of allied states—could and
should be reintegrated into the Euro-Atlantic community.
Against the background of the constitutive discourse on Western unity, dis-
agreements and tensions that continued to occur among member states could be
represented as ‘‘family’’ feuds, and managed within the framework of shared norms
and a persisting sense of community. A full analysis of inter-allied disagreements
during the Cold War is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is worthwhile to
briefly examine what could be seen as one of the most significant set of disagree-
ments within NATO: arguments concerning the accession to the alliance of states
that did not comply with the liberal-democratic norms and values around which
the Western community defined itself. Particularly interesting were arguments over
the inclusion of Portugal in 1949, as well as the accession of Greece and especially
Turkey (completed in 1952). In that context, middle powers like Canada and
Norway emerged as strong proponents of the view that countries which did not
respect basic liberal-democratic values did not belong—and should not be inclu-
ded—in the alliance which represented the Western community.
In the end, how-
ever, all the allies were persuaded to support the inclusion of those ‘‘problem’’
countries. Several factors were crucial to the emergence of that consensus: a
shared recognition among the allies of the geostrategic importance of those coun-
tries in the context of growing confrontation with the Soviet Union, and a sense
that, in that particular context, the inclusion of strategically vital but normatively
deviant states was an acceptable compromise in the name of protecting the com-
munity of liberal values. The prevailing view came to be that the integration of
states like Portugal and Turkey could be managed in a way that would not neces-
sarily endanger the core values of the West. Furthermore, inclusion into the
Western community was seen by some allied policymakers as a course of action
that could help those countries evolve into stable liberal democracies. It is reveal-
ing, in fact, that a normative compromise that was eventually seen as reasonable in
the cases of Portugal and Turkey was regarded as inappropriate in the case of a
country whose political regime was perceived as an active threat to liberal-
democratic values: Franco’s Spain.
As Mark Smith put it, ‘‘Turkey could be
accommodated, and Portugal’s dictatorship had less Fascistic origins than
Spain’s. Significantly, neither had a history of active antagonism toward Western
European liberalism. Admitting Franco would be admitting a regime of the very
sort that had overturned European democracy in the 1930s and 1940s, and as such
was wholly unacceptable.’’
18. Patrick Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy: German Reconstruction and the Invention of the West (Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), viii.
19. Mark Smith, NATO Enlargement During the Cold War (New York: Palgrave, 2000).
20. Gheciu, NATO in the ‘‘New Europe,’’ chapter 2.
21. Smith, NATO Enlargement, 133.
Gheciu 37
The ‘‘triumph’’ of the West and the spread of the liberal
security community in the early post-Cold War period
The end of the Cold War was accompanied by a sense of triumph by the West over
its defining other, and, as a corollary to this, a shared view among allied decision-
makers that a new security environment was emerging in Europe. In a context
marked by the breakdown of the Soviet bloc and the eruption of violence linked
to ethnic conflict and the breakdown of states (most notably in the former
Yugoslavia), there was a shift away from definitions of security focused on military
power, and toward a heavy emphasis on ‘‘good governance’’ within states. In
essence, security came to be associated with the liberal-democratic norms and
institutions; negatively, risks came to be seen as emerging from the absence of
liberal-democratic structures.
In a situation in which there was no clearly identi-
fied enemy state, but in which developments within the transient former communist
countries threatened to undermine international security, a consensus emerged that
the promotion of ‘‘good’’ liberal-democratic norms and institutions within those
states would be vital for European and international security in the new era.
In that context, the project of disseminating liberal-democratic norms into the
former Eastern bloc also became central to NATO efforts to redefine its mis-
sion—and thus demonstrate its continued relevance in the new era.
In essence,
NATO became deeply involved in reconstituting Central and Eastern European
polities through systematic practices of socializing military and political elites as
well as next generations of leaders into liberal-democratic norms and institutions.
In other words, the alliance engaged in performing its liberal-democratic narrative
via practices of disseminating liberal-democratic dispositions and institutions of
‘‘self-restraint’’ into the former communist bloc.
The idea was to provide the
Central/East European political and military elites with Western, liberal-
democratic scripts for rebuilding their societies, and to turn those elites into
‘‘responsible,’’ self-disciplined actors, who would take Western-prescribed liberal-
democratic norms for granted.
Special emphasis was placed on socialising
Central/Eastern Europeans into Western-defined norms in the area of security,
including norms governing the relationships among different branches of the
22. Williams and Neumann, ‘‘From alliance to security community;’’ Gheciu, NATO in the ‘‘New
23. See, for instance, Adler, ‘‘The spread of security communities,’’ and Rachel Epstein, ‘‘NATO
enlargement and the spread of democracy: Evidence and expectations,’’ Security Studies 14,
no.1 (2005): 63–105.
24. Gheciu, NATO in the ‘‘New Europe,’’ and Alexandra Gheciu, ‘‘Security institutions as agents of
socialization? NATO and the New Europe,’’ International Organization 59, no.4 (2005b):
25. Adler, ‘‘The spread of security communities.’’
26. I draw here on Erik Ringmar’s view of ‘‘scripts’’ as instruments that provide individuals and
groups with roles and goals, ‘‘with instructions for how to act and for how to go on.’’ See Erik
Ringmar, ‘‘Performing international systems: Two East-Asian alternatives to the Westphalian
order,’’ International Organization 66, no. 1 (2012): 7.
38 International Journal 74(1)
state involved in the formulation and implementation of defence policies, and the
relationship between the state and civil society.
NATO’s ability to provide authoritative definitions of the legitimate meaning of
liberal-democratic identity, and more specifically, guidance on how to correctly
enact norms of security provision that corresponded to that definition, was a reflec-
tion of the substantial symbolic power exercised by NATO vis-a-vis the pro-West
elites of Central and Eastern Europe.
That power was grounded in the latter’s
recognition of NATO not just as a military alliance but as a key institution of the
Western community with which Central/Eastern European reformers identified.
In the early post-Cold War years, inter-allied disagreements continued to
occur—but did so within the framework of common norms, and were generally
cast as arguments within a community of liberal values. For instance, while
member states often disagreed over the speed and desirable extent of NATO
enlargement, they articulated those disagreements against the background of the
common view that NATO enlargement was a key tool for the expansion of the
liberal-democratic values around which the Western community defined itself.
More dramatically, the allies disagreed sharply over the Iraq war. But even in the
context of that crisis, they were able to draw on NATO norms of consultation to
enable the alliance to survive.
In light of all the above-mentioned developments, one might be tempted to
conclude that the story of NATO’s post-Cold War evolution has been a very suc-
cessful one. After all, in addition to enlarging and conducting ‘‘out-of-area’’ oper-
ations, NATO has expanded its international socialization programs via new
partnership programs that stretch as far as the Middle East and former Soviet
republics, and has taken steps to adapt its institutional structure to twenty-first
century challenges (e.g. by developing new capabilities for addressing non-conven-
tional risks and threats). In addition, in the context of an increasingly assertive
Russia, members have once again articulated a discourse of allied unity—and have
deployed multinational troop contingents to countries that feel vulnerable
to Russia.
It is also interesting to note that the alliance’s middle powers continued to play
key roles in the early years of the post-Cold War period. Just as they had done
during the Cold War, countries like Canada and Norway have supported initiatives
aimed at protecting and expanding NATO’s ability to act as the institutional
expression of the Western community. For instance, these countries have been
active participants in practices of socialization aimed at disseminating norms of
liberal-democratic restraint, and have also been systematically involved in military
exercises and recent multinational deployments. Canada, in particular, was central
27. Gheciu, ‘‘Security institutions as agents of socialization.’’
28. Adler, ‘‘The spread of security communities;’’ Williams and Neumann, ‘‘From alliance to security
29. Gheciu, NATO in the ‘‘New Europe.’’ chapters 3–5.
30. Ibid.
31. Pouliot, ‘‘The alive and well transatlantic security community.’’
Gheciu 39
to NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan. Indeed, one could argue that ‘‘Canada has
demonstrated a dedication to the alliance that seems stronger than NATO’s col-
lective commitment to itself.’’
More recently, Canada assumed a leading role
within the framework of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (EFP)
Battlegroup Latvia.
Yet, a closer analysis reveals that the question of allied unity in the post-Cold
War era is becoming increasingly complicated. In particular, the alliance is cur-
rently facing serious challenges that are connected not so much to external threats
or enemies as to internal developments—specifically the rise of radical conservative
ideas and political forces in several member states, including in key middle powers.
This has translated into an unprecedented disagreement over the meaning of the
Western community—a disagreement that threatens to pose serious challenges to
inter-allied unity.
(Re)imagining the West: The radical conservative reply
One of the most significant challenges to the unity of NATO and its ability to
continue to define itself as the institutional expression of a liberal-democratic com-
munity stems from recent developments in a powerful middle power: Turkey. As
noted above, Turkey has always had a complicated history in NATO. But, since its
inclusion in the alliance, the country of Atatu
¨rk has never had a government that is
as explicitly critical of Western values, and that has violated as many of NATO’s
norms, as the current administration under President Erdog
˘an. Despite being
democratically elected, Turkey’s ruling AKP party has moved toward increasingly
authoritarian measures. During the coup attempt in July 2016, the AKP govern-
ment declared a state of emergency, purged the public sector of (allegedly) pro-
¨lenist individuals, and criminalized opposition groups including Kurds,
Alevites, leftists, and liberals. Furthermore, recent constitutional reforms have
transformed the country from a parliamentary democracy into a ‘‘Turkish style’’
presidential republic.
˘an, who emphasizes traditional Islamic morality and
presents himself as a ‘‘conservative democrat,’’ has presided over a systematic
crackdown on civil liberties and attacks on secular institutions.
To make matters worse, Turkey has recently adopted a series of worrisome
foreign policies, which seem to signal a move away from Western partnerships.
Since the failed coup, the government has engaged in a purge of military officers
seen as pro-West, has explored military cooperation with China, and has expressed
outrage over the US-led coalition’s support for Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq. In
addition, despite months of warnings from NATO allies both publicly and pri-
vately, President Erdog
˘an has decided to upgrade his country’s air defence with a
US$2.5 billion (E2.03 billion) investment in a Russian surface-to-air missile
32. Benjamin Zyla, ‘‘Years of free-riding? Canada, the new NATO, and collective crisis management
in Europe, 1989–2001,’’ American Review of Canadian Studies 40, no. 1 (2010): 22.
33. Bahar Baser and Ahmet Erdi Ozturk, Authoritarian Politics in Turkey: Elections, Resistance and
the AKP (London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2017).
40 International Journal 74(1)
system, the S-400 ‘‘Triumf.’’ From NATO’s perspective, the procurement of this
missile system is deeply problematic as it means that Turkey will rely on new heavy
weaponry that cannot be integrated within allied structures.
In the longer term,
Turkey’s new policy of rapprochement vis-a-vis Moscow raises difficult questions
about the extent to which the allies can rely on Ankara to help maintain a united
front on an increasingly aggressive Russia. Last but not least, Ankara’s very visible
shift toward authoritarianism makes it increasingly difficult for NATO represen-
tatives to sustain the narrative that depicts the alliance as the institutional expres-
sion of a security community defined around liberal-democratic norms. This is
particularly problematic in a situation in which, as noted above, the alliance has
relied heavily on that narrative to secure post-Cold War legitimacy in the eyes of its
publics, and also to exercise subtle but effective forms of power in its
In response to Turkey’s deviation from democratic norms and military partner-
ship with Russia, NATO has adopted a two-pronged strategy: expressing contin-
ued solidarity with Turkey in its fight against terrorism, while at the same time
warning Ankara about potentially serious consequences if it does not change its
domestic behaviour as well as refrain from further military cooperation with
Yet, NATO’s ability to maintain a united front vis-a-vis Turkey—and apply
sustained pressure in an effort to change Ankara’s behaviour—is likely to be ser-
iously complicated by broader political developments in the Euro-Atlantic area. In
particular, the alliance is witnessing the rise of radical conservative political forces
in several other member states, and some of those states have expressed support for
Turkey’s illiberal policies and practices. Increasingly, what seems to be taking
shape is an informal ‘‘club’’ of countries dominated by far-right parties that are
articulating an alternative, radical conservative vision of Western identity, and, on
this basis, a different script for how to perform the role of members of the Western
A full analysis of these developments is beyond the scope of this paper, but a few
brief examples can help to illustrate the growing challenge posed by radical con-
servative political forces in the Euro-Atlantic area. Consider, for instance, the
evolution of another key NATO middle power, Poland. Similar to another
NATO state, Hungary, Poland was until recently regarded as one of the chief
success stories from the wave of democratization that accompanied the end of
the Cold War. Yet, in the eyes of the leaders of the archconservative Law and
Justice (PiS) party, Poland was a deeply troubled society whose system of govern-
ment was in need of a top-to-bottom overhaul.
Ahead of the 2015 elections,
34. Teri Schultz, ‘‘Turkish-Russian missile deal puts NATO on edge,’’ Deutsche Welle, 14 February
2018, (accessed
22 May 2018).
35. Ibid.
36. ‘‘Breaking down democracy: Goals, strategies, and methods of modern authoritarians,’’ Freedom
House Report, Washington 2017.
Gheciu 41
PiS appropriated a radical conservative vocabulary similar to that of Hungary’s
Fidesz in its 2010 campaign. It depicted the centre-right government as the archi-
tect of a failed economy, and denounced mainstream leaders as more comfortable
with the cosmopolitan liberal values of Brussels and Berlin than with the trad-
itional Christian morality of rural Poland.
To put this in a broader perspective, the Polish and Hungarian political pro-
grams can be seen as part of an international wave of far-right protests against
liberal-democratic values and institutions. Above all, in the eyes of the Hungarian
and Polish leaders—similar to the far-right parties in other NATO member sta-
tes—the focus needs to be on identity politics. Their vision of the world revolves
around the idea of a division into competing groups, largely defined around racist
and religious lines; in this zero-sum-game vision, the success of their group (white
Christians) is their primary concern. Starting from this perspective, the govern-
ments of Poland and Hungary have identified Erdog
˘an’s Turkey as a key ally in
their struggle to ‘‘defend’’ their countries from what they regard as a key threat to
their national identity and their European Christian heritage: refugees coming from
Muslim countries.
In the eyes of Warsaw and Budapest, in particular, Erdog
˘an’s willingness—and
ability—to keep Muslim refugees away from Europe is much more important than
any violations of human rights and democratic principles that his government
might be responsible for. Revealingly, Poland was the first EU member state to
host the Turkish leader after the unsuccessful coup attempt in Turkey, and wasted
no time in expressing its unconditional support for Ankara.
In a similar vein,
speaking at a recent Turkish-Hungarian Business Forum in Ankara, Prime
Minister Viktor Orba
´n insisted that Hungary ‘‘stands by its friends,’’ and is ‘‘on
Turkey’s side.’’
In his speech, the prime minister emphasized that Hungary’s loyal
support for Turkey is not a one-off event, but ‘‘a consequence of Hungary’s strat-
egy, as a conservative country, of prioritising human values.’’ The reason is very
clear: ‘‘Turkey is on the edge of Europe, protecting Europe’s interior,’’ and ‘‘if it
had not fulfilled its obligations, Europe would have been flooded with many mil-
lions of immigrants—which it would not have known what to do with.’’
According to the Hungarian leader, the support provided by Budapest and
Warsaw to Ankara is neither an accident nor an isolated event. Rather, it reflects
a shared commitment to the promotion of conservative principles as a radical
constitutive narrative that is significantly different from the liberal narrative of
the West. Thus, instead of emphasizing the liberal-democratic foundations of the
Western security community, the focus—in the eyes of the Polish and Hungarian
radical conservative governments—should be on the ‘‘true roots’’ of the West: its
37. Barbara Bodalska, ‘‘Erdogan in Warsaw tells EU: Stop leading us by the nose,’’ EurActiv Poland,
19 October 2017,
eu-stop-leading-us-by-the-nose/ (accessed 22 May 2018).
38. Viktor Orba
´n, ‘‘Hungary is on Turkey’s side,’’ Ministerial statement, Budapest, 30 June 2017, (accessed 25 May 2018).
39. Ibid.
42 International Journal 74(1)
Christian traditions and values. It is the Christian heritage that, in this narrative,
constitutes the most important element of Western identity. References to the
Christian roots of the Western community embodied in NATO are, of course,
not new. Even during the Cold War there were political parties and groups that
stressed Christianity in their discourse on the West. But in that context, the
Christian roots and values were generally seen as compatible with liberal democ-
By contrast, the radical conservative vision of the West depicts contempor-
ary liberal institutions and practices as a threat to the Christian foundations of the
Western community. In this view, it is the Christian heritage that needs to be
prioritized in all debates and initiatives concerning Euro-Atlantic security—and
that needs to be central to how states perform the role of members of the
Western community. This, in the eyes of the Polish and Hungarian leaders, is
particularly important in a situation in which the West is under serious threat,
not only from the Muslim refugees that have arrived in Europe because of ‘‘irre-
sponsible’’ measures adopted by countries like Germany and that are ‘‘unable to
adopt Catholic culture,’’ but also from domestic liberal elites. Ironically, the
‘‘weakness’’ of liberal elites has led to a situation in which Europe needs to rely
on Muslim Turkey to keep non-Christian refugees away from its shores. In a series
of virulent outbursts, conservative leaders in Poland and Hungary have criticized
liberal politicians for their ‘‘attacks’’ on national traditions, family values, and the
religious foundations of society via their ‘‘corrupt’’ policies in favour of multicul-
turalism, homosexuality, and capitalist greed.
It is interesting to note that the radical conservative model articulated in
Warsaw and Budapest—and the strategies adopted to promote that model—are
similar to the branch of conservatism pursued in the US under President Trump.
What is involved here goes far beyond traditional conservative critiques of big,
inefficient government and expensive welfare policies. From this particular conser-
vative perspective, liberalism—which has had a corrupting effect on society—is
supported not only by the key organs of representative government and the judi-
ciary, but also by intellectuals and large numbers of bureaucrats. The excessively
permissive multicultural values and the politically correct principles promoted by
cultural and professional elites, and the institutions controlled by those elites,
constitute the foundation of liberal power and allegedly undermine ‘‘authentic’’
(conservative) principles and national culture on a daily basis. On this logic,
liberalism can only be effectively challenged, and eventually dismantled, via sys-
tematic attack on all those elites and institutions.
40. Consider, for instance, the Cold War discourse of West Germany’s Christian Democrats—who
accepted parliamentary democracy and pluralism as the compulsory language of post-war politics.
See Rosario Forlenza, ‘‘The politics of the Abendland: Christian democracy and the idea of
Europe after the Second World War,’’ Contemporary European History 26, no. 2 (2017): 261–286.
41. Marek Strzelecki and Dorota Bartyzel, ‘‘Jesus is king for Poland’s new rulers,’’ Bloomberg News,
17 July 2017,
in-modern-poland (accessed 27 May 2018).
42. Drolet and Williams, this issue.
Gheciu 43
This view has translated into a number of policies and practices that have taken
Poland as well as Hungary away from the path of liberal-democratic reforms.
Contrary to the liberal belief in self-discipline and institutions that ensure a
system of checks and balances and limit the power of the executive, from the
perspective of conservative leaders in Warsaw and Budapest the focus needs to
be on establishing and protecting a strong executive, capable of protecting not just
the physical space of the state, but also its national identity and culture. Thus, since
coming to power with a parliamentary majority in October 2015, Poland’s PiS has
embarked on a course of change that mirrors the changes enacted by Fidesz in
Hungary. As in Hungary, in Poland an initial focus for the new government was
securing control of the Constitutional Tribunal. PiS has moved to pack the court
with its own appointees, using tactics that are blatantly illegal according to Polish
law, and which have drawn severe criticism from the EU. However, party leader
Jaroslaw Kaczyn
´ski, who holds a seat in the parliament but no formal government
position, has much greater ambitions to refashion Poland along culturally conser-
vative and politically illiberal lines. The media are a major target in this fight
against ‘‘liberal corruption.’’ The government quickly asserted control over
public broadcasters and purged them of (independent) journalists whom it
regarded as loyal to the opposition.
The discourse—and practices—of allied solidarity around liberal norms and
values have been further undermined by developments in the US following the
election of Donald Trump. Given the similarities between the far-right ideas pro-
moted by the Polish and Hungarian governments and some of the views articulated
by President Trump, it is not surprising to see the friendship that seems to have
emerged between these countries—particularly between Washington and Warsaw.
For our purposes here, what is important to note is that this friendship has trans-
lated into special partnerships in the field of security, in ways that could further
undermine unity within NATO. To give a brief example: echoing Trump’s dis-
course, the Polish government has repeatedly and explicitly called for increased
spending on defence by the European allies, has adopted a massive defence budget
(including purchases of expensive military equipment from the US), has invited
large numbers of US and NATO troops on its territory, has signed bilateral mili-
tary cooperation agreements with Washington, and has followed the US president
in raising questions about the degree to which allies that refuse to increase their
defence spending can rely on the alliance’s collective defence clause. Similar to
Trump, senior Polish officials have been very critical of EU projects to promote
closer European integration, particularly in the field of defence. To them, it would
be unrealistic to assume that Europe can be self-sufficient in the realm of defence,
and dangerous to allow supranational European institutions to control defence
policies, which are central to a country’s national sovereignty. Instead, from the
point of view of the Polish government, the focus should be on strengthening
NATO—as the alliance of independent nation-states that can keep the US involved
in European defence and can protect the (Christian) Western community from a
wide range of threats.
44 International Journal 74(1)
Here, again, radical conservative statements about NATO involve not just an
attempt to promote specific policies in the field of defence, but also—far more
broadly—a move to (re)articulate the constitutive narrative about the Western
community embodied in the Atlantic Alliance. Specifically, that community is
now cast not in liberal-democratic terms, but rather as a civilizational entity in
which Christianity plays a central role—and which is in danger due to liberal
excesses and corruption. For instance, at a 2017 Warsaw Summit that brought
together Central/East European countries and the US, the Polish leadership and
President Trump were united in casting the West in radical conservative terms—as
the civilization that places emphasis on God, tradition, and family values—and in
presenting their countries as states that understand the true meaning of Western
identity and are prepared to use their institutions (including NATO) to protect the
West from all those ‘‘who hate us... and seek to undermine our strength.’’
alliance is especially important in a situation in which, Trump insisted, ‘‘[t]he fun-
damental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.’’
When the Cold War ended, many analysts and policymakers expected NATO to
become obsolete and possibly to be dismantled following the disappearance of
threats to the community of states that the alliance had been set up to protect.
Now, almost three decades later, the question is not whether NATO can survive in
a situation marked by the absence of threats, but whether it has the ability and
resources to adapt to the multitude of risks and challenges that it faces.
Interestingly, today—just as in its early days—some of the most serious threats
to NATO’s ability to survive stem not from external military threats but from its
own internal weaknesses and tensions. In this instance, however, the danger is not
one of subversion by communist forces, but rather a clash between liberal forces
and (a particular version of) radical conservative ideas and projects, which have
risen to prominence in several allied states. In this context, while certain middle
powers—like Canada and Norway—remain some of the most significant defenders
of liberal internationalism, other middle powers, most notably Turkey and Poland,
have emerged as key advocates of the illiberal, radical conservative worldview.
That clash is becoming increasingly acute—with some observers and policymakers,
including France’s President Macron, arguing that the coming years will be marked
by what amounts to a ‘‘civil war’’ between liberal and illiberal forces in the West.
The outcome of that potential ‘‘civil war’’ is impossible to predict, but one can
safely predict that its dynamics are going to be among the most important devel-
opments shaping the Euro-Atlantic world in the coming years.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
43. Donald Trump, Speech in Warsaw, 6 July 2017,¼lFTKl
5bzD78 (accessed 25 May 2018).
44. Ibid.
Gheciu 45
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
Author Biography
Alexandra Gheciu is an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and
International Affairs, and Associate Director of the Centre for International Policy
Studies. Alexandra’s publications include, in addition to articles in leading aca-
demic journals, several books: NATO in the ‘‘New Europe’’: The Politics of
International Socialization After the Cold War (Stanford University Press, 2005);
Securing Civilization? (Oxford University Press, 2008); The Return of the Public in
Global Governance (co-edited with Jacqueline Best, Cambridge University Press,
2014/2015); and, more recently, Security Entrepreneurs: Performing Protection in
Post–Cold War Europe (Oxford University Press, 2018) and The Oxford Handbook
of International Security (co-edited with William Wohlforth, Oxford University
Press, 2018). Prior to joining the University of Ottawa, she was a Research
Fellow at the University of Oxford, and a Jean Monnet Fellow at the European
University Institute, Florence.
46 International Journal 74(1)
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Imagined (security) communities
  • Adler
Adler, ''Imagined (security) communities,'' 261.