We're Missing the Point
NATO faces two great threats: the Southern and Eastern flank. But more is at stake. There is also an indirect but unavoidable peril. Without achieving two-front Solidarity—the elites and the people, committed solutions from governments and enthusiastic support from the people for them—the people of NATO will go for populists and radicals. Then our countries will be ruined, our Western community will be destroyed, and people globally will suffer as the liberal order dies.
NATO faces two great threats: the Southern and Eastern flank. In the South, there is instability in North Africa and the Middle East, and refugees; in the East, there are Russian invasions, intimidation, propaganda, and destabilization in Eastern (not to mention Central and Western) Europe. The consequences of failure in either of these challenges are obvious.
But more is at stake besides these direct threats. There is an indirect but unavoidable peril. Without achieving two-front Solidarity—the elites and the people, committed solutions from governments and enthusiastic support from the people for these solutions—the people of NATO will go for populists and radicals. Our countries will be ruined, our Western community will be destroyed, and any hope for a better life for people all over the world will become merely dreams.
Everyone is familiar with the "anti-establishment," "disenchanted," "anti-elite," "populist" wave sweeping the West. However, this is not simply a populist wave. It is a plague of radicalism.
In the nineteenth century, the imperial system failed to bring prosperity, tolerance, and rights to societies. Then there was World War I, the inevitable result of the system of empires. The incredible destruction accelerated the long-running popular dissatisfaction, igniting the first plague of radicalism in Europe. People lost faith in continuity, the system, and even liberalism, and instead turned to all sorts of radical beliefs; from Bolshevism to the Nazi's National Socialism to anti-Semitic nationalism. There were dozens of wars in Europe, large and small, between 1918 and 1945. Oppression, successful propaganda, and concentration camps dominated Europe until 1945, and then held half of Europe until 1989.
The chaotic twentieth century happened because the previous system failed so badly. The people were so frustrated that they abandoned liberalism, which promised human rights and improvement but at the price of slow reform and parliamentarianism, for an easier answer. Seizing their chance, powerful men such as Lenin, Hitler, Horthy and Piłsudski used agitation and violence to gain a base, an army, and then a Captive Mind (as Miłosz said).
Due to incompetence and complacency, the West is failing to address new challenges. Events such as Operation Iraqi Freedom, the financial crash of 2008, sluggish growth to terrorism, have caused liberalism – the Western idea of freedom and improvement, a refusal of forced mobilization or unity towards utopia – to lose public confidence.
We must anticipate what kind of system society will or could produce. Things happen fast, but not so fast that we cannot make predictions and act. We must boldly analyze and change our behavior. The amount of support for Trump, Le Pen, Iglesias, and the AfD is meaningful: their radicalism can explode in popularity and power. Lenin was a long-shot, and he made it. So did Hitler. The future order lies within our publics: as they either support liberalism or abandon it, human rights will either remain or be crushed.
NATO must build solidarity among its member governments. Generally, the Southern and Eastern states are concerned with their own respective issues. Yet neither front is quiet. NATO, as a community, must get all member governments to understand how their plights are one in the same. Without a joint approach to both fronts, NATO will bicker and fail. The failure will mean continued Russian aggression and intimidation in the East, and the spreading of bloody instability in the South. Members of both areas of NATO – our friends – will feel extreme pain. For obvious reasons, if we are not successful in unifying, the people of these countries will lose faith in NATO.
And worse than NATO's discrediting, the populations of NATO member states will see the bickering and lose faith in our ultimate principle of liberalism. For the average citizen of a NATO country, why support the West if it fails to meet challenges? Why support liberalism if its followers seem to lack empathy towards even their closest friends in danger? If we are incompetent and callous, what good are we?
Why value liberalism more than these new movements that may be anti-liberal but appear strong, coherent, and brave enough to fix these problems?
We must understand radicalism could rip apart the West not because everyone will become a Nazi, but because these movements lie convincingly and people will come to accept them as legitimate. Under Hitler, most German citizens were Quislings who simply wanted improvements in the situation, not Nazis. That is all it takes.
We must communicate and perform, solving the two crisis areas, to keep our publics happy, to keep them confident in our system. Otherwise, they will take the risk on human rights, deprioritizing freedom to support these radical groups that seem to have answers.
NATO and the Western community will die off, and liberalism will be dead among the public (overall). Human rights, prosperity, and peace—especially a free peace—will become rare in the world, as the strengthening liberal world order gives way to a vacuum filled only by radicals.
This sounds exaggerated, or at least maybe a little too abstract. It is not far off—Trump may win, Le Pen is rising, Orbán and PiS are abolishing freedom, Iglesias is gaining popularity, Wilders' voice is being heard, and the Northern League is getting louder. The UK has popularly demanded to leave the EU.
Our leaders must emphasize their solidarity, cooperate with one another, and tell people our system can and will solve these issues. Focusing on the publics, our governments, intellectuals, and civil society activists must speak with – not above—the people, passionately explaining that these issues can be solved thanks to NATO's commitment to freedom and cooperation, and that those promising alternatives to liberalism are clever liars who will fail – after oppressing entire communities.
Our governments must be vigorous, humane, and compromising. Our intellectuals must be passionate, humble, and honest in working with the publics to keep them from becoming dissatisfied and, even if unknowingly, radical. We must solve the Southern and Eastern issue by committing ourselves to solidarity. This is about the people, and there are very high stakes.
Jordan Luber studies Central and Eastern European politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. His research focuses on contemporary fascist and radical movements.
This article has been submitted for category D "Increasing Solidarity in the Face of Divergent Threat Perception" of the "Shaping Our NATO: Young Voices on the NATO Summit" competition. Comments are most appreciated. You can also read the other articles in this category. Category D marks the end of the competition. We would like to thank all participants and members who have submitted op-eds and/or provided comments.
Learn more about this competition.
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