The fourth episode of ‘Radio Resilience. Conversations about our ability to adapt and respond to change‘ is about the link between democracy and security. For this exchange, held on 18 November 2022, we were joined by:
- Ruxandra Popa, Secretary General, NATO Parliamentary Assembly
- Michael Meyer-Resende, Executive Director, Democracy Reporting International
- Daniel Hegedüs, Senior Program Officer, GMF
- Alice Stollmeyer, Executive Director, Defend Democracy (moderator)
You can listen to the conversation here, and read the transcript below.
Thank you all for joining us today, I really appreciate it. Ruxandra let’s maybe start with you, because some of our listeners may not be aware that NATO has its own parliament. Could you please tell us more about NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly?
Absolutely. Indeed, I don’t think many people know of the existence of the assembly. The assembly has been created in 1955, a few years after NATO’s own creation, and independently from NATO. We’re separate institutions. But we bring together some 269 Members of Parliament from the 30 member countries of NATO, and hopefully very soon 32.
These are national legislators, who are usually members of their committees on foreign affairs or defence in the national parliaments, and as such, are our experts on Foreign Affairs and defence issues. They represent their parliaments in the NATO PA as a way to ensure that the voices of the alliances Parliaments’, and through them of the alliances’ citizens, are heard on defence issues, and specifically on NATO’s priorities.
We learn from each other. It is going to be key to ensure that the great practices that some nations have put in place for building up the resilience of their societies are shared with others. So the NATO PA also provides this forum for exchanging experience among parliamentarians. And in fact, just today we are starting our annual session. Our largest meeting is taking place in Madrid today, and resilience, specifically, democratic resilience is going to be a central theme of this session. So I am I’m doubly delighted to participate today.
The Plenary Sitting on Monday is going to be live streamed. So do take a look on our website, and do tune in to listen. You will hear a lot about how NATO needs to do more about recognising the importance of societal resilience and democratic resilience.
Thank you. So Michael, this week I read an article you wrote on why democracy should be a key focus of Germany’s foreign policy. Can you tell us why?
Yeah, sure. So this coalition that governs Germany since a year or so, in its coalition treaty has an agreement to write up a security strategy, which should be endorsed by the entire cabinet. That’s something we didn’t have before. And, of course, the 24th of February then made this idea extremely relevant and timely. That is what the government is working on, under the leadership of the Foreign Ministry. And they hope to unveil that in January.
Our interest is to make a case to say, Germany is much criticised, and rightly so I think, for this very heavy emphasis on trade as a primary interest of foreign relations, which was always given this nice narrative of Wandel durch Handel, effecting change through trade. And of course, that’s a wonderful narrative if you happen to be an exporting nation that wants to earn a lot of money with this. It makes it sound as if there’s some great beneficial aspect to all that on top of just earning money with it. And that has been quite dominant in Germany and believed by many people. Yet when you look at our intensive economic relationship with Russia, what did that change in Russia? Our money went to oligarchs and a highly authoritarian government. And we could talk about many other countries, of course, where we see a similar picture.
So, Russia invaded Ukraine and this is a real crisis moment, of course, for German foreign policy. It is clear that it has really systematically gone wrong over the last years, and so the question now is what has gone wrong? And how do we define a new German foreign policy? And I think the first point is, it cannot only be about trade. Otherwise, it’s a trade policy, not a foreign policy. Foreign policy has many different levels, trade, of course, being one of them. And it’s an important one, but it cannot be the only one.
I would say the security strategy is central, because it tells us what German government in the future will see as the essential elements of Germany’s security. That’s really the bottom line of what foreign policy should achieve. And there must be the, what we call in German, Primat der Politik, or the primacy of politics. So, even if Volkswagen tells us that, because of a great investment in country A, B or C, we should have really good relationship with that country, there should be other interests that guide us: the primacy of politics. And this cannot be decided by big companies. It has to take into account all different perspectives.
So very concretely, when we look at Russia, we get cheap gas and oil, very nice. But if we don’t look at anything else in Russia, it’s short-sighted, and we pay a very high price now for that short-sightedness. Our analysis is that at the end, you cannot avoid talking about how partner governments are set up, are they authoritarian states, are they dictatorships, are they maybe in the grey zone, hybrid regimes, or are they indeed democracies. This is quite important for our risks.
We think that democracies, by and large, are much more stable partners. They are more transparent. You know what will happen because there’s public debate and there are media so you can follow what’s going on there. We also know from science of course, that democracies don’t start wars against each other, and dictatorships not only start wars easily, they do it in total secrecy. I mean, the CIA told us about the [Russian] invasion but few people believed it. And even the Russian government didn’t tell its own soldiers that they would start a war. All this speaks to the fact that democracies are a much safer bet as a partner. Our work now is to try to anchor this idea in German foreign policy, that you have to look at the way that partner countries are constituted domestically, and you have to be eloquent about that and intelligent about it and analytical about it. And you need to be able to make these aspects part of your foreign policy calculations.
Thank you, Michael. Daniel, as an analyst, your focus is on Central and Eastern Europe. Can you tell us a more about what role these countries play in the quality of democracy within the European Union?
If we raise the topic of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, then I think most of the listeners will think of the headlines reporting about the democratic backsliding in Hungary or Poland. If we are talking about the state of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, and what it means for the European Union, then we have to be fair as well as realistic in our assessment. In fairness, we need to acknowledge that the democratic challenges as well as the potentially authoritarian drives which are present in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as influenced or impacted authoritarian developments, first and foremost in Poland and Hungary, are absolutely identical to the Western European ones. Likewise the democratic quality of the United States was impacted between 2016 and 2020. These drivers are also behind illiberal developments in older European Union member states.
What are these drivers? I just would like to underline social polarisation. I know that Michael is not really a fan of the concept, but grievance-based populism, executed aggrandisement, the crisis of quality media, and of course, malicious foreign interference of Russian and Chinese actors in a couple of countries as well, can play a role in democratic backsliding.
We also have to emphasise that Central and Eastern Europe is not a homogeneous region. There are huge differences between the democratic resilience of individual Central and Eastern European EU member states to illiberal and authoritarian developments. I first and foremost would like to highlight the resilience of the democracy in the Czech Republic. And there were also democratic renewal processes over the past couple of years in countries like Slovakia this year, Slovenia last year, also Bulgaria – even if some of these positive trends were not unnecessarily sustainable in the long run. Not everything is doom and gloom and, although the authoritarian developments in Poland and Hungary are really concerning, this is not necessarily representative of the state of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe overall.
However, we need to be realistic and acknowledge that the European Union has a member state which is a non-democracy. Hungary is most often characterised as a hybrid regime or as an electoral autocracy both in the literature and now also in political statements such as resolutions of the European Parliament, but it’s definitely a non-democracy. And Poland is a very seriously defective democracy in the European Union. And it’s important to stress that in the most well-known international democracy measuring projects like V-dem or Freedom House, Central Europe is characterised as the fastest autocratising region globally. That means, not only for the European Union, but in a broader context for the Western world, that all of these democratic challenges and democratic backsliding in Central Europe very deeply impact the democratic credentials, the democratic integrity and the democratic credibility of the Western world.
When we speak about democratic credibility, of course, that impacts NATO, as well as the European Union. How credibly can NATO present itself as the shield of Western democracies, if democracy is not the only game in town among NATO member states? I would like to stress that Turkey and Hungary are the two NATO member states which were not invited to the Summit for Democracy last year by the US government. But also in the case of the European Union, it’s obvious that the internal democratic backsliding of [some] EU member states has a very negative impact on the European Union’s transformative power and its ability to impose democratic conditionality on candidate countries, or in its neighbourhood. And in the long term, it also contributes to a less stable geopolitical environment of the European Union itself. This internal autocratisation of the West has a very negative impact, in the security context and the geopolitical context, on the resilience and the capabilities of Western nations as well.
Thank you, Daniel. Let’s go deeper into the link between democracy and security. Why does democracy matter for security? Ruxandra, would you like to start?
If we look at the founding treaty of NATO, the Washington Treaty from 1949, it actually says very clearly that NATO is a political military alliance. But it is one that is founded on principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law, both in the preamble and Article Two of the NATO Treaty. It’s made very clear and very explicit. So this is an alliance that aims to be an alliance of democracies.
Today’s environment, and in particular Russia’s war against Ukraine, has helped allies return and recommit to the foundations of NATO. NATO recently had an important historic summit, in many respects, in June in Madrid, where they adopted a new strategic concept. This is a roadmap that lays out NATO’s priorities and adaptation. That strategic concept, again, puts a very strong emphasis on the importance of recommitting the Alliance to democratic values in the context of a geopolitical contest between autocracies and democracies. The analysis of the security environment today is one where our allied nations are engaged in a contest with authoritarian powers.
Our priority, as an alliance, needs to be to recommit to those democratic values. And that’s very clear in the strategic concept. This is something that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly has been pushing very hard in its contributions to the strategic concept. NATO now needs to operationalise it and draw the conclusions from it. And a specific recommendation that we have, is that NATO should create a democratic resilience centre at its headquarters, that would serve as a focal point of efforts by allies to build up the democratic institutions, build up their resilience to the threats that we face right now, whether it’s disinformation, interference in elections, or cyber attacks.
In other words, from the very beginning, I think NATO itself made the link between the importance of having strong, resilient societies and defending the principles that are at the foundations of those societies, and security, which was the purpose of the founding of NATO.
Thank you, Ruxandra. Michael, I’d like to pass the mic on to you, what are your thoughts on this?
My first job after I graduated was with the OSCE, the ODIHR in Warsaw, the Human Rights Office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. And the OSCE has a very good definition of security, which is quite all encompassing. It is about military security, it’s about economic security, but it’s also about human security.
There is the risk that security is discussed as a state-to-state concept. We have a tradition since the 19th century to see security as something between the cabinets of the capitals of this world. But today, we live in a very different world, and foreign policy affects individuals and affects people and their security.
We are very interested in institutions. People can make change, and people have aspirations, but individuals cannot go out into the streets every day and demonstrate for this or that democratic right, we need institutions to protect those rights. I have my doubts, and I hear those from Daniel as well, that some of the institutions we have are not well protected anymore. And this is a case for the European Union. Developments like with Hungary have been allowed to happen. The blame for this lies of course with the member states of the EU more than with Brussels.
The people who made a noise about it were civil society organisations and NGOs and academics. And governments didn’t do anything for many, many years, and I have to say, now they do too little, too late. There is more going on, of course, but as Daniel said, Hungary is not a democracy anymore. We have the same doubts with institutions like NATO, it has partners that absolutely are not convincing as democracies. Hungary and Turkey were mentioned. And actually they are the two countries, as far as I understand, who are currently not yet endorsing the accession of two very democratic countries like Finland and Sweden.
So I think we have been at a point, for many years already, where people and NGOs and journalists have to really push forward that we need democracy as an element of security and that the institutions that have been created have utterly failed us. And again, I’m blaming national governments much more here than the institutions itself. It’s very much driven, of course, by the governments of the countries that are in the EU and NATO.
Thank you, Michael. Daniel, what are your thoughts on the link between democracy and security?
We can differentiate at least three different levels, where democracy and security are very strongly interlinked and tied together. Firstly, in the dimension of political systems, at least since the middle of the 2010s, we see a kind of emerging systemic rivalry between existing democracies and existing authoritarian systems. I would not by any means call this a Cold War. But the existence of democracies, and the strengths of democracies, and potentially the spread of the democratic idea among societies is obviously seen as a threat by authoritarian regimes.
Since 2015, 2016, we can also observe a very active interference of global authoritarian players into the domestic democratic processes of Western countries. For instance the 2016 US elections, the 2016 Brexit referendum as well as the 2017 French elections. But it’s not only related to Russian interference; Chinese interference into the domestic democratic processes of Australia or New Zealand is also very endemic.
This sort of malign foreign interference has an obvious security dimension. Democracies have to protect the integrity of their democratic processes against foreign interference. Obviously, if that isn’t the case, then the people’s right to self-determination in these societies can’t be taken seriously any more. So of course, that fight against foreign interference has an objective security dimension.
Secondly, the democratic peace doctrine. The only countries today in the world, and especially the only great powers, which have territorial claims, frequently violate the sovereignty of other countries, dispute their borders, are authoritarian great powers. We have seen how this threat emerged in the case of Russia. It didn’t start on the 24th of February, but in 2008, with the invasion of Georgia, and then in 2014, with the first invasion of Ukraine. We can also see the territorial claims of the People’s Republic of China in the East China Sea against Japan, in the South China Sea against a number of East Asian countries, and also the threatening stance towards Taiwan. This is a classical challenge to security posed by authoritarian great powers.
And the third dimension I would like to underline is the integrity of the Western alliance system, the Western security system, as we have already touched upon. But we have to point out that the European Union is a value-based organisation. As soon as member states are no longer connected to the founding values, to the European values enshrined in the second Article of the Treaty on the European Union, then we can see that it has a very real negative impact on the functioning of these organisations. In 2020 we saw how autocratising countries practically hijacked the EU budget process, how autocratising countries hijacked a couple of strategic decision-making processes in the European Union. This is also the case with Hungary when it comes to the €18 billion European financial aid package to Ukraine. So autocratisation within the democratic communities obviously weakens the self-defence capabilities of this organisation from itself. This is a very, very serious challenge. And unfortunately, I have to agree with Michael that neither the European Union nor other western integration organisations were able to find an appropriate response to that challenge.
Thank you, Daniel. Let’s move on to Ukraine in particular, Ruxandra, how and to what extent is NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly involved in NATO’s work to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia?
Indeed, because the assembly really sees Ukraine as the perfect illustration of these contests of values between autocracies and democracies today, Russia’s war against Ukraine is obviously a war against the Ukrainian people, but it’s also a war about the Ukrainian people’s democratic choice. In that sense, Russia is trying to crush the Ukrainian people, but moreover crush their democracy and crush the democratic ambitions of other nations who might want to set themselves free from Russia’s interference.
There is a clear recognition among NATO allies that the future of our democratic liberal rules-based world order is at stake. So NATO allies are strong in their support of the Ukrainian fight. So since 2014 our assembly has strengthened our cooperation with the Ukrainian parliament, and we try to assist them in building the resilience of their democratic institutions. Of course since February 24th, we have stepped up that support and in fact, this afternoon our annual session started with a meeting with our Ukrainian Members of Parliament.
From the six members of the Ukrainian parliament who are attending our meeting in Madrid, we are trying to understand what Ukraine’s needs are, to reaffirm the assembly’s political support to Ukraine’s Parliament’s, and then ensure that we are as much in sync with Ukraine as possible. We are looking ahead and examining what support Ukraine is going to need in the longer term with regard to rebuilding its institutions, ensuring it continues the great success story of Ukraine’s democratic ambitions and their ambitions to join EU and NATO.
Thank you, Ruxandra. Michael, you told me that your organisation has commissioned polling on security and democracy in Germany. Could you tell us a bit about the results?
We will publish them in a week or so, but I’m happy to give you a sneak preview.
This poll was a bit intricate, because we wanted to go to the level of narratives. As I mentioned before, there’s this strong narrative of ‘trade can change political situations’ or Wandel durch Handel, and we wanted to know how much support that narrative actually has with the German population. We also wanted to find out if there are other ways to talk about foreign policy that people may find convincing. So this was not just an opinion poll, where people could agree or disagree with statements, but it was exposing people to different narratives and different groups and it’s representative, done by YouGov.
The first insight that really surprised me was the result of the first question. People were given a list of 15 items and asked ‘Which of these should be prioritised in foreign policy and relation with other states?’ and ‘peace-building’ scored highest with 62%. The reasons, I guess, are obvious, given German history. But it is more complicated than that. Yet in the case of Ukraine, many people seem to feel that if there is no fighting between soldiers, than that is peace. So even if it’s just a ceasefire, and Russia keeps territory and keeps torturing people there, and keeps abducting children, people can look away from all that. I mean, I’m happy a population is in favour of peace, but it’s not without complications.
Human rights and democracy are supported as a priority in foreign policy by around half of the respondents, and that wasn’t a bad value. And another surprise is that only 31% of the respondents prioritised trade, much lower than we had expected.
There is a really strong block of around 60-65% of respondents who say that foreign policy must be a mix of hard interest, like earning money with your trade, and values as well. Only 12% of people said, No, it’s all about interest, and we don’t care what else is going on. So the majority feel that we cannot simply define foreign policy by the balance sheet of the big companies.
However, personally I strongly feel that we can’t define democracy simply as a value, and trade simply as an interest. Because democracy is an interest in my point of view. As I said earlier, we are safer if our neighbouring countries and our partners are democracies as well. This is not just because we are nice and we want other people to have the right to say what they want and have a free press. It protects us and our values and we shouldn’t discount that.
Debate often suffers from the idea that, ‘Oh, you work for democracy, you are one of these idealists. So you need some donations, and do your little thing, but a hard policy is a totally different thing’. We need to turn this around completely, it must be understood that democracy or internal constitution of other countries is are hard security policy issues that we need to take very seriously, and not just leave to NGOs, but to people who make the big decisions.
Last but certainly not least, the narratives that really garnered the most support, much more than this ‘trade will make us safer’ line, were the ones that bound these elements together, saying that our values should back up our interest in some way. A large majority supported the idea that it makes us safer to look at all of these things. And encouragingly, when we later asked some of the questions from the survey again to see if opinions had changed, 5% of the respondents had changed their minds and were now in favour of a foreign policy approach that would balance value and interest and agreed that it is really important for us to look at how other countries are run.
So overall, I found the results encouraging. It showed realism, it showed that people understand that this is complicated, and we can’t just pretend that these ideas are just some form of idealism. At the core of it lies the fact that we need to rebuild from a level of society because institutions haven’t done well. We live in democracies, and we have to bring societal pressure and societal change. We created this poll to reconnect this whole debate in a way that is understandable and appealing to the public.
Great, thank you Michael for sharing a sneak preview with us. Now, Daniel, you already mentioned Hungary. Could you elaborate on what role Hungary plays in the EU security, and especially regarding Russia’s war on Ukraine.
If someone followed the headlines this week, they would come to the conclusion that Hungary has a rather odd position when it comes to Ukraine’s war of self-defence and its fight against the Russian aggression. Hungary as we know blocks the NATO accession of Finland and Sweden, it blocks the European Union’s Є 18 billion aid package to Ukraine. In NATO it blocks the high level meeting of the NATO – Ukraine commission. As the only country in the Central European region, Hungary refuses to provide any sort of military aid to Ukraine. It also prohibits the use of its territory for the transportation of military aid to Ukraine, and this list could go on and on outlining and detailing the very intimate and defence close relationship between Hungary and Russia, and how the Hungarian government undertakes steps which ultimately also serve Russian strategic interest. Hungary may be said to be blocking the Є 18 billion European aid package just to blackmail European institutions to force them to give access to the currently frozen European cohesion funds, but nevertheless, independently from the motivation of the Hungarian government, at the end of the day, all of these steps serve Russian strategic interest.
So Hungary is an outlier. Apparently the Hungarian government does not share the joint security perception of its central European neighbours with regard to the Russian military threat in the region. This begs the question, why is this the case? We already mentioned that Hungary is a non-democracy. And in certain respects, the foreign policies of non-democratic regimes differ from democracies, their ultimate aim is not necessarily national interest, but regime interest. And regime interest is first and foremost, at least a strategic level, regime stability and the sustainability of authoritarian rule, or at least authoritarian tendencies. To all intents and purposes, this is also the strategic aim of Hungarian foreign policy: the creation of an international environment which is supportive of the domestic autocratisation processes within the country, which allows the Hungarian government to avoid potential sanctions which might be imposed by the European Union or the United States, due to the internal authoritarian developments.
The tool through which the Hungarian government can reach that goal is to maintain close and cordial relationships with authoritarian great powers like Russia and China. Because in the past, and potentially also in the present, these close relationships with these authoritarian contenders of the West offered strategic leverage for the Hungarian government, over its western partners, over the European Union and the United States. And it could be used as bargaining chips in very critical situations.
I would like to underline that this is not a general model. Poland has, for example, a different geopolitical strategy to foster the authoritarian developments within the country. So in that regard, these two European states with illiberal developments definitely differ from each other. But this is objectively the Hungarian model. And it explains how autocratisation and close and cordial relationships with Russia and a sort of geopolitical disloyalty to the West go hand in hand. And it obviously underlines that a threat to democracy is also a threat to security in the Western world.
Thank you Daniel, this is fascinating. I have a few final questions for all of you. As this Radio Resilience series is about hybrid threats, in particular to democracy, how can democracies become more resilient to those threats? What can governments or alliances of governments do? And what can the private sector do? And then last, but not least, what can we as citizens and as civil society do? What is the role of society, community and social cohesion in our resilience to change, to threats and to crisis?
I think that’s a really important question. And one that gives me an opportunity as well to speak about two of the countries that are wanting to join NATO, Sweden and Finland, who I’m sure will join very soon. Sweden and Finland are great examples that we can learn from regarding the link between democracy and security. They both share the concept of ‘total defence’, that is based on a whole-of-society approach to security and to protecting democratic institutions. This concept implies that for their security to be strong, democracy must be strong. And so all citizens need to be involved in that effort. We can learn a lot from the Swedish and Finnish examples.
Everything starts with educating citizens about the importance of democracy, that is not just some abstract concept, but that they each have a role in protecting and defending different democratic institutions. That is something that Sweden and Finland have learned and know how to nurture in their citizens. A few years ago, before Russia’s war on Ukraine, the assembly delegation visited Sweden and the Swedish authorities took us on a tour of the country. So we are touring Sweden with the top level officials of Sweden, the Speaker of parliament, the Prime Minister, and speaking in schools and in various town-hall events, talking about democracy, talking about the roots of Swedish democracy, and talking about what it means to the citizens today. That is a great example that we should learn from, about how you build amongst your citizens the feeling that we each need to work hard at defending our democracy, that it’s not something that needs to be taken for granted.
That’s really a great example. And it sounds like we should be welcoming Finland and Sweden in NATO with open arms.
Many countries in Europe are too state-oriented. This is certainly the case in Germany. This is not bad in and of itself, but we also need strong societies. There is a tendency, in France as well, to think that states should handle all the problems, but I think society has a role to play as well. And the Nordics are really good at that.
Another country that really is very inspirational for me is Ukraine. I’ve been there in September, in Kyiv. There is an incredible sense of initiative, people don’t wait for any government authority to fix a problem. They just take matters into their own hands. Ukraine shows the rest of Europe that people do have the power to be part of the change and the solution, that we don’t need to persuade politicians to do it.
Extreme polarisation, of course, weakens our societies very much. And in my analysis, to a large degree this is a problem of the political right. And basically, I think we need more democratic conservatives, and fewer right wing extremists. It is quite a challenge, how defend a good space for democratic conservatives that does not drift into extremism. But that’s maybe for another conversation.
I would like to shed light on one of the questions at a different level, the question of what can civil society and nongovernmental organisations do to help to restore the democratic integrity of Western international organisations or integration organisations like the European Union. And in this regard, I think we also have some best practices. And I would like to underline the case of Netherlands. It’s obvious that the European institutions were unable to address the authoritarian challenge among EU member states in an appropriate form. And it’s also obvious that at least until 2021, 2022, most of the member states were not necessarily interested in this political question either. Those member states that were – and these were primarily the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, the so called friends of the Rule of Law Group – were distinguished by the fact that all of these political questions became part of the domestic political agenda, first and foremost whether the euros of taxpayers would be spent to support potentially autocrats in other EU member states.
What we need is civic activism, civil society engagement, and potentially also political entrepreneurs, who build on that narrative, and keep the issue of autocratisation within the European Union and the EU’s democratic integrity on the domestic political agendas. Because if that’s present, that will also serve as political motivation for the respective national parliaments, for the respective national governments to represent the appropriate policies within the EU institutions. And that’s crucial.
I think we will very soon have a further test of the political approach of EU member states to this challenge. On the 4th of December, in the Council of the European Union, member states potentially have to vote about the question whether they suspend at least part of Hungary’s EU funding due to systemic deficiencies of the rule of law in this country. Member states’ governments decisions could have been influenced in advance if appropriate political and civil society mobilisation had taken place in those countries. So not only at the national level, but potentially also at the EU level, civil society and political entrepreneurs have a crucial role to play in ensuring democratic security.
Thank you, Daniel. To everyone who is listening, please help push your government to be on the right side of history. A big thank you to our speakers, it was great to have you with us.