The NATO Parliamentary Assembly as an Antidote to Public Disengagement from Defence
NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly is an asset which deserves greater attention.
There are few people in the defence world who would deny that we live in dangerous and turbulent times. The public are now on the front line of the grey zone where constant attacks from opponents seek to undermine our values, principles and trust in democratic institutions through disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks and the manipulation of public opinion.
During my time as President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NPA), I felt that as a political–military alliance, NATO had spent too much time focusing on the military potential of Article 5 and forgotten the strategic political importance of other articles in the Alliance’s founding document, the Washington Treaty. I believe that the wider role that parliamentarians, diplomats and military personnel can play in the awakening of the Alliance needs to be explored and recognised.
Connecting to a Younger Generation
In the UK, we have failed to ensure the great success of NATO is understood and valued. Even the Imperial War Museum fails to record its role in supporting the expansion of democratic states following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As President of the NPA, I spent time talking to young people across the Alliance about the importance of the founding values which determined to safeguard their freedom, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. These are values which seek to promote stability and wellbeing in the North Atlantic area.
I found a great interest among young people to understand these basic concepts, but a lack of formal education and trusted sources of information to provide the support needed. At a time of rising instability, populism and uncertainty, many stated that it felt as though some member states used the Alliance as an ideological battleground, a place for leveraging individual leaders’ economic and foreign policy aspirations rather than common values. Distrust was everywhere. Those founding values have, in some cases, become detached from governments’ policies. The problem is compounded by a lack of recognition among the member states’ populations on what the driving forces of their democracies are. As distrust in politics and politicians grow, we need to refocus on the values and principles which underpin our Alliance.
The NPA’s Advantages
Decision-making and communication with the wider populations of member states were recognised as inherent weaknesses by NATO’s founders. As a result, they were written into Article 2, which states that:
The Parties will contribute toward the further development 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. They will seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them.
Article 2 forms a central part of the NPA’s handbook for new parliamentarians. This reference material also lists the Assembly’s goals:
- To facilitate parliamentary awareness and understanding of key security issues and Alliance policies;
- To provide for NATO and its member governments with an indication of collective parliamentary opinion;
- To increase cooperation with countries who seek cooperation rather than membership (the Caucasus, Central Asia and Southern Mediterranean regions);
- To assist in the development of parliamentary democracy by integrating parliamentarians from non-member states into the Assembly’s work (Euro-Atlantic area);
- To assist in the development of parliamentary mechanisms, practises and ‘know how’ essential for the effective democratic control of armed forces;
- To provide a forum for issues beyond the narrow definitions of security but which affect the cohesion and interests of the Atlantic Community.
Working with the NPA, NATO can tackle this lack of public engagement and comprehension and build societal resilience. The NPA offers a ready-made vehicle through which to grow awareness of the Alliance, its principles, values and aspirations, and to foster a wider debate and understanding of defence and security threats.
The NPA is a vehicle for reaching out to the populations of member states, especially to young people. Building national resilience through sharing the best practices and expertise of allies is non-threatening and, indeed, essential. In addition, the NPA’s committee structure offers an opportunity for parliamentarians to gain a wider perspective of defence and security by exploring its civil, political, economic, scientific and technological dimensions. Reports from these committees provide invaluable information for national parliaments and their committees, many of which may otherwise see themselves as having no defence remit.
The NPA also fulfils a vital training role with the new generation of parliamentarians elected to it, many of whom have had little political or defence experience. This is important, as some members will go on to hold high office as ministers, high representatives, speakers and leaders of academic institutions. We must not underestimate the NPA’s long- and short-term diplomatic role in fostering personal relationships between its members.
Importantly, the NPA provides a safe place for disagreements and asking difficult questions within an institutional rules-based setting. While such disagreements and questions may create difficulties at a government-to-government or military-to-military level, the NPA can safely explore tensions and solutions.
NPA members’ Rose Roth Seminars, Mediterranean and Middle East reports and a recent visit to the African Union all demonstrate the wider outreach role the NPA plays in promoting discussion, insight and understanding of shared defence and security concerns and the parliamentary systems for tackling them. This parliamentary diplomacy is an underrated skill and resource.
An Enduring Asset
As members retire from their parliamentary roles, they offer NATO a skilled and informed resource, as they continue to act as informal goodwill ambassadors. In the past few years, many long-term members of the NPA have retired, taking with them crucial networks, communication and insights. We must not waste these skills.
As Britain faces a future outside of the EU, we also face a future outside of the essential and growing interaction between NATO and the EU, including on issues such as military mobility and cyber. It's time for the UK to recognise the value and potential the delegation to the NPA brings to our wider defence and security, and to develop a fuller understanding of how its relationships, discussions, reports and activities can play a part in promoting the Alliance for future generations.
Madeleine Moon is a former Labour MP, and has just concluded her presidency of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
To find out about RUSI’s work on national resilience, see https://rusi.org/projects/modern-deterrence for information on its Modern Deterrence project, headed by Elisabeth Braw.
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