This week I attended in Washington, DC, the annual gathering of the International Democratic Union, a coalition of over 70 center-right political parties from 60 countries, chaired by former Canadian Premier Stephen Harper. It was founded in 1983 under the tutelage of Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan. So it was instrumental in the 1980s wave of democracy that prevailed against the Soviet bloc. Today it includes the Venezuelan opposition and others who contend against dictatorship.
Also this week was the seventieth anniversary of NATO, commemorated in London by a summit of member country heads of governments. Most media attention focused on fractious gossip, plus the French president’s earlier banal complaint that NATO is “brain dead.” He wants Europe to be more independent of America, just as French presidents always have. Good luck.
NATO has few enthusiastic cheerleaders of late. It’s old and creaky. Its mission has become vague. It’s suffused with tensions and resentments. There are debates about whether it should recede or expand. It’s not directly relevant against the rising threat of China.
Nearly every article about NATO repeats Lord Ismay’s early explanation of its purpose as keeping Russia out, Germany down, and America in. But the old bromide is nearly timeless and helps explain why the alliance is arguably the oldest and most successful in history and will almost certainly continue, perhaps indefinitely.
Ismay’s explanation was based on cold realism and balance of power. But there is a loftier reason for NATO’s success, longevity, continuing necessity, and moral justification. It’s an alliance of what used to be called Christendom. Secularists of course disdain this term. And many Christians either deny such a concept ever meaningfully existed or insist it’s long over, accepting the premises of the secularists.
Most of Europe today has low rates of religious practice and belief. But nations once touched by the Gospel are never the same. After having been nursed by Christianity for much of two thousand years, Europe cannot undo its own spiritual heritage. However ignored, denied, or resented, Christian purpose still infuses the identity of Europe and the North Atlantic community that comprises NATO.
NATO stresses the language of democracy and humanity rights, but this rhetoric is the temporal realization of Christian ethics for society. When Islamists deride NATO and the West as “crusaders,” they recognize a spiritual reality that befuddles secular Europeans. These Islamists, however twisted and malevolent, in this sense are more perceptive about their adversaries than we are about ourselves.
The crusades aside, for nearly its whole history Christendom made war against itself. But since the Second World War, the West has been unified under NATO, which now of course includes Eastern Europe. NATO’s primary adversary remains Russia, an Asiatic power always torn between Christendom and Oriental despotism. Perhaps eventually Russia will someday be more inclined toward the former. But the trajectories of nations are not easily bent. The threat of China may eventually shift Russia toward NATO and the West, by necessity if not affinity.
American Christians should be NATO’s greatest boosters. However exasperating and bumptious, NATO unifies and embodies what remains of old Christendom. The spirituality is far less explicit. But the comity and harmony among these nations of shared values are much greater now than when Christendom was more ardently Christian.
There are some American Christians who might imagine America is better to stand alone, without binding alliances. Realism argues against solitude in a world always ripe with threats. But so too does Christian teaching, which has always insisted there is strength in community. Reinhold Niebuhr, in founding Christianity & Crisis in 1941, argued the North Atlantic democracies collectively had providential purpose in countering tyranny and aggression. They still do.
The International Democratic Union event I attended this week honored the glory days of the 1980s when NATO and democracy prevailed against the Soviet Bloc. But there are still great threats against which to contend, and hopefully greater glory days ahead for Christian democratic values that esteem justice and equality for all in every society.