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Why Democracies Aren’t More Reliable Alliance Partners

March 21, 2023
Mark Nieman and Doug Gibler


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Mark Nieman, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Trinity College at the University of Toronto, and Doug Gibler, a professor of political science in the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Alabama, analyze how geopolitical context & opportunities to go back on promises drive the effectiveness and reliability of NATO and Article 5, rather than shared values between countries.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine set off a security spiral in Europe. Despite US President Biden’s pledge to “defend every inch of NATO territory,” Poland increased its military budget by a whopping 60 percent and asked to have US nuclear weapons based on its territory. EstoniaLithuania, and Latvia also announced sizable defense increases, with Latvia re-instating compulsory military training.

Why didn’t Biden’s pledge reassure these NATO members? Is the alliance’s famed Article 5 promise—that an attack on one member is an attack on all—a less than ironclad guarantee?

NATO is an unprecedented and unique organization of formidable military might. It is also an alliance made up of democracies, which are generally considered more reliable alliance partners: they form more lasting alliance commitments, and honor them at higher rates than autocracies. So why then are the NATO members most vulnerable to Russian aggression also the most skeptical about NATO’s commitment to defend them?

Democracies are often put on a pedestal. It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged among scholars of international relations that democratic countries are qualitatively different from authoritarian regimes—nicer, better, and more cooperative—especially when they interact with one another. Democracies do not fight wars against other democracies, though they are just as likely to fight autocracies as autocracies fight one another. Democracies are more likely to win the wars they do fight. And democracies are more likely to trade with other democracies.

But our research suggests that what drives the effectiveness of alliance isn’t democracy or shared values. Our recent article in The Journal of Politics shows that alliance reliability is driven by strategic geopolitical context and opportunities to renege, rather than domestic institutions.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.