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The decision by the social-democratic governments of Finland and Sweden to apply for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is bound to be viewed as a response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

But this was not merely a reflexive act of self-protection; nor should accepting this expansion be seen as a shift by NATO back to its Cold War origins as a “Western” bloc allied against threats from Moscow. Contrary to NATO’s name (which refers to its founding treaty) it was never a purely North Atlantic or even European bloc; it was only geographically Western by coincidence – and it should no longer be strictly so in the 21st century.

Mr. Putin’s hostility certainly affected the timing of Helsinki’s and Stockholm’s decisions, even if his military threat to places beyond eastern Ukraine has grown far less plausible since February. But both countries had been headed toward NATO membership for years, for reasons that are only partially related to Russian revanchism. Both countries had come to recognize NATO as a crucial component of democratic multilateralism and international collective security – which should be reaffirmed as the alliance’s key function and message.

This is a dangerous moment, in which the world’s democracies and dictatorships are coalescing into competing blocs, each attempting to win over the publics and elites of vulnerable states and threatening Cold War-style conflicts in the places where they meet. The strongman regimes, especially in Beijing and Moscow, are eager to portray this not as a struggle between popular sovereignty and one-party dictatorship, but as one between an arrogant, imperialistic West and a collection of poor and subjected countries to the east and south.

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That claim was a big part of Mr. Putin’s justification for an invasion of Ukraine. It was utterly fictional – Ukrainian people had sought European Union membership based on their own interests, the country had not sought NATO membership and NATO states had decisively refused to give significant military support to Ukraine after Russia’s 2014 invasion. There was no “West” pressing on Russia’s borders.

But it is a fiction that has persuaded a lot of publics and leaders in the eastern and southern three-quarters of the globe. In countries such as India and Mexico, Mr. Putin’s “civilizational” reading has often won the day. This isn’t just a symbolic contest, but one that can shape the world’s balance of power – and the prospects for progressive democracy – for the rest of the century.

Once these important new members have been incorporated, NATO and its member countries need to turn to the urgent matter of moving away from being an exclusive force of “the West.” It ought to do this by adding an East Asian member. Japan’s pacifist constitution probably prevents it from joining, and Taiwan should never be a member (for the same reason Ukraine shouldn’t – because it would increase rather than reduce threats). An ideal candidate would be South Korea, which has long been a NATO associate, and took part in the bloc’s Afghanistan mission.

NATO has geographically extended beyond Europe from the beginning: Algeria was a founding member in 1949 (as a colony of France, until 1962) and Turkey, located mainly in Asia, has been a member since 1952.

But Brussels officials and diplomats dismiss the idea of expanding into Asia as unwise or unworkable, as it would entail altering a few words of its treaty (something that’s been done many times) and getting unanimous support from members, who would be wary of the semi-obligation to come to the defence of Asian countries under Article 5 of its charter.

It is, however, the one change NATO most needs. In fact, it ought to be part of a larger move by NATO to reaffirm its key role as a resource-sharing coalition of democracies. In 1947, Canadian foreign minister (and future prime minister) Louis St. Laurent gave a speech to the United Nations that was decisive in persuading a reluctant United States to accept the Franco-British idea of NATO; in it, he described this military alliance as “an association of peace-loving states.” That is the role it should embrace – as the world’s only association of peace-loving democracies.

NATO has never had to act in defence of a member state; its most important actions have involved providing military aid to citizens of countries under threat from dangerous autocrats. That is how NATO would act if Taiwan were attacked by China – much as it has helped Ukraine. Having Asian states on board would prevent this from becoming a Western enterprise, and reduce the chance of it triggering a world war.

Rather than continuing to build awkward military blocs such as AUKUS (comprised of Australia, the UK and the United States) outside of NATO, the alliance should build these eastern-hemisphere democracies into its membership, thus being truer to its core principles and keeping the world safer.

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