A big question hangs over the annual NATO summit taking place this week in Brussels: How long can the alliance survive? The current U.S. administration, to put it mildly, is not a big fan of NATO. The same goes for international institutions  more generally. President Trump has made clear his disdain for the WTO, the UNHRC, the Paris accord, the TPP, the Iran nuclear deal, etc.

When combined with Brexit — if it happens — and how the current stalwart of international rules and organizations, Angela Merkel of Germany, faces tough challenges, it’s no wonder that some see little prospect for a world “lapt in universal law” (to quote Tennyson).

But as Julia Gray recently pointed out here in the Monkey Cage, “The fact that dominant powers like the United States and Britain seem to be retreating from major international bodies could open a door for other countries to step in … and find other productive forms of cooperation.”

Okay, but what are the “other countries” that will step up to maintain and grow the existing order of international organizations? The argument and evidence in my new book with Johannes Urpelainen suggests that it will be the same countries that have in the past: middle-power democracies.

Time and again, non-major power democracies, not the U.S. or U.K., took the initiative and drove forward the growth of international organizations.

A role for other democracies

After the end of the Cold War, international organizations were created and reformed to address the needs of fledgling democracies emerging from the “third wave” of democracy. These organizations provided the resources and technical assistance necessary to ensure that new democracies would survive. Critically, established democracies played a key role in operating and abetting these organizations.

Who were the established democracies frequently playing this key supporting role? Not the democratic “great powers” of the United States and United Kingdom. These two nations were often distracted by great power rivalry or a desire to look inward (or just focus on its empire).

It was middle-power democracies. One part of their strategy was to support new democracies by creating international organizations. Another part was to persuade the “great power” democracies to become members of those organizations.

The middle powers and NATO

Consider Denmark. When the newly independent Baltic states sought the assistance of NATO, help was not immediately on the way. The administrations of George H.W. Bush and then Bill Clinton were reluctant to allow the Baltics to enter NATO.

For much of the 1990s, expansion of NATO into the former Soviet republics was a matter of “if,” let alone “when.” Stepping into the breach was Denmark, a NATO member that bordered the Baltic Sea region. The Danish government helped the Baltic states create the Baltic Battalion (or BALTBAT). This organization served as a conduit through which other Western countries — including the United States — could provide much-needed military supplies and training to the Baltic states. This helped pave the way for the Baltics to join NATO in 2004.

In many ways, the Baltic experience echoes the creation of NATO itself. Contrary to what one might infer from some accounts, NATO was not a “blanket of protection” bestowed by the United States upon the grateful and unwitting Western European  nations suffering from the devastation of World War II.

Instead, France, the Benelux countries, and a (severely weakened) United Kingdom took measures to provide for their own security, forming the Brussels Pact in 1948. Only then was a reluctant United States, with the prompting of Canada, willing to consider expanding the arrangement into an “Atlantic” alliance.

The Canadian way

As for Canada, our research can’t speak to Justin Trudeau’s prospects of occupying valuable real estate in hell. But it does address Canadian efforts to reform the Organization of American States in the 1990s. Throughout the Cold War, Canada had refrained from becoming a full member of the OAS, viewing it as a vehicle of U.S. anti-communist control over Latin America and the Caribbean.

This changed in the early 1990s. Seeing a need to assist the newly emerging democracies in South America, Canada became a full member in 1991. Canada then led the way in remodeling the OAS from a regional security organization and toward  an organization that today is associated with democracy promotion and conflict resolution.

In 1989, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney explained the shift in Canadian policy that led to full OAS membership: “Interdependence is making us all partners in each other’s burdens.  . . . We are prepared to contribute to that process, in whatever useful way we can.”

A (middle) path forward?

The future is unclear for NATO and the “liberal international order” of international institutions and democracy that NATO underpins. Indeed, opinions of the liberal order’s future range from imminent demise, to mere lull, to it having never existed in the first place.

What is clear is that the willingness of the United States and United Kingdom to continue fostering a functioning and vibrant international institutional order is useful, but not necessary. Middle-power established democracies have in the past, and can again, create and support the international organizations that are the hallmark of the post-Cold War international order.

Paul Poast is assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago and a research affiliate of the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts. He is the author (with Johannes Urpelainen) of “Organizing Democracy: How International Organizations Assist New Democracies” (University of Chicago Press, 2018). Find Paul on Twitter @ProfPaulPoast.