In reacting to Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine, President Obama has reassured exposed NATO members Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia of firm U.S. support, but he has shown little inclination to show needed leadership by putting another integral element of NATO policy on the agenda of September’s Cardiff summit: enlargement of the alliance. Obama’s hesitation, which has allowed NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to put off the question of enlargement until next year, is unwise and unnecessary.
NATO enlargement, a bipartisan effort that has spanned the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, has been one of the most successful U.S. foreign policy achievements of the past two decades. As a result of their countries’ having joined NATO, more than 100 million Central and Eastern Europeans in 12 nations from Estonia to Albania can freely elect their own governments and pursue national priorities without fear of foreign invasion.
Moreover, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the alliance has benefited from the contributions of the new members, even if few of them are yet spending at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, the NATO target. In the face of Moscow’s destabilization of Ukraine, one can only imagine the mood of the Baltic states and Poland if they were not protected by NATO’s Article 5 common defense guarantee.
Two Balkan countries — Macedonia and Montenegro — are ready, willing but so far unable to join NATO. Meanwhile, far to the north, pro-accession sentiment in two Nordic countries is growing. Finland’s new Prime Minister Alexander Stubb is an advocate of joining NATO, and Helsinki recently signed a wide-ranging memorandum of understanding with the alliance. Stubb’s position reflects a widespread belief that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has endangered his country’s security. Similar sentiments are also increasingly heard in Sweden, a fellow European Union member. Both are NATO partner countries that took part in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo and sent contingents to Afghanistan, where they suffered combat fatalities.
Enlargement is not a peripheral issue. In the North Atlantic Treaty that created NATO in April 1949, enlargement was enshrined as a fundamental element. Article 10 states that by unanimous agreement the alliance may invite to membership “any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.”
Nonetheless, there is reluctance in a few European capitals to proceed with further enlargement, principally out of fear of alienating Russia, which routinely rails against the alliance, usually invoking Ukraine, even though Kiev is no longer interested in membership.
Exhibit A is the case of little Montenegro, widely considered qualified to join since a successful reorganization of its intelligence services has been certified by the CIA. Its inclusion would make the entire northern shore of the Mediterranean NATO territory, from Turkey to Spain. Still, earlier this week in Brussels, Rasmussen declared that the alliance would not assess Montenegro’s candidacy until 2015, rhetorically attempting to soften the blow by adding that “no third country has a veto over NATO enlargement.”
Macedonia was certified by the alliance as qualified for membership six years ago, but it has been vetoed by Greece because of a dispute over its constitutional name. Intent on being a de facto ally, Macedonia enthusiastically participates in NATO operations. Relative to population, its contingent was one of the largest in Afghanistan, where its troops acquitted themselves well in combat.
Georgia, denied a membership action plan at the 2008 NATO summit, fervently hoped to get one at Cardiff. Key European allies, traumatized by the 2008 Russian-Georgian War, are blocking it, and Tbilisi’s candidacy seems stalled, even as it successfully implements military and civilian reforms. Georgia will have to be satisfied with an enhanced aid package.
In the 1990s, Russian leaders, psychologically wounded by the collapse of the Soviet empire, were opposed to the idea of former Warsaw Pact allies joining NATO, but rational discussion was possible because they knew that the Western alliance had no offensive intentions. It was only with the ascent of Vladimir Putin, who needs an external enemy to justify his authoritarian domestic policies, that ferocious anti-NATO propaganda came to the fore. The Kremlin now routinely pushes the narrative that NATO promised Russia not to expand, a myth disproven by several scholars.
Even with stricter economic sanctions, Washington may be unable to reverse Russia’s increasingly bellicose actions in Ukraine. The negative geopolitical consequences would be compounded if Moscow were to cow NATO into abandoning one of its core missions. Despite Rasmussen’s declaration, the Obama administration still has time to make Cardiff an enlargement summit by convincing remaining skeptical European allies to agree to extend membership to Montenegro and jointly to exert strong pressure on both Greece and Macedonia to compromise on the name issue.
The accession of Montenegro and Macedonia would be a tangible step that Article 10 is alive and well, demonstrate that Moscow does not exercise a hidden veto over NATO membership and encourage other potential aspirants such as Finland and Sweden by showing that the door to membership remains open.
Michael Haltzel is a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.