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Commentary | 3 March 2021

NATO enlargement: Avoiding the next missteps

Ukrainian President Zelensky said in a recent interview that if he had a chance to ask Biden a question, he would focus on Ukraine’s relationship with NATO. “I have a very simple question: Mr President, why are we still not in NATO?” Ukraine and Georgia were promised at NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit that they “will become members of NATO.” They are still waiting for something meaningful to happen. Biden’s election has given them renewed hope.

Among the hopes and expectations that the election of President Biden has triggered, further enlargement of NATO is, for security in Europe, at once one of the most significant and problematic.

In one sense, NATO’s door is permanently open to new members. Or at least not closed. Article 10 of the NATO Treaty states that the allies, by unanimous agreement, may invite to join “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”.

So, why are these unfulfilled NATO promises to Ukraine and Georgia problematic? The answer is simple. Because times and NATO have changed. The commitments were made in a different era. They were made at a time when the security situation in Europe was relatively benign and the relationship with Russia relatively manageable. Moreover, even in 2008, the question of membership to Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 split NATO into two camps. Germany and France openly resisted the Bush administration’s push for the granting of the Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Ukraine and Georgia, which would have put the two countries on a more unambiguous track.

If NATO is to fulfil its commitment to “Open Door”, future enlargements will not go as smoothly as the first post-Cold war enlargements in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These were driven on the NATO side not by any fear of Russia, but by ideals and values – a “Europe whole and free”. This vision was made clear in NATO’s 1995 “Study on Enlargement”, a policy document, agreed and made public by NATO, charting the optimistic way ahead. Implicitly, NATO would enlarge from a position of strength and Russia would acquiesce from a position of weakness.

The first post-Cold War NATO enlargements went according to plan. For the accession of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, the bar to membership was set deliberately low. NATO’s emphasis was on the achievement of democratic values and the commitment to resolve intranational disputes peacefully. A requirement to contribute measurably to collective defence was a low priority. As compensation and reassurance, Russia was granted an important, but not obstructive, relationship with NATO. The NATO-Russia Founding Act, signed in 1997, was an essential precursor to NATO enlargement. In it, NATO promised Russia that NATO would exercise military restraint and goodwill.

In the radically different security environment that NATO has faced since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, with an assertive and potentially aggressive Russia, the bar to further NATO enlargement eastward should be set deliberately high. The balance should shift from a value-driven to an interest-driven process.  In considering the eligibility of future NATO members, existing NATO members need to consider their own vital interests -in particular, safeguarding the credibility and effectiveness of Article 5, the commitment to come to the assistance of other allies in the event of armed attack.

Potential new NATO members, therefore, have to earn their place in the Alliance and add measurably to NATO’s primary function of collective defence. To match today’s realities, a more rigorous, updated and self-interest driven approach to enlargement needs to be developed. The focus should be more on the defence needs of NATO. Any aspirant member should have to develop in full its individual capacity to resist armed attack (article 3 of the Washington Treaty).

Above all, any new member has to be defendable. Ask not what NATO can do for you, but what you can do for NATO!

NATO has arrangements in place to prepare eventual new members. They do not need to be changed procedurally, but substantively. The Montenegrin accession of 2017 and that of North Macedonia in 2020 show that the membership action plan is an effective means for preparing easily absorbable new members. In particular, MAP procedures enable future members to effect reforms which, without external stimulus, they would be incapable of achieving. In the Montenegrin case, NATO, or accurately a group of allies acting through the MAP process, were instrumental in the reform of the Montenegrin intelligence services, which the Montenegrins could not have accomplished without NATO pressure and external advice.

Nevertheless, Ukraine and Georgia present a much higher order of difficulty than Montenegro or North Macedonia. However efficient the mechanisms for NATO enlargement have proven for relatively digestible enlargements, NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, resisted by a hostile Russia, would require substantial and unsustainable levels of defence spending, significantly above 2% of GDP, for those countries and allies alike. There is therefore no value to NATO in further enlargement without a more rigorous preparation of aspirant members. Above all, aspirant members need to demonstrate their practical and visible alignment to the strategic goals and military posture of the Alliance.

NATO has yet to confront the consequences of its legacy promises and the expectations it has fostered.  Ukraine and Georgia, as vulnerable democracies under threat from Russia, believe that they have a moral right to NATO membership. Moreover, Bosnia and Hercegovina, deeply divided as it is internally, was given the prospect of membership by being admitted into the Membership Action Plan in 2010. It too believes that it deserves membership.

Keeping NATO’s “Open Door” open is important for allies and partners alike. To close the door to further enlargement, or to procrastinate indecisively, would risk NATO’s credibility. It would reward Russia for its aggression in Ukraine and intimidation of Georgia. NATO’s door must therefore remain open – with the important proviso that further enlargements should wait until stricter conditions are defined and fulfilled. This should be one of the priorities in the revision of NATO’s Strategic Concept which is expected to be launched at the NATO Summit in June 2021, the first that Biden will attend.

It will be too early at the June Summit to expect Biden to answer Zelensky’s simple question on entry into NATO. But at the very least, having waited since 2008, Ukraine and Georgia are owed a greater degree of clarity – and, above all, a healthy dose of realism.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Flickr, NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization