Those against NATO adding new members argue that the more members that join, especially smaller and weaker states with complicated histories with Russia, the more risk of confrontation with Moscow. In reality NATO has done more than any other organization, including the European Union, to promote democracy, stability, and security in the Euro-Atlantic region. This was accomplished by enticing countries to become a part of the club.
In a twist of geopolitical irony, Trump has done more for NATO and overseen the enlargement of the alliance more than his predecessor, Barack Obama. Despite Trump’s past rhetoric, the overall health of the alliance is in good shape. The members of NATO are spending more on their militaries. The alliance has more troops on its eastern flank with Russia than ever before. NATO now has a training mission in Iraq that helped to defeat Daesh.
When it comes to shepherding in new members, Trump has surprised many, too. Within the first few weeks in the Oval Office he approved Montenegro joining NATO, even though some in his own party warned him against it. Earlier this month, Trump formally asked the US Senate to approve North Macedonia as the 30th member of NATO.
NATO has underpinned Europe and North America’s security for more than 70 years, so it is no surprise that many countries in the Euro-Atlantic region want to join the alliance.
Perhaps this was most evident after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The countries in the former Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe were desperately finding ways to re-enter the European community. NATO was an obvious choice.
The ability to add new members is at the core of NATO’s foundation. Article 10 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty says that any country in Europe can apply to join. Yet NATO membership isn’t automatic.
Membership requires an aspiring country to reform its systems of governance, economy and military to become more democratic and open. In many ways, the allure of NATO membership is one of the West’s most effective tools of democracy promotion.
After an explosion of new members in NATO after the Cold War, which brought the alliance from 16 members to the current 29 (soon to be 30 with Macedonia), the process of adding new members has slowed down.
Of the two remaining official candidate countries to join NATO, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Georgia, neither are close to full membership, but both are making great progress.
Although Georgia was promised eventual membership in 2008, acting as a steadfast ally of NATO and sending thousands of troops to fight in Afghanistan, countries such as France and Germany have blocked its membership progress for fear of upsetting Russia. Bosnia and Herzegovina has too many internal domestic problems preventing it from meeting the criteria to join NATO anytime soon.
Like Georgia, Ukraine was promised eventual membership in 2008. Unlike Georgia, it has done very little to achieve this goal until Russia’s invasion in 2014. Of course, recent events with Russia have changed attitudes in Ukraine about NATO, but the country has a long way to go before realistically joining the alliance.
Those who worry about adding new members to NATO risking war with Russia should remember that, first and foremost, NATO is a defensive alliance. Its primary mission is to defend the territorial integrity of its member states. As long as Russia does not plan to invade a NATO member, it has nothing to fear, and NATO won’t start a war with Moscow.
While Russia has described any further NATO enlargement as a “provocation,” no third party should have a veto over the decision of NATO’s sovereign member states. Rather, it is for the democratic countries that make up the alliance to decide on whether to admit new members.
Just because a country was once occupied by the Soviet Union or under the domination of the Russian empire does not mean it is blocked from joining the alliance in perpetuity. NATO is a collection of democracies. All decisions taken inside the alliance require unanimity. Any country that seeks to join must be a democracy. If a country meets the criteria and the alliance issues an invitation, the matter should be final and not up for debate with Russia. This needs to be made clear to Moscow.
NATO’s open-door policy for qualified countries has contributed greatly to transatlantic security since the first round of enlargement in 1952, helping to ensure its central place as the prime guarantor of security in Europe.
While it may be tempting to view Macedonia’s upcoming accession to NATO as a closing ceremony for enlargement, that would be a substantial mistake. It is in NATO’s interest that its door remains open to deserving European countries. This is the best chance for peace, stability and prosperity in Europe.