How large can NATO get?


Last month, Europe finally settled a 27-year family argument and celebrated a new name for an ancient country. The Republic of North Macedonia officially became the new name for the former Yugoslav republic after it resolved a long-running feud with Greece over what to call itself. The agreement should now pave the way for North Macedonia to play its role in the international community, starting with NATO. The government in Skopje has already launched its membership application and symbolically, the first country to ratify its NATO accession protocol was Greece. If others speed up their procedures, North Macedonia could join at the July NATO summit.

This is good news for the country, as well as the Balkans, Europe and NATO. But as North Macedonia moves towards NATO membership, it raises a broader question: who is eligible to be part of the security alliance?

When it does join, North Macedonia will be NATO’s 30th member, a big jump from the 12 founders who signed the Washington Treaty in 1949. Like the European Union, which will have just 27 member states after Brexit, NATO has debated membership criteria, although its accession process is usually much quicker. While Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty outlines the Alliance’s “open door” policy, a 1995 NATO study highlighted that newcomers to the club must abide by the principles of “democracy, individual liberty, and rule of law” set out in the 1949 treaty.

The most recent NATO member was North Macedonia’s Balkan neighbour, Montenegro, in 2017. Before that, Albania and Croatia joined in 2009. One-time EU candidate country Iceland was a NATO founder member, while Turkey, which joined NATO in 1952, is still waiting to join the EU some six decades after becoming an associate member. EU members Finland, Ireland, Sweden, Sweden, Austria and Malta all take part in NATO programmes or missions but have held back from seeking membership because of neutrality traditions or constitutional bans.

North Macedonia is one of four countries that NATO officially recognises as aspiring members. The other three are Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine and Georgia. Each poses tricky questions for NATO as to how they can contribute to the Alliance’s fundamental principles of collective security.

Russia’s role?

The proposed expansion of NATO also highlights the thorny issue of Russia, which now opposes NATO almost as firmly as it did during the Cold War. Moscow claims the eastern advance of NATO is a threat. The Alliance initially sought to assuage Russian worries: the Partnership for Peace initiative, launched in 1994, aimed to provide the newly democratic eastern European countries with a partial security blanket, while including Russia itself in the programme. I was involved in the Partnership for Peace as a senior naval officer, and at the time we felt it was positive for both the partner countries, and for us in NATO.

The Russian leadership now brands this enlargement, embracing almost all of eastern Europe, as a betrayal of a NATO “pledge” not to expand into the former Soviet bloc countries – a claim that is vigorously contested, to say the least. But these complaints about western treachery pale into insignificance compared to the actions of Russia itself, which has invaded and occupied parts of Georgia and Ukraine.

Both Georgia and Ukraine had hopes of joining NATO before Russia invaded – and at the 2008 Bucharest Summit, the allies agreed that they would become members of NATO in future. At the time, some within the Alliance argued that joining would help bolster peace and stability in the region, while others countered that the two countries were too vulnerable. After the Russian tanks rolled in, critics of enlargement said the West had provoked Russia by entertaining the prospect of NATO membership.

Even Jaap De Hoop Scheffer, who was NATO’s Secretary General in 2008, recently said, “the West should have respected the red lines of Russia,” and “NATO should not have committed to the membership of Ukraine and Georgia,” because by doing so it “drove Putin into a corner.” However, his successor at NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, argues that NATO erred in not immediately granting Georgia and Ukraine a Membership Action Plan (MAP) in April 2008, as it sent “the wrong signal” to the Russian President.

Frozen relationship

Now, however, Georgia and Ukraine are afflicted by frozen conflicts so neither bid can be seriously considered. NATO members have to show they can guarantee their own internal stability. They also have to be willing to come to aid of others in line with the Article 5 treaty provisions on mutual defence, that an attack on one is an attack on all. If Georgia and Ukraine were members now, NATO would by definition be at war with Russia. And even within NATO, it is not always clear that members are willing to defend each other, at least according to a Pew opinion survey.

Indeed, Moscow is continuing to militarise Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014, having stationed 28,000 soldiers there and upgraded its Black Sea fleet. And Putin continues to warn NATO against cultivating closer ties with Ukraine and Georgia, saying such a policy is “irresponsible” and would have consequences for the Alliance.

This all raises the awkward question of whether Moscow has an effective veto on NATO membership. After all, it has successfully prevented Georgia and Ukraine from joining. And there are some in NATO who wonder about the Alliance’s ability to defend the Baltic states from interventions like the Russians managed in Georgia and Ukraine.

Montenegro’s accession and North Macedonia’s bid show that Russia’s objections are not in themselves a barrier. Moscow resents the loss of its former Balkan allies – it is likewise opposed to the membership of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But Russia’s objections are not the reason for the slow Bosnian accession process, which are more related to internal tension with the Republika Srpska and with neighbouring Serbia’s attitude (while Serbia itself is unlikely to join NATO soon, it has joined the Partnership for Peace).

Democracy and the rule of law

From a practical security perspective, NATO takes a broader view. For Article 5 to be effective, it has to be solid in all respects. NATO members must guarantee their mutual security. NATO does not want to give Russia a veto opportunity by offering vulnerabilities in our security.

This is also about power politics. If we know Russia deeply opposes a specific enlargement, it means that there will be a cost – but it is up to NATO to decide how much we pay for our security. Crucially, if the attitude of Russia changes over time, and it becomes more aggressive, this could lead to a specific enlargement as a forward defence or as a reassurance.

Another key issue is internal politics in Ukraine and Georgia. Much as we might sympathise with the plight of countries fighting an occupation, there is another obstacle to their integration into the west: their governance. Corruption, cronyism, money-laundering and an erosion of democratic institutions are doing as much as Russia to hamper their bids for NATO membership.

And finally, there is the question of NATO’s own future. At a time when the current US President openly questions the value of the Alliance, there is a growing anxiety about the risks of NATO’s break-up. Enlargement is less of a priority than simply staying united.

So the reality is that after North Macedonia, any NATO enlargement is likely to be years away. Until the next candidates can show they are stable, democratic, and can provide security guarantees, they cannot expect to join.

In the meantime, the imminent accession North Macedonia is worth celebrating. It will bring new blood and muscle into the NATO family.


Author: Matthieu Borsboom


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