Aspiring Members Still Knocking on NATO’s ‘Open Door’

By Patrick Goodenough | May 22, 2012 | 4:50am EDT

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili at NATO headquarters in April 2012. (Photo: NATO)

( – Despite disproportionate troop contributions to NATO’s operations in Afghanistan, aspiring alliance members Georgia and Macedonia left NATO’s Chicago summit with further expressions of support, but nothing more – thanks to the continuing opposition of Russia and Greece, respectively.

The gathering in Chicago that ended Monday was never intended to be an “enlargement summit,” a decision that in itself demonstrated the low priority given to the issue by the Obama administration.

American leadership has driven previous rounds of NATO enlargement since the end of the Cold War, with the George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations – in the face of Russian objections – encouraging the admission of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999; Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Slovakia in 2004; and Albania and Croatia in 2009.

The last time the United States hosted a NATO summit, in Washington in 1999, leaders issued a declaration stating, “No European democratic country whose admission would fulfill the objectives of the [North Atlantic] Treaty will be excluded from consideration, regardless of its geographic location, each being considered on its own merits.”

For the four countries currently knocking on NATO’s “open door,” however, the Chicago summit offered expressions of support and thanks for their troop contributions, but little for their representatives to take home.

Foreign ministers from Georgia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia held a meeting with NATO counterparts, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the meeting that the U.S. “remains deeply committed to the open door policy.”

It would continue to work, both bilaterally with each aspirant and through NATO, “to help them implement finally the reforms needed to meet the standards for membership,” she added.

Despite the absence of good news for the aspirants, the White House in a fact sheet put a positive spin on the process, saying the U.S. was “proud of NATO’s track record of encouraging and incentivizing democratization and stability through its open door to membership.”

“An actual invitation to membership will not issued at this summit – this was never going to be an enlargement summit – but we are fully supportive of the efforts of countries who want to become members of NATO,” U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder said in a press briefing Sunday.

Apart from ongoing democratic reforms, Georgia’s biggest hurdle is Russia’s strong opposition to yet another country in what it regards as its sphere of influence joining the Western alliance.

President Bush strongly endorsed beginning the accession process – “membership action plans” (MAPs) – for both Georgia and another former Soviet constituent state, Ukraine, at a NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008.

But some European members, nervous of upsetting Russia – and putting energy imports at risk – backed off and the two hopefuls were told they would have to wait. (A pro-Russian president elected in Ukraine in 2010 shelved that country’s NATO aspirations.)

Four months after the Bucharest summit, Russia sent in troops to prop up two pro-Moscow separatist regions in Georgia and later declared them to be “independent” states. The brief war cost Georgia one-fifth of its territory, and set back President Mikhail Saakashvili’s campaign to seek NATO membership.

In Chicago, NATO leaders reaffirmed earlier agreements that Georgia “will become a member of NATO” but, four years after Bucharest, there was still no indication of when the elusive MAP would be granted.

Georgia is currently the second-biggest non-NATO contributing nation to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. In the fall, it will become ISAF’s biggest non-NATO contributor. Ten Georgians have been killed in combat during the mission.

‘Willing to stand up and be counted’

Macedonia was granted a MAP back in 1999, and at the Bucharest summit four years ago members agreed Macedonia had met all criteria for membership.

But the alliance operates on consensus, and in Bucharest Greece stood in the way, over a two-decade-long dispute over its neighbor’s use of the name “Macedonia.” (Greece has a northern province of the same name.)

NATO members in Chicago called – again – for a resolution to the dispute, and said that Macedonia was ready to join “as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue has been reached within the framework of the U.N.”

Georgian troops attached to ISAF carry a wounded Afghan soldier who to a waiting Blackhawk helicopter in the volatile Helmand Province of southern Afghanistan, on Friday, May 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

Like Georgia, Macedonia is among the biggest per-capita contributors to ISAF. It also has more troops there than does NATO member Greece.

Macedonia’s bid for membership has considerable support in Washington. Last month 54 members of Congress from both parties urged President Obama in a letter “to make sure that NATO finally offers the Republic of Macedonia its well-deserved formal invitation to join the Alliance during the Chicago Summit.”

Former defense secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and William Cohen and former national security advisor Sandy Berger, also weighed in, telling Obama in a letter that the U.S. “cannot afford to send mixed messages to those nations that are willing to stand up and be counted.”

“As defense spending among NATO members falls, new aspirant nations in Southeastern Europe will provide needed manpower and resources to the Alliance,” they wrote. “And while the region has made steady progress since the conflicts of the 1990s, stability in the Balkans cannot be taken for granted. Yet with enlargement not expected to be on the NATO summit’s agenda this year, we are concerned that the door to NATO membership will not be open in Chicago.”

Others who joined the calls in recent op-eds include former national security adviser Jim Jones and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In an official statement issued on Monday, the Macedonian government noted and expressed appreciation for the support it has received.

“We are confident that these voices will be heard, and that we will soon be able to move beyond the obstacle to membership posed by a single member state. The Republic of Macedonia is ready, willing, and able to contribute to trans-Atlantic security as a full member of NATO,” it said.

“In the interim, Macedonia’s commitment to the NATO mission in Afghanistan will continue. As long as American and NATO troops are advancing security in Afghanistan, Macedonian troops will be alongside them.”

The remaining two aspiring NATO members are Montenegro, which received an MAP a full decade after Macedonia did, and is the closest of the four to full accession; and Bosnia, which was offered a MAP in 2010, subject to some reforms, including the official registration as government property of all defense installations in the country. Montenegro and Bosnia both have small troop contingents in ISAF.

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