While the aegis of transatlantic mutual defence provides an additional layer of security to states that might be unable to resist the armed forces of a stronger power, NATO membership still comes at a cost. Current prospective states such as Georgia, Finland, and Sweden have been threatened with countermeasures from Russia, if they decide to pursue membership in the Alliance. For states with economic ties to Russia, NATO membership may undermine trade relations and temporarily undermine national security.
Should NATO continue its enlargement? Our program editors and research analysts respond.
Andi Asimetaj: NATO’s enlargement is pivotal for stability and cooperation
Program Editor, Canada’s NATO
Following the end of the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was thought to dissolve. On the contrary, NATO has remained relevant by evolving to meet contemporary security and military challenges. When it pertains to enlargement, NATO should maintain an open-door policy to any European country in a position to undertake the commitments and obligations of membership. Since its formation in 1949, NATO’s membership has increased from 12 to 28 countries, and this growth is a clear indication that NATO enlargement has a positive impact.
As indicated in the 1995 study on enlargement, NATO’s ongoing enlargement process poses no threat to any country. The process aims to promote stability and cooperation, at building a Europe whole and free, united in peace, democracy, and common values.
Countries wishing to join have to meet certain requirements prior to the Washington Treaty coming into effect. These requirements include a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy; the fair treatment of minority populations; a commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflicts; the ability and willingness to make a military contribution to NATO operations; and a commitment to democratic civil-military relations and institutional structures.
Given these requirements, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina would be paramount to the stability of and cooperation in the Balkans. I think including these Balkan states would increase transparency in defence planning and military budgets, thereby reinforcing confidence among states. Moreover, it would reinforce the overall tendency toward closer integration and cooperation in Europe.
Eric Morse: Enlarge strategically, not incessantly
Senior Research Fellow
Given the current state of Russo-Euro-US relations, NATO should not be expanded at this point. It would – studiously avoiding the word ‘provocation’ – furnish too much of a pretext for Russian militarization. However, the United States should seriously consider the public declaration of security guarantees to Sweden and Finland. If the Russians can play the grey areas, so should we.
More broadly NATO should never be expanded without a specific objective in mind.
Lira Loloci: We should stop seeing countries as belonging to Russia’s backyard
Program Editor, Global Horizons
The purpose of NATO is clearly stated in the introduction of the North Atlantic Treaty. NATO should serve as a safeguard to freedom, peace, and security. As such, NATO’s ongoing enlargement process has no basis to be seen as a threat to any country. It aims at promoting stability and cooperation, and at building a free Europe, united in peace, democracy, and common values.
However, it may be hard for NATO to currently integrate countries such as Macedonia into its organization as long as there are still unresolved conflicts between Macedonia and NATO members such as Greece.
Instead, NATO should continue expanding its community to countries that meet the criteria, providing it does so in a timely manner. Timing is of particular importance, since countries that feel threatened by NATO enlargement could act militarily against the countries that apply for membership, which is when these countries are the most vulnerable.
Russia felt directly threatened when countries such as Ukraine or Georgia pursued further cooperation with NATO, and many viewed NATO as foolish for trying to alienate Russia. Nonetheless, the truth is that the efforts of these countries should not be inhibited simply because they are historically seen as falling under the Russian sphere of influence. Rather, membership should be seen as a credible symbol of commitment to states seeking security guarantees and defence cooperation.
Layla Wahbi: Expansion will deepen NATO-Russian tensions
Program Editor, NATO’s Arc of Crisis
NATO does not stand to gain as much as it may lose. In 2007, claims were made that expansion to Eastern Europe is contrary to agreements made with Gorbachev – former USSR President – that the Alliance would not expand eastward. American, Soviet, and German records have indicated that this was never the case, and Gorbachev himself confirmed that these claims hold little foundation.
Regardless of the validity of the claims, they heavily express Russia’s perception of the threat of NATO enlargement to Russia – whether intentional or not. As mentioned in Russia’s new security strategy, “the intensification of military activities of member countries” and “moving military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders” are perceived as clear threats to Russia’s security.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg believes NATO “currently faces the most challenging security environment in a generation,” at a time when NATO and Russia have ongoing tensions over Ukraine due to the annexation of Crimea and involvement in the Syrian conflict. An effective approach must be taken in cooperation with Russia to coordinate action on pressing matters such as Syria and Ukraine.
Moreover, Russia’s perception of NATO expansion is crucial, as it indicates a future with little cooperation. Former American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan warned in 1997 that NATO expansion could be the “most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war-era” and lead to increasing Russian militarism as well as push Russian foreign policy against NATO and its member states. We are already seeing retaliatory measures, with three new military divisions to be formed by the end of the year to counter NATO’s forces that are in close proximity to the Russian borders.
Russia and NATO are playing vital roles in the international sphere and more than ever need to ease tensions and work together to resolve these pressing conflicts. The membership expansion of NATO would only add strain and stagnate any form of resolution in this regard.
Adlan Taramov: NATO should be adamant in enforcing Article 5 when expanding
Most certainly, NATO should continue extending its membership to other countries. Historically, NATO expansion had a positive impact on international peace and stability in Europe and North America. Since the founding of the Alliance, no member state was ever attacked directly by another country and NATO successfully guaranteed security and territorial integrity of its member states.
At the same time, NATO expansion should reflect the needs and strategic objectives of the Alliance. For instance, countries like Montenegro, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Bosnia-Herzegovina are working with NATO on a path towards membership through NATO’s open-door policy as provided for in Article 10 of the NATO Treaty. However, membership in the NATO could be very challenging due to unresolved territorial disputes, occupied territories, and political stability issues that could potentially weaken the Alliance. Also, it is important to ask whether NATO membership of Georgia, for example, could successfully protect it against the threat of another major invasion and improve its internal security. Would NATO be determined and ready to defend these members if it would lead to a direct confrontation with Russia?
While these are some questions arising from NATO expansion to states with issues of territorial integrity and internal stability, one should not underestimate the importance of the open-door policy. Partnership with NATO can set strategic goals and give aspiring members a roadmap plan for development. It provides participating countries with guidance and assistance in transitioning to democratic and western values.
In the meantime, developed countries with democratic values like Sweden and Finland could also gain from membership in NATO. It seems that Sweden and Finland face security threats due to their geographic proximity to Russia. This is especially important in light of Russia’s recent bullying and aggression against its neighbors. NATO membership could deter a potential invasion or hybrid war against Finland and Sweden, while enhancing the Alliance on the northern flank. Nonetheless, any consideration of such a policy shift in Scandinavia should take into account regional specifics and existing military hardware standards, so that the expansion would not compromise military capabilities.
Dara Gillis: Yes, but it’s complicated
Yes, NATO should continue expanding. NATO expansion can help deter future threats and increase defence capabilities, which in turn would improve security for both Europe and North America. Having more members could help prevent conflict from occurring. A stronger, more cohesive NATO will help to counter aggression from rogue states and prevent instances of extreme nationalism, and ethnic, racial, and religious conflict. An example of such a case in Europe is Bosnia and Herzegovina. More members mean that a larger number of security resources are available for addressing hostile situations.
However, there is the counterargument that if NATO expands, there is a larger territory that needs to be defended with less military resources to do so. In Eastern Europe, a modernization program would be needed to integrate outmoded Soviet-era militaries.
NATO enlargement also further isolates Russia. With Russia’s recent aggression in Ukraine and Syria, former Soviet states are looking towards the West to enhance bilateral ties, with NATO being the front runner. However, NATO membership of some countries may aggravate tensions.
Marko Gombac: No, quality over quantity should be NATO’s membership plan
Program Editor, International Business and Economy
Expanding NATO to include more members seems to be a situation of waiting for the “straw” that will break the proverbial camels back. Every new member expands NATO’s potential theatre of operation, but new members without modernized and capable militaries only serve to provoke regional security competitors. NATO needs to focus on increasing the defense funding of its current members, as only five members of 28 are meeting the 2% defence-spending requirement.
Furthermore, while most of the prospective new members like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and especially the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia show signs of military modernization, states like Georgia present a serious risk of territorial overreach. Georgia, located on Russia’s border in the Caucasus Mountains, is separated from Europe by the Caspian Sea, making it difficult to support directly considering Russia’s strengthened presence in the Black Sea.
Expanding NATO membership inspires security competition rather than deterrence. The increase in membership and territorial expansion of the Alliance without an increase in the quality of the military capabilities of member states only serves to cause security competitors to develop more advanced military capabilities. In 1930, Stalin ruthlessly modernized the military of Russia in response to a resurgent Germany. The closer Germany pressed towards Russia during World War II, the more defence production increased. History tends to repeat itself, and the closer NATO pushes to Russia, the more Russia’s US $49 billion defense budget will rise and the more Russia’s relative power to European states will be felt.
Khalid Mahdi: Effective force integration: the key to European military security
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a new era of integration emerged for NATO and its former adversaries within the Eastern bloc. Starting in 1999, with the entry of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, the first former Warsaw Pact countries to join the Alliance, to the present, NATO enlargement has led to the rapid expansion of the Alliance’s security umbrella. While many have criticized the continued expansion of the Alliance, enlargement has led to greater integration among European forces.
In thinking about the benefits that enlargement has afforded NATO allies, one must consider this notion of ‘interoperability’. Interoperability refers not only to the integration of allied forces, but their ability to “act together coherently, effectively and efficiently to achieve tactical, operational and strategic objectives.” Interoperability allows for the greater pooling of resources, by allowing individual allied forces to share a common doctrine and procedures, as well as infrastructure and bases. Most important, it improves the ability of these forces and systems to communicate and exchange data.
Interoperability has led to more successful outcomes during both joint operations and exercises. Of notable significance was operation Trident Juncture, a training exercise that occurred in the fall of 2015. Throughout the exercise, participating forces engaged in numerous training exercises on land, at sea, and in the air. Such demonstrations included offensive operations that involved minefield clearing, hostage rescue, and infantry attacks, as well as close air support practice missions by allied air forces. Speaking on the exercise, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated, “Trident Juncture shows that NATO’s capabilities are real and ready.” By improving the ability of their forces to operate together, NATO members can focus their efforts on the multitude of threats to their security.
Photo courtesy of NATO (Flickr).