NATO recently held its twentieth summit in Bucharest, Romania to deal with key issues facing the alliance, including one of the thorniest – expansion of its membership. While Romania, one of NATO's most recent members, was an enthusiastic host and took great pride in its new role, some aspiring members of the alliance did not get the warmest reception. The sad result is that NATO lost an opportunity to build upon, and reinforce, an important aspect of its post-Cold War raison d'etre.
Initial NATO expansion to the East began in the 1990's, during a transitional phase of the alliance, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. While NATO now engages in stability operations, its post-Cold War mission also includes building security by encouraging political reform and democratization in countries wishing to become members.
In states like Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Romania, the prospect of joining the alliance provided a powerful and effective incentive for much-needed political development. In addition, many of the newest members have been valuable allies in the struggle against global terrorist networks and are often eager to prove their loyalty through meaningful contributions to alliance missions.
This year, however, the expansion issue was mired in controversy due largely to regional politics and other external factors having little to do with the merits. The most contentious point was whether to issue a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia. As opposed to an immediate membership offer, the MAP would have provided a "roadmap" to membership, which is simply the first step in a long process.
Despite intense lobbying by the United States in favor of Ukraine and Georgia, several NATO countries, led by Germany and France, derailed the plans. This was primarily out of fear of angering Russia, whose relationship with the West has grown cold in recent years over issues like Kosovo, missile defense and arms control in Europe.
Russia still views Georgia and Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence, and believes that a stronger relationship with the West would pose an unacceptable security risk.
Certainly, there are valid questions about whether the Ukrainian public is too divided on the issue of NATO membership, and the recent political turmoil in Georgia is also a legitimate cause of concern. Still, it was unfortunate that the alliance allowed Russia, a non-NATO member, to effectively torpedo these countries' bids with military and economic threats. These countries will have their applications reviewed again in December at a NATO foreign ministers meeting, but with reliable Russian objections, their prospects remain unclear.
The other expansion controversy concerned Balkan states and the potential membership of the so-called Adriatic Three: Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia. The first two were extended invitations for full membership to the alliance, but Greece blocked a possible offer to Macedonia because the two countries could not come to an agreement over the latter's name.
For years, Greece has protested the former Yugoslav republic's constitutional name, concerned that use of the term "Macedonia" implies a claim to a region of northern Greece also called Macedonia. Despite vigorous bilateral negotiations mediated by the United Nations, no compromise was reached. While NATO functions by consensus, and it was within Greece's right to veto the membership offer, it is discouraging that the two states couldn't work out a solution when broader security issues are at stake.
The summit did produce greater cooperation on other fronts. Several NATO members, led by France, agreed to send additional troops to eastern Afghanistan. This will free up American troops to head to southern Afghanistan, where they are needed to bolster Canadian forces. NATO leaders also endorsed a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, despite strong Russian objections, showing that Russian influence with NATO has its limits.
However, these areas of cooperation don't make up for the missed opportunity to move forward with MAPs for Ukraine and Georgia, and to work out a solution to the Macedonian-Greek standoff. It's in NATO's interest to move all three of these states closer, not further away, from the alliance.
Spencer P. Boyer is Director of international law and diplomacy with the Center for American Progress.