The United States has decided to strongly back the Ukrainian and Georgian bids to begin the process of becoming NATO members.

Despite fierce objections from Russia, the United States is pushing NATO to start membership negotiations with Ukraine and Georgia at an alliance summit meeting in Bucharest in April, diplomats said Wednesday.

The U.S. pressure is likely to lead to divisions inside the 26-member alliance, with Germany and several West European countries opposed to offering Ukraine and Georgia the prospect of imminent membership. Washington and several East European countries say the alliance should not give in into threats by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who this week warned his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yushchenko, that if Ukraine were to join NATO, Russia might aim nuclear missiles at the country.

Bruce Jackson, president of both the Project on Transitional Democracies and the U.S. Committee on NATO group, said NATO should not be intimidated by Russia. “These countries want to join NATO,” he said. “They can do the required reforms. This is about extending the Euro-Atlantic alliance.”

I’ll have more to say about Ukraine in a subsequent post. For now, let me just say that this strikes me as a bad idea.

1. I don’t see a great deal of evidence to suggest NATO ascension locks in desired domestic political institutions and orientations. Most of the evidence for NATO’s “success” in this regard comes from Baltic and Eastern European countries–Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, and so forth–that were also, not long afterwards, involved in the European Union ascension process. NATO membership can reform their militaries, but EU ascension brings with it much more intrusive–and effective–restructuring of key domestic institutions.

2. Bringing Ukraine and Georgia in might extend western influence over their security policies, but it also carries great risks. The Russians already amount to a cornered bear. I don’t think that NATO should be poking and prodding a cornered bear, particularly when that bear is starting to flex its muscles. Georgia, in this respect, represents a particularly risky candidate. The Georgians are involved in “frozen” territorial disputes with breakaway provinces–such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia–backed by Russia. They’d really like to take them back, they really want de jure independence, and the Russians would love to stop them. Georgian President Saakashvili also seems to feel emboldened by their existing ties with the United States, and a road to NATO membership may make them feel even more willing to push these matters. Not a favorable entanglement, given the lack of any clear strategic rationale for Georgian membership.

3. This is already a bad time for NATO cohesion, in part because of its planned Balkan expansion, but mostly because of frictions over Afghanistan. The alliance is in real danger of becoming irrelevant, and it makes no sense to take steps likely to increase friction before its members reach some consensus on its role in the current order.

I’ve been working on a longer post involving related issues, so I should have more to say about this later.

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