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NATO Looks to Expand Mission and Membership

Author: Lionel Beehner
July 27, 2006
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) remain divided on whether to enlarge the alliance and expand its mission further. NATO officials will meet this November in Riga, Latvia to discuss enlarging the organization to include Ukraine and Georgia in addition to the Balkan states of Croatia, Macedonia, and Albania at some further date. Some U.S.-based experts say NATO must enlarge to meet the changing nature of transnational threats, from terrorism to typhoons to turmoil in the Middle East. Yet others say expanding NATO may put too much strain on the alliance, weaken its collective defense mechanism, and needlessly upset Russia, which still harbor suspicions of the Cold-War-era bloc. In recent years, NATO has stretched its mandate to provide security forces in southern Afghanistan, deliver relief items to tsunami and earthquake victims in Southern Asia, and train and equip troops in Iraq. More recently, there have been calls for NATO forces to stabilize the border between Israel and Lebanon.

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What is the history of NATO?

NATO was created in 1949 to protect Europe from the threats, both ideological and military, posed by the Soviet Union. “To keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” is how some experts described its mission. The twelve-member defense alliance expanded in the 1950s to include Greece, Turkey, and West Germany and in 1982, Spain. After the Soviet Union’s breakup, NATO absorbed a united Germany, and in the 1990s intervened in conflicts in the Balkans.

"NATO must expand if it’s going to have any relevance,” says Michael Peters.

The alliance expanded again in 1999 to include the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, and in 2004 enlarged a final time to include seven more East European members. The day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the alliance invoked Article 5 for the first time. This collective security principle states that an attack on one member is an attack against all. CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall calls NATO “the only standing military alliance that works.”

What are the motivations for expanding NATO’s mandate?
  • To address more global threats. The post-Cold War era presents an array of challenges outside of NATO’s original purview, which was confined primarily to European defense issues. “The missions have changed because the security threats have changed,” says CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow James M. Goldgeier, pointing to transnational threats like terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and global pandemics, all of which could originate anywhere in the world. “I think from a mission point of view, NATO must expand if it’s going to have any relevance,” adds Michael Peters, an expert on NATO affairs and president of New Mexico-based St. Johns College. “The original existence for NATO had to do with a different era.”
  • To assist in peacekeeping efforts. While most Western armies are shrinking, the rise in peacekeeping missions requires forces beyond the capacity of the United Nations and other regional institutions. Writing in NATO Review, James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND corporation, argues that NATO is better suited to these kinds of tasks because it is capable of deploying large numbers of well-equipped forces, its member states have greater say over operational matters, and its missions carry greater political weight than other regional bodies. “Involving NATO does not necessarily mean military action,” write former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard C. Holbrooke and Ronald D. Asmus of the German Marshall Fund in a recent Washington Post op-ed. “It means, however, a seriousness of diplomatic and political purpose backed by the threat of collective action.” But NATO has some limitations as a global policeman, experts say. It is not ideally tasked to complete civil functions in failed states nor are its missions always cost-effective. Therefore, Dobbins says “the United Nations should remain the West’s nation builder of first resort.”
  • To take stress off U.S.forces abroad. A stronger NATO with a greater reach beyond Europe’s borders will alleviate pressure on U.S. troops in places like Afghanistan, experts say. Earlier this year, NATO began redeploying some of its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops to southern Afghanistan to hunt for Taliban insurgents and provide additional security support. The force numbers nearly 10,000 and will total about 15,000 by year’s end. “This alliance offers us a capacity like nothing else in the world and performs a function that has tremendous value to us,” Sherwood-Randall says. Yet, as Michael Peters adds, “It’s never going to replace U.S. combat [potential] in and of itself, but it allows us more flexibility to engage in operations in other places.”
What are some other examples of NATO’s expanded mission?

A growing number of NATO’s missions are now outside the European theater—or “out of area.” NATO operations, in addition to the recent deployment of forces to Afghanistan, have included:

  • Training 1,500 Iraqi military officers and delivering military equipment to Iraqi security forces beginning in July 2004;
  • Airlifting and training 5,000 African Union troops in Darfur from July 2005 to October 2005;
  • Airlifting 3,500 tons of relief supplies and deploying 1,000 NATO reaction forces to Kashmir after its October 2005 earthquake;
  • Donating construction material and other items to Southeast Asia in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami as well as to victims made homeless by Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast region last summer.
What are the motivations for enlarging NATO membership?

“The goal is to add countries that would add something to NATO,” Goldgeier says, “especially at a time when Europeans are having trouble meeting their own defense commitments.” He says expanding NATO will spread security and allow new members to meet a common set of military and defense standards (i.e. civilian control over the military). He supports opening NATO membership beyond the twenty applicants of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, which is limited to states in Europe and Central Asia and includes many undemocratic states (i.e. Belarus). He says membership should be extended to any country that shares NATO members’ commitment to human rights, democracy, and open markets. Goldgeier envisions NATO one day allowing in states like Australia, Brazil, Japan, India, New Zealand, South Africa, and South Korea. To do so, experts say, would require amending Article 10 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, which confines NATO membership to European countries (in addition to Canada and the United States).

What are the dangers of expanding NATO membership?

Most critics of NATO’s “open door” policy say enlargement should be more gradual and only offered once internal divisions are resolved and existing members all meet the same standards. “We need to take baby steps,” says Julianne Smith, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s not an impossible dream but there’s evidence it may be a painful transition.” Among the concerns about an enlarged NATO:

  • Decision making could be more cumbersome. “If you get more countries in there,” Peters says, “I can’t imagine how the institution can function with that kind of composition.”

“NATO’s already stretched it by including Baltic States like Latvia , which have no military capability. The only thing they bring from a military point of view is territory,” says Peters.

More members may also complicate internal disagreements on the role NATO should play in the world. For example, several European states, notably the Netherlands, have struggled domestically with plans to commit their troops to NATO missions in dangerous conflict zones like Afghanistan. Others are concerned an enlarged NATO will further slow the alliance’s reaction time. For example, NATO was criticized for its sluggish response in the wake of an earthquake that struck Pakistan’s Kashmir region last October.

  • New members may not pull their military weight. Only six NATO members spend the suggested 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, requiring members like the United States to shoulder a higher financial burden. Peters does not believe some of the states being considered for membership, such as Georgia, can make a meaningful military contribution to NATO. “It would be stretching the definition [of which countries qualify for the alliance],” he says. “But NATO’s already stretched it by including Baltic States like Latvia, which have no military capability. The only thing they bring from a military point of view is territory.”
  • It may further strain relations with Russia. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov recently said expanding NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia would prompt Russia to rethink its national security strategy. In the past, Russia has always protested eastward expansions of the alliance but now, with skyrocketing oil prices, Moscow has greater leverage as an energy power. Still, “Russia shouldn’t have a veto over [expansion],” Goldgeier says. “That would be really damaging to the alliance.” Sherwood-Randall stresses the importance of developing a strong relationship between NATO and Russia, and says the alliance should not rule out Russia as a future member.
Which countries are looking to join NATO?
  • Ukraine. It is unclear if Ukraine will be offered a so-called “membership action plan” at the November NATO summit in Riga. Political uncertainty in Kiev does not bode well for its membership chances, experts say. Viktor Yanukovich, a pro-Kremlin politician expected to become Ukraine’s prime minister, is firmly against joining, as are the majority of Ukrainians, polls show. The issue set off protests in Crimea in recent months. Yet President Viktor Yushchenko remains strongly in favor of NATO membership. “Ukraine is the big issue,” Peters says. “It’s so large it would fundamentally change the composition of NATO.” Sherwood-Randall says Ukraine could add value to the alliance for a number of reasons, including its airlift capacities. 
  • Georgia. On his recent trip to Washington, President Mikhail Saakashvili won support from President Bush for his country’s bid to join NATO. Experts say the United States envisions NATO playing a deeper role in the Caucasus, a highly strategic corridor along important oil routes, but one that is also rife with ethnic and territorial disputes. Georgia has conducted joint-terrorism operations with Washington and contributed some 900 troops to Iraq. However, some experts say granting Georgia NATO membership would almost certainly provoke Russia, whose relations with Georgia have been strained over the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, breakaway provinces where Russian troops are stationed.
  • Balkan states. Croatia, Macedonia, and Albania have long aspired to join NATO. Of the three, Croatia is the favorite to gain membership by 2008. Croatia has reformed its air force, modernized its military, and arrested Ante Gotovina, a former Croatian war general indicted on war crimes charges by the Hague tribunal—all of which have helped its bid for NATO membership. Experts say Macedonia and Albania currently do not meet the criteria for joining NATO.

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