Should the Republic of Montenegro be invited to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization? That question has now been posed and the Alliance is expected to answer it sometime later this year.
The simple answer is “Why not?” Montenegro is certainly eligible under Article 10 of the 1949 NATO Treaty and it is a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe which, since 1996, has defined the group of countries eligible to ask to join NATO. The Alliance is also committed to its so-called “open door” policy, which it regularly reconfirms. And to the extent there are any formal criteria for joining NATO, Montenegro seems to fit the bill. It is a democratic country, it is making economic progress, and it has no territorial claims against neighbors. So, again, the simple answer is “Why not?”
But answers in international politics are rarely “simple”, and this is certainly the case in terms of the highly-consequential decisions about who will be permitted to belong to NATO. Further, whether fair or not, Montenegro has been represented by some observers as a “test case” for NATO’s open door policy following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea and Russia’s continuing military incursions – both direct and supported – into other parts of Ukraine. In face of this direct challenge to what was believed, again by many Western observers, to be a settled approach and set of standards regarding European security following the end of the Cold War, would NATO’s refusal to take in Montenegro be seen as appeasement of Putin? By contrast, would taking Montenegro in be seen as making matters worse in terms of a long-term strategy to test whether Russia would be prepared to “play by the rules” in Europe, by saying “Russia be damned” in terms of the reach of the NATO Alliance?
Despite the significance of this binary choice, much more is involved than the Russia factor in calculations about bringing in a particular country to the NATO Alliance or, indeed, about continuing NATO expansion at all. Two more important questions are: 1) what is NATO all about? and 2) what needs to be done to try creating a basis for long-term security, stability, and peace in Europe, and how does NATO enlargement figure in?
These questions have been in play since the end of the Cold War and they continue to be debated. Regarding the first question, “What is NATO for?” there are two broad sets of options. On the one hand, it can be argued that NATO should be all-inclusive of countries in or related to Europe (e.g., including the United States and Canada), and thus should offer membership to any “European” country that shows it cleaves to the basic principles of Western societies, in particular democratic government and market (post-communist) economics. Informally, NATO has also judged aspirants in terms of their ability to meet some obligations of membership, including their approaches to security, the role of their military forces, progress in economic development, and prior settlement of historic territorial disputes with neighbors – as in the case of Hungary and Romania before either were offered NATO membership. This NATO would also offer to its new members, which have emerged from the wreckage of the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact and the wreckage of the former Yugoslavia, the psychosocial and symbolic benefits of being clearly a part of the “Western family” and thus more likely – it is argued – to attract economic investment and to gain other elements of being in the Western world. This NATO would be a more vibrant version of the OSCE and could, in time, approach a similar membership.
Montenegro clearly fulfills requirements, formal and informal, to be a member of this NATO.
On the other hand, it can be argued that NATO needs to retain the capacity both to defend all of its members against external aggression and to project military and other forms of power to other parts of the world, as indeed it did in going beyond its then-current membership by acting militarily in Bosnia (1995) and in regard to Kosovo (1999), and has since done elsewhere, most notably in Afghanistan, from 2003 onwards, involving all of the NATO allies. This NATO should be organized in a way in which it would be able to act effectively: this includes robust military forces and an effectively integrated military command structure (Allied Command Europe and Allied Command Transformation). It should be able to fulfil its basic commitments, beginning with those under article 5 of the NATO Treaty to defend all of its members against external armed attack (collective defense), and including crisis management and cooperative security (e.g., acting with other countries beyond the Alliance’s boundaries). In this NATO, the willingness of all allies to come to the defense of any one of them which is attacked from abroad is preeminent. Indeed, there is only one real criterion for membership in NATO: whether all the other allies are prepared, in their own interests, to help defend any member that is so attacked.
Here, too, Montenegro should be a valid candidate for membership, regarding the critical criterion. Looking realistically at the regional security picture, it is not likely to be attacked from abroad, certainly not by Russia (unless there were an all-consuming war across Europe), and also most unlikely by another state in its region. (NATO has never addressed the question of what its members should do if one ally were attacked by another.) This little country is not likely to contribute very much to crisis management or cooperative security, but that is also true of some current members and, anyway, there are enough “big players” to do whatever is necessary.
Of course, there is a downside to membership for Montenegro: the added complexities at NATO of taking in new members because of bureaucratic overload. That is indeed a problem, as more countries become members and more ministers have to give speeches at semi-annual meetings and more ambassadors and their staffs have to be accommodated. But this is more a protocol than a political problem and certainly does not impact on security. NATO does have a rule that all decisions are taken by unanimity, but Montenegro is unlikely to veto a decision favored by the bigger allies. This has already proved to be largely true with other rounds of NATO enlargement into Central Europe; and in terms of who takes part in military operations – the problem of NATO’s becoming a “coalition of the able and willing” rather than an alliance of “all in” – it won’t really matter if Montenegro can’t take part. In fact, every NATO military operation has always included less-than-the-whole, so even if Montenegro could make little or no contribution, that would hardly be noticed. (This analysis is in marked contrast to that relating to the enlargement of the European Union. There, each new country brought into full membership gains more in demonstrably tangible benefits, but it also increases the difficulties of managing the EU successfully, in some cases actually weakening the institution.)
So, again, “Why not bring Montenegro into NATO?” The reverse question also needs to be asked, however: “Why?” The internal problems of NATO’s growing bigger and bigger may not be critical, but they cannot be entirely dismissed. Nor can the matter of whether taking in Montenegro will send a signal about NATO’s approach to taking in yet more allies be ignored. Also, it has, through no fault of its own, indeed become a test case especially of the validity – and implications – of NATO’s continuing “open door” policy.
This does appear to be a significant judgment factor for a number of European allies. France and Germany, notably, have indicated that they are not ready for Montenegro to be brought into NATO, and that attitude would likely apply also to any other aspirant. Some of that could have to do with concerns about the risks of “elephantiasis,” or “too biggism” – indeed, it can be argued that NATO is already several countries “too large” in terms of efficiency, effectiveness, and what little some of the members bring to the core alliance tasks. But more likely it is concern that taking in any new country right now would complicate efforts to deal with Mr. Putin’s activities, the need to shore up alliance solidarity, and the hope for a way out of the current crisis that can offer at least some promise of returning to President George H.W. Bush’s vision of a “Europe whole and free” and at peace. In this view, Montenegro’s appeal to join NATO is at least ill-timed if not also unwelcome. (The United States might have a different view and will support Montenegro’s accession to NATO. The decision has to be unanimous, however, and, at the moment, U.S. interest in Europe is not taken for granted by many of the allies and thus its influence on this matter is less than it would have been at any other time in the past. This issue needs to be addressed separately.)
There is also history. When NATO recreated itself after the end of the Cold War, it sought to balance a series of requirements, two of which stood out: to take Central Europe off the geopolitical chess board and not to drive Russia away, as happened (it was believed) with Germany after Versailles in 1919 and which helped pave the way to World War II. Thus in the 1990s, the Alliance, along with what is now the EU, engaged Central European states in Western activities, but which that for most of them stopped short of membership. Rather, they offered, in NATO’s case, the highly-successful Partnership for Peace. Initial NATO membership was offered to three states, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, the first two of which not coincidentally were on Germany’s border and thus helped, by “surrounding” Germany with NATO (and the EU), to reassure its Eastern neighbors about its future. (Some NATO allies now have second thoughts about Hungary’s membership in the Alliance, given that its current government is less-than-democratic.)
At the same time, the Alliance sought to engage Russia as much as possible, in order to show that it was not being stigmatized, as Germany had been in the 1920s, and also to see whether there could be a broader, encompassing approach to European security (though without reducing NATO’s role and capacities). This left Ukraine sort of in the middle. The answer there was to create for Ukraine a special relationship with NATO, but to postpone any final decisions on its final status in regard to NATO at least until it was seen whether efforts with Russia would succeed.
All these efforts were intelligently conceived and were on the way to implementation. Unfortunately, with changes in the Clinton foreign policy team in Washington in the mid-1990s, followed by the coming to power of the George W. Bush administration, the need for balance between Central Europe and Russia came to be ignored. Russia was seen to be weak and unable to prevent NATO from doing more-or-less anything it wanted to do in regard to membership, under U.S. pressure to continue enlarging; Moscow was viewed as not always cooperative (and some Russian leaders had a similar view of NATO); and NATO “enlargement” came to be seen as a “free good.” Perhaps even more important, various countries in Central Europe argued that they could not get on with economic and political developments until they were absolutely sure of their security futures – by which they meant a NATO Article 5 commitment and, even more important, a security commitment by the United States.
The Baltic states also were seen as a special case, given what they had been through following the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact and a half century of Soviet “occupation,” plus their close proximity to Russia (two bordering Russia and the third, Lithuania, on Russia-friendly Belarus), and with all having sizeable Russian minority populations. So they were offered membership in NATO and the EU. The Russians didn’t like it, but they might have lived with it – even Mr. Putin – but NATO did not stop there. Bulgaria and Romania were brought in, along with Slovakia and Slovenia, then Albania and Croatia. While the last four of these countries could not be of much if any concern to Russia, the idea of NATO’s continuing to grow was, at the very least, useful to Mr. Putin in his claims that Russia is being “confronted” by NATO, claims useful with Russian public opinion, still smarting over the loss of superpower status.
The break point came at the NATO Bucharest summit in 2008, when, in order to provide something to U.S. president George W. Bush who was pressing for a “membership action plan” for Ukraine and Georgia, considered to be a step toward full membership, the allies cobbled together what they thought was an anodyne pledge that the two countries “will become members of NATO,” meaning that the issue was being put off indefinitely. They did not understand that that statement implied that the two countries would henceforth be covered by NATO’s Article 5, in reality, since all of the allies were saying that Ukraine and Georgia would join the alliance. This is certainly the way that the statement was read in Tbilisi and Moscow. The short, sharp conflict in Georgia followed – yet not a single NATO allied came to Georgia’s rescue, despite the Bucharest declaration and its clear implication of a security commitment. Rightly or wrongly, Russia saw the Bucharest statement and other Western activities, as an effort to draw Ukraine into the West’s orbit. Whether Mr. Putin was truly concerned or just saw this as a propaganda opportunity at home, these developments set the stage for what has followed. They do not justify what Putin has done, but they do show that his misbehavior was not all one-sided in terms of realistic requirements for European political structure, organization, cooperation, and shared security.
To cut a long story short, Montenegro’s bid for membership – and this would have been true with any other country’s bid for membership – has become a test case: will the Alliance accede to Russian concerns about further NATO enlargement (although Montenegro can be of no intrinsic concern to Moscow)? Or will it show Russia that the “open door” remains a reality (though, from the beginning, it was a bit of a fiction: it surely does not apply to Central Asia) – perhaps in the process foreshadowing the taking in to NATO of other countries about which Russia would be more concerned?
There is a third way of looking at this situation: that the Alliance should instead put the question of further enlargement on hold until there have been further efforts to discover whether it will be possible, with Russia, to craft a form of security cooperation that can work for all countries in Europe and seek to revive President George H.W. Bush’s vision of a Europe whole and free and at peace. Perhaps that will never be possible: more’s the pity for everyone in and concerned with Europe, its future and its security. But while the proposition of possible Russia-West cooperation on European security is being tested, which might take some considerable time, the question then becomes, “Why enlarge NATO further at this point?” The answer is that there is no reason for doing so. This is particularly so because it is not clear that Montenegro, any more than at least four (and perhaps six) of the recent entrants, brings very much to NATO, other than making management, decision-making, and coalition-building more difficult than it already is.
Should Montenegro (and all other countries in Europe that aspire to it) be members of the Western world, with the economic, political, and social benefits – which, in fact, for most of them is the truest basis for “security? The answer is clearly “Yes.” Does that have to mean NATO membership as opposed to less-than-full membership participation in NATO activities, including the Partnership for Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council?” At least for now, the wisest answer, all round, is “No.”
Robert Hunter is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS and a member of the Board of Directors of The European Institute.