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Aug 18, 2008 | 02:32 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: The NATO Membership Dilemma

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
NATO foreign ministers will meet Aug. 19 to discuss responses to the Russian invasion of Georgia. The United States is pressing for immediate action — although what that really means is movement toward admitting Georgia to NATO, rather than actual action. The Germans have expressed support for Georgia's membership in the alliance, but the French and Italians appear to be hesitating, not wanting to trigger the confrontation with the Russians that would likely result from such a move. The newer members of NATO, those who formally belonged to the Warsaw Pact, tend to want aggressive movement to include Georgia and Ukraine in NATO. They want to see NATO assert itself, in order to be assured that the alliance will do that. The problem is not that NATO is incapable of moving rapidly to include Ukraine and Georgia; it is a matter of what it means to be part of NATO. NATO was originally an anti-Soviet military alliance. It consisted of well-armed and well-trained armies — British, West German, Dutch and others — all backed by massive U.S. power and nuclear weapons. An attack on Europe would have meant an attack on NATO, and the Soviets never tried that. Had they done so, they would have faced a very dangerous military situation. The risks were much higher than the gains. Most of today's NATO members have minimal military forces that are poorly armed and trained. As important, the geography has shifted. From a compact western European alliance, NATO has become a sprawling entity, ranging from an exposed and barely defended flank in the Baltics to — if they were included — totally undefended Ukraine and Georgia. The forces necessary to defend those two countries would take years and hundreds of billions of dollars to recruit, arm and train. NATO was once able to defend Europe in the event of war. At this point, and for a very long time, the best NATO could do is to make a gesture of defense, particularly in the case of the vast Ukraine. It is very doubtful that Western Europe has the will to develop a force capable of defending Georgia and Ukraine. Eastern Europe might have the will but not the resources, from manpower to technology. Thus, membership in NATO for Ukraine and Georgia would be a gesture without content. We are reminded of French and British guarantees to Poland in 1939. The French and British knew they could not protect Poland. The Germans knew it. Even the Poles knew it. The hope was that Germany, fearing a war with Britain and France, would not risk attacking Poland. But the Germans knew they could defeat Poland and, more to the point, were pretty confident that the British and French were all talk, and that a declaration of war wouldn't mean all that much. The NATO principle is that an attack on one would be an attack on all. The assumption is that the Russians wouldn't risk a general war in Europe to threaten Georgia or the Ukraine. Alternatively, however, the Russians might view the threat of a general war as minimal, since the rest of Europe would not attack Russia from the West to defend Georgia. In other words, the Russians' hesitation to attack Georgia would depend on their estimate of the likelihood of an attack on Russia by the Germans and Poles in response. It is a risk Moscow might take. First, the Russians know the German and Polish military capacity — and the limits of available American power. Second, the failure to defend a member would destroy NATO's credibility and shred the alliance. Most of the foreign ministers meeting on Tuesday are fully aware that extending NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia not only would be merely a gesture, but also could set up a greater calamity for the alliance. The United States knows this as well, but is making the most aggressive gestures it can, knowing that NATO works by consensus and that a single dissent can block the move. Washington is sure that dissent will come from somewhere. In the meantime, it is making the most bellicose gestures possible, short of actually doing something.

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