The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), once the unchanging Western security bulwark opposite an omnipresent existential Soviet threat, has remade itself in the 21st century. The alliance has become the transatlantic partnership’s army, and the keystone (if not the entirety) of European security. It is reasonable to assume that the authors of Article V of the NATO charter, the alliance’s agreement to go to war together if a member is attacked or the security situation in the Atlantic was significantly threatened, never would have imagined its first use to come following the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.
In its desperate search for identity and raison d’être in the post-Cold War world, the alliance has expanded its membership like clockwork, adding members in each US presidential administration since the fall of the Soviet Union. In the fourth quarter of the Obama administration, this internal alarm clock has rung yet again, and at the upcoming 2016 summit in Warsaw (the first such event to be held in the territory of a former communist state), the alliance may make its most meaningless expansion gesture yet, by offering membership to Montenegro and potentially (though it is unlikely) to Macedonia.
All too often, observers cite Russian aggression as the negative side effect of previous NATO expansion in the Balkans and to former Soviet and Warsaw Pact States. Now that some former Warsaw pact states are members of the alliance, they are some of the most hawkish in regards to expansion, perhaps because they have the most to lose from a renewed Russian threat. But reducing Russian aggression purely to reactionary measures against NATO expansion is a gross over-simplification. It ignores the greater political and ethnic cleavages left by the Soviet Union in its former republics, not to mention an extremely hawkish and cynical Russian leadership under the tenure of Vladimir Putin, who has greater personal and domestic goals than just upsetting Western leadership. We must look at the expansion of the alliance in more operative terms by discussing Montenegro’s contributions to ongoing future missions, regardless of the omnipresent considerations of a Russian Article V challenge in the Balkans.
What is the benefit of bringing Montenegro into the alliance? NATO ships would gain access to marginally strategic ports on the Adriatic, but their benefit is neutral at best in terms of securing the vulnerable southern flank in the face of Europe’s migration crisis. Montenegro has no capacity to assist in policing the eastern flank from Russian incursion. The number of Montenegrin troops that have the capacity to contribute to the NATO Reaction Force, or one of the more-advanced Very-high-readiness Joint Task Forces (VJTF) would be marginal as well. Were it 2008 again, then perhaps Montenegrin troops would have played a larger role in the “surge” in Afghanistan, but the Balkan state already contributes to the Resolute Support Mission in that country, and if any changes are made to the operation in the coming years, it is likely to be a drawdown of forces. Montenegro does meet NATO qualifications, but its membership would be unlikely to change anything in the alliance or the country, other than to add another veto vote to the North Atlantic Council (NAC), which makes decisions by unanimity only.
What NATO expansion is, in reality, is another tick mark on the foreign policy bucket list of an Obama presidency in the twilight of its White House tenure – one that has already racked up points on its score card by continuing to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran and initiating a rapprochement with Cuba. This has made the administration overly confident with its foreign policy decisions. Expansion of the alliance is not prudent within the policy metrics of an 18 month time horizon before the Warsaw summit next year. Herein lies the complexity of the domestic politics of the United States and Europe vis-à-vis the security situation under NATO’s purview. For Western alliance leaders not to add at least one member would be seen as a blemish on their security policy record, especially by the more hawkish opposition parties in alliance capitals, such as the Republican party of the US, who seem to think that defense spending and alliance expansion is the solution to all geostrategic challenges.
This article is not an objection to expansion in general though, especially given the fact that there exists strong potential allies that would fit well within NATO’s structure, and would contribute to its missions without the political complexities of the Balkan states. Sweden, for example, would be a less contentious choice in terms of the potential member’s internal political stability, and more importantly in terms of its military capabilities. While small, the Swedish military overall and its Navy specifically are extremely professional and well equipped. Using Swedish sailors to patrol the Baltic Sea would likely increase the alliance’s capacity to police the region against Russian incursion. This argument is becoming increasingly relevant in Stockholm following the Russian violation of Swedish waters last year. Sweden is a famously neutral state, and joining the alliance would end this long-standing tradition in its security policy. Without strong existential threats, Sweden simply doesn’t need NATO, even if the alliance needs Sweden. It is unlikely that Sweden is going to significantly shift its defense policy to a supra-national orientation any time soon, but NATO is eagerly waiting for the day when it does.
NATO does not have to expand in order to properly respond to the security challenges of today. Paradoxically, expansion could merely create more challenges in rapidly and properly responding to transatlantic security threats. More vetoes on the NAC, and more required investment in Balkan states that already struggle to keep up with NATO’s spending and standards is a misuse of resources. NATO is currently in cooperation with more than a dozen partners outside the alliance. The trend of modern combat operations is to form a relevant coalition with interests in combating the given threat, rather than responding to a threat through the legal structures of NATO’s charter. This trend began with the 1991 invasion of Iraq, and has continued to today, thanks due most to the eclectic collection of US-led interventions in the intervening 25 years. There is no reason that NATO cannot reorganize its operations and defense spending in a more utilitarian way. For example, permanent stationing of the NATO Response Force in the Baltics and increases in non-US member defense spending would be much more useful in countering Russia and protecting the southern flank than further bloating NATO’s bureaucracy by expanding membership.
Photo by DoD / R.D. Ward (public domain)