At Cardiff, NATO Leaders Must Stop Seeking Excuses and Lead

May 22, 2014

Sally Painter, a board member of the Truman National Security Project, and COO of Blue Star Strategies, is a regional expert for Central and Eastern Europe. She has served as senior advisor to the Secretary of Commerce during the Clinton Administration. Ms. Painter has represented and advised the last 10 countries in the process of NATO accession and the US Visa waiver.  Views expressed are her own.

When NATO leaders meet for their biannual summit in Cardiff this September, it will be at a crucial moment for Europe and NATO.

Over the past several years, the continent has seen a crescendo of crises, including political, economic, and now military. With the resurgence of Russia’s aggressive expansionism, Europe now faces what amounts to an existential threat on its eastern border.

With weakened economies barely removed from a financial crisis that shook the very foundations of the economic union, the turmoil in Ukraine has confirmed that a Europe “Whole and Free” is more important – and more imperiled – than ever. From the creation of the nascent European Union to the expansion of the NATO Alliance and the shared currency, Europe has spent long decades pursuing and consolidating its prosperity and security.

Unfortunately, at the very moment that the core stability and territorial integrity of Europe’s borders are under attack, the North Atlantic alliance has seemed to abandon its vision of continental security rooted in expanded membership for qualified aspirants.

The upcoming Wales summit, to be held in early September, will surely feature earnest discussions over the appropriate response to Russia’s incremental, but clearly bellicose, encroachment into its neighbor’s territory. There will be debate over what President Putin’s ultimate goals may be, and what steps may deter him from intensifying similar conflicts elsewhere in his near abroad.

But what is unlikely to merit serious consideration is one of the few steps that could more fundamentally reinvigorate the alliance: taking the concrete decision to finally accept the next wave of qualified countries into NATO.

There are a number of aspirants who have undergone the political and economic reforms necessary to qualify, and who have positioned themselves as strong contributors to European security and growth. Yet NATO leadership, in contrast with its mandate to expand entry to all qualified members, has consistently found excuses for why the time is not right.

There is the case of Montenegro, the small Balkan state that has watched neighbors like Croatia and Albania become NATO members while it waits for an invitation. Many argue that its political and rule of law reforms have not gone far enough or fast enough for the country to merit entry, despite its rapid progress.

The case of Macedonia is even more frustrating; that country has been a superlative contributor to the security and stability of the region, with its troops fighting alongside NATO coalition forces in far flung missions such as Afghanistan. It is a stable democracy with a growing economy, located in a strategic location and at peace with all of its neighbors. Yet neighboring Greece has managed to single handedly bring NATO expansion to a grinding halt by holding the process hostage to its dispute over the wording of Macedonia’s official name.

Then there is the precarious situation in Ukraine, which has fallen victim to Russia’s desire to cement its control over its near abroad in much the same manner as befell Georgia in 2008. The refusal to offer both countries a Membership Accession Plan was due to similar reasoning about their supposed lack of readiness.

But as anyone familiar with politics knows, there is never a “perfect” time to make the big decisions, and the time for such excuses has run out. It has become clear that the NATO leadership is searching for reasons to keep newcomers out, rather than searching for ways to clear the hurdles to entry.

Make no mistake – NATO’s refusal to expand is a political, not a technical, calculation. The problem is thus a shameful lack of political will. Many seem to forget that similar objections were raised in the last major round of enlargement – that countries like Latvia, Bulgaria, and Estonia weren’t ready, that they needed more time. Yet now, the NATO shield is likely all that stands between many of them and Russian revanchism.

What NATO is missing is vision and leadership. It has lost sight of its long term goals – the fundamental reason for its existence – and it is now paying the price. During the Clinton and Bush administrations, by contrast, leaders pushed forward in spite of short term political and economic calculations, in order to serve the good of the Alliance and of Europe. This was, in retrospect, very wise.

Expansion and deeper integration of continental institutions such as NATO is at the heart of the political, economic, and security goals of Europe. At the Cardiff summit, the leadership should remember that they are there to overcome obstacles to this vision – rather than accumulate excuses for why it can’t be done.  Cardiff should be an expanding summit.