NATO’s “open door policy” for enlargement aims to increase stability and security in Europe but some critics argue expansion of new member countries could cause issues for the alliance.
Finland and Sweden have been eyeing NATO membership in the wake of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, a move that Moscow said will have "serious military and political consequences.”
Despite Russia’s warnings, a survey by Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle found that 53 percent of Finns support Finland joining NATO with 28 percent opposed and 19 unsure.
“The result is historic, because never before has there been so much support for NATO membership in Finland,” Ye explains.
As non-allied countries begin to change their general attitude towards NATO, we break down what being a NATO member means and what are its main three benefits and potential challenges:
1. Collective defence
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is an alliance between 30 independent member countries in North America and Europe, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Türkiye.
North Macedonia was the most recent to join in 2020.
It was founded in 1949, in the aftermath of World War II, to counter “the threat posed at the time by the Soviet Union” and “secure peace in Europe.”
Today, from terrorism and drug trafficking to conflicts and cyber warfare, many global challenges and threats are too big for any one country to tackle on its own. So NATO promotes “collective defence.”
Its main principle is “an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.”
While there is no “NATO army,” member states can contribute to the alliance’s activities and global operations in varying forms and scales.
From a few soldiers to thousands of troops, and from armoured vehicles, naval vessels or helicopters to all forms of equipment or support, medical or other.
Each country is in control of its own armed force and responsible for the costs for its contributions to NATO, but by standing together against external threats, the region’s overall defence and security systems are boosted.
NATO currently has four multinational battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland which serve as deterrents to possible external attacks.
These four battlegroups are led by the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and the United States, with an approximate total troop number of 4,957.
“These actions demonstrate Allies’ solidarity, determination and ability to defend Alliance territory and populations,” said NATO.
Following Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, NATO allies agreed to establish four more multinational battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.
“This brings the total number of multinational battlegroups to eight, extending all along NATO’s eastern flank – from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south,” NATO adds.
NATO also establishes partnerships with the European Union, the United Nations, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) to tackle other global issues such as the refugee crisis.
2. Promoting dialogue, consensus
By linking European and North American countries, the alliance creates a platform for dialogue and cooperation across the Atlantic.
NATO says it aims to promote cooperation among its members and to guard their freedom by committing the allies “to democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law, as well as to peaceful resolution of disputes.”
It does this in its North Atlantic Council (NAC), of which each ally is a member and decisions are taken by consensus.
In other words, countries must vote unanimously on a decision in order for it to be enacted such as welcoming a new member.
“There is no obligation for each and every member to contribute unless it is an Article 5 collective defence operation, in which case expectations are different,” explains NATO.
However, a caveat to bringing in new NATO members, means consensus among all allies will be harder to reach.
NATO also expands cooperation to non-members by granting certain countries a status known as an “enhanced opportunity partner.” These are non-member nations that have “made significant contributions to NATO-led operations and missions.”
For example Ukraine was recognised as a partner after it “provided troops to Allied operations, including in Afghanistan and Kosovo, as well as to the NATO Response Force and NATO exercises.”
Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan and Sweden are among the countries that are non-member partners.
3. Spreading democracy
NATO has an “open door policy” which states that membership is open to any “European state in a position to further the principles” of its North Atlantic Treaty “and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area”
But in order to join, countries must meet certain political, economic and military criteria, which “include a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy” and “a commitment to resolve conflicts peacefully”
Some studies argue that this criteria for membership “can indeed spread democracy to prospective members” and lead to greater stability in Europe.
However, others disagree, adding “historical record—during and after the Cold War—fails to establish any correlation between NATO membership and the expansion of democracy.”
Critics also argue that the costs and risks of NATO enlargement exceed these potential benefits, warning that adding new members could heighten tensions with Russia and diminish the likelihood of cooperation on global issues.
So what are the possible cons of joining NATO?
1. Tensions with Russia
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has for years warned that Moscow will resist further NATO expansion in bordering countries, viewing it as a direct threat to his country.
Ex-Soviet states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are already NATO members, and Ukraine and Georgia are non-member partners.
John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, says NATO expansion “needlessly provokes Russia.”
He argued in 1996 that if more countries join NATO and Russian officials counter this, then expansion would be “decreasing, not increasing, security in the region.”
“Expansion is an aggressive act that threatens to undo decades of security cooperation and tilt Russia closer toward considering an anti-Western alliance with China or…Iraq,” he said in 1996.
2. Funding reliance on US
NATO allies agreed in 2014 to spend a minimum of 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defence “to ensure the Alliance’s military readiness,” but a majority of members failed to meet the target.
Non-US Allies together spend less than half of what the United States spends on defence, according to NATO. The volume of US defence expenditure represents approximately two thirds of the defence spending of the Alliance as a whole.
Critics argue that this over-reliance could make the US too influential in European politics and that allies should ease themselves off by investing in and building their own security and defence systems.
In the wake of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, so far several NATO countries such as Germany have promised to increase their defence spending.
Another economic burden on new members is that countries may have to change their military equipment to meet NATO standards.
But NATO argues that this standardisation is helpful to the Eastern European community by allowing “for more efficient use of resources and thus enhances the Alliance’s operational effectiveness.”
“The ability to work together is more important than ever for the Alliance. States need to share a common set of standards, especially among military forces, to carry out multinational operations,” NATO explains on its standardisation.
3. Drawn into conflict
While NATO’s collective defence pledge protects the allies, it also means members may reluctantly be forced to join a conflict if another ally comes under attack.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history, pledging support of the current allies at the time against international terrorism.
As part of Operation Eagle Assist, NATO aircraft patrolled the skies over the US for seven months after the attack. And as part of Operation Active Endeavour, NATO naval forces were sent to the Eastern Mediterranean to perform counterterrorism activities.
Critics say as the number of countries joining the coalition increases, the chance of being drawn into more conflicts also increases for allies.
Currently, if the Ukraine conflict expands into NATO territories, then allied countries will have to directly get involved, further escalating tensions into a full-blown war.
“We are obliged to treat an attack on Estonia as if it were an attack on Chicago,” Professor Mary Elise Sarotte of Johns Hopkins University told NPR. “So, if there is an Article 5 incursion, this could very quickly become not Ukraine’s war, but our war.”