Enlargement of the Alliance has not been an issue getting much attention in NATO. This should change.

During the NATO Summit last month one important issue was largely ignored: enlargement. NATO has underpinned transatlantic security for more than seven decades, so it is no surprise that many countries in the transatlantic region that are not already members want to join the Alliance. 

NATO’s open-door policy has been a crucial driver of modernisation and reform in candidate countries, has promoted stability and peace in Europe, and has made it easier for the Alliance to coalesce around collective defense. 

NATO’s open-door policy for qualified countries has contributed greatly to transatlantic security since the first round of enlargement in 1952, helping to ensure the Alliance’s central place as the prime guarantor of security in Europe. 

The North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 10 states that any European state that is “in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area” can be invited to join the Alliance. North Macedonia joined the Alliance in March 2020, bringing the total number of members to 30. Currently, Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine hope to join the Alliance someday too.

Georgia was promised eventual membership at the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008. Since then, not all members of the Alliance have been supportive. This is especially true of France and Germany, which blocked Georgia from making real progress towards membership.

After the Russian invasion in 2008 and the subsequent occupation of 20 percent of Georgia’s territory, Georgia has transformed its military and has been steadfast with its support for NATO-led security operations. Even with the challenges faced by Georgia it has a relationship with NATO that far exceeds other aspirant countries. 

In April 2008, Bosnia and Herzegovina stated its desire to join NATO and has made some progress towards membership. It has focused on defense reform and has even deployed troops to Afghanistan, but the country is still far off from joining the Alliance.

In order to become a NATO member, Bosnia and Herzegovina must first register all immovable defense properties as state property for use by the country’s defense ministry. Little progress on this has been made. 

An additional challenge is the internal politics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which makes NATO membership controversial. This is especially true in the ethnically Serb region, Republika Srpska, one of two sub-state entities inside Bosnia and Herzegovina that emerged from that country’s civil war in the 1990s. Republika Srpska aligns more with Serbia and Russia’s position when it comes to Euro-Atlantic integration. 

Even though NATO stated in 2008 that someday Ukraine would be invited to join the Alliance, until 2015, the Ukrainians themselves made little effort to help make this invitation a reality.

Once an aspiring NATO ally under the leadership of President Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine’s pro-Russia government under President Viktor Yanukovich blocked membership progress. In 2010, the Ukrainian parliament passed a bill that barred Ukraine from committing to “a non-bloc policy which means non-participation in military-political alliances.”

In light of Russia’s aggression in 2014, the Ukrainian people have demonstrated, whether on the streets of the Maidan or through the ballot box, that they see their future allied with the West, not under Russian domination. While NATO should continue to foster closer relations with Ukraine, it is important to be clear that Ukraine has a long way to go before NATO membership becomes a serious possibility.

Sadly, enlargement of the Alliance has not been an issue getting much attention in NATO. This should change. The concept of adding new members into NATO is enshrined in the Alliance’s founding treaty.  As NATO undergoes its first strategic review in more than a decade there is an opportunity for the Alliance to send a clear message that its “open-door” policy remains firmly in place. 

In doing so the Alliance must make clear that Russia does not have a veto right. Russia should never be seen as having a veto over a country’s potential membership in NATO, including Georgia or Ukraine. Just because a country was once occupied by the Soviet Union or under the domination of the Russian Empire does not mean that it is blocked from joining the Alliance in perpetuity.

Also, it would be a good idea for NATO leaders to meet with aspirant countries at the head-of-state level during the next summit 2022. In the past, this meeting has been relegated to foreign ministers. The NATO heads of state should make time to meet with the leaders of the two aspirant countries during the next NATO summit. This would send the right message of support.

The Alliance should also take a long-term and pragmatic approach with other European countries. In the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the idea of countries like Poland or Estonia joining NATO seemed unrealistic, if not crazy. 

Almost 30 years later, many of the countries of the former Warsaw Pact or those under Soviet occupation during the Cold War are now some of NATO’s most steadfast members. However unrealistic it might seem for a country like Belarus or Azerbaijan to someday join NATO, the world will be much different 50 years from now. The door must always be kept open, and policymakers must keep an open mind. 

In addition to increasing stability and security in the transatlantic region, NATO enlargement can serve another useful purpose. Traditionally, Turkey has been supportive of NATO enlargement. So has the US. Therefore, enlargement could be an area of cooperation between Washington and Ankara to help restore confidence in the fractured bilateral relationship.  

NATO has done more than any other organisation, including the European Union, to promote democracy, stability, and security in the Euro-Atlantic region. NATO accomplished this by enticing countries to become a part of the club. While it may be tempting to view North Macedonia’s recent accession to NATO as a closing ceremony for enlargement, that would be a substantial mistake. It is in the transatlantic community’s interest that NATO’s door remains open to deserving European countries.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to opinion.editorial@trtworld.com