At NATO, No Time For Cold Feet
For centuries, the Balkans and Europe's East have deserved their reputations for igniting wider European wars and have given to European history the place names of genocide and mass starvation. In 1949, the creation of NATO secured the post-World War II peace in Western Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, the alliance has played a transformational role in building a second peace -- this time in Central and Eastern Europe.
Now NATO has an opportunity to lay the foundation for a third European peace -- this time in the Balkans -- and to open a dialogue that could lead to a fourth: a more constructive relationship between Europe and Russia.
The transatlantic allies face two critical questions when they gather for their summit in Bucharest in April. The first is whether to invite Albania, Croatia and Macedonia to join NATO, a decision that is the culmination of a 15-year effort to end the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. The second is what relationship Ukraine and Georgia will have with NATO in the turbulent early years of their development: Will they be set on a course that could lead to eventual NATO membership, or will they be excluded?
Regarding the Balkans, critics say that Albania, Croatia and Macedonia are not ready for NATO membership. Farther east, they worry about the fragility of democratic institutions in Georgia and Ukraine, and they have concerns about the effect that NATO engagement with those countries would have on relations with Russia and on European publics skittish about further enlargement of the European Union.
But the fact is that Albania, Croatia and Macedonia have spent more than eight years in rigorous preparation for NATO membership. Today, Croatia has the most impressive economic performance, and real estate prices, of any country in southern Europe. In recent years, Albania has contributed more soldiers to missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and international peacekeeping than most NATO allies. And since the end of the Balkan wars in 1999, Macedonia has covered more ground in building an integrated, multi-ethnic society in a short time than any other European nation. We now have a chance to bring Catholic Croatia, secular-Islamic Albania and multi-ethnic, Orthodox Macedonia into the Euro-Atlantic community of democracies. Not bad.
Of course, these countries have more to do economically and politically. But we have never had cause to regret an expansion decision. Imagine if we had waited until Greece and Turkey had completed their internal debates before inviting them to join NATO.
Any further delay on the candidacies of Albania, Croatia and Macedonia will diminish regional stability just as Kosovo begins its extended period of supervised independence, and will confuse and undercut the European Union as it takes over chief security responsibilities from the United States and NATO throughout the region. An inability to close this chapter in the Balkans would also dangerously slow our engagement with Europe's East.
The second challenge, defining our interest in the success of Ukraine and Georgia, is even more straightforward. These countries are not asking for NATO membership, although they would be delighted if we treated them as prospective members. They are asking for the tools with which to complete their reforms and ultimately to qualify for membership consideration. NATO has a preschool program for countries like these called the Membership Action Plan.
It must be forthrightly acknowledged that despite the astounding pace of reform since the Rose Revolution in 2003, Georgia stumbled in November when it cracked down on an opposition demonstration. Likewise, despite the vibrant political pluralism of Ukraine and its repeated free and fair elections, it sometimes seems that the country cannot reach a political decision without a fistfight in Parliament, its constitutional court or, just last month, its national security council. But these are the familiar juvenile delinquencies of young democracies finding their way in the post-Soviet world. Helping them past this early fragility is an important reason they should be offered a collaborative relationship with NATO.
A Membership Action Plan offers no guarantee of future membership in NATO, let alone in the European Union. To be precise, it would initiate an open-ended process that anticipates that Georgia and Ukraine will spend many years resolving critical national questions of stability, territorial integrity, institutional capacity and the resolution of frozen conflicts before making a political decision to pursue NATO membership. Nor are Russia's interests in any way injured by closer relations between NATO and Russia's neighbors. Over time, Ukraine and Georgia would become more stable and undoubtedly more prosperous. Invariably, countries in the process of building closer relations with NATO find that they can safely demilitarize and devote more of their energies to multilateral resolution of conflicts with neighbors. Ultimately, closer relations between Europe and Ukraine and Georgia would bring Russia closer to Europe and would make the needed dialogues with Russia on democracy and energy that much easier.
The third European peace is within reach and the fourth can be set on course with timely action at the Bucharest summit. If, instead, we temporize, we will cast doubt on what America stands for and on the strength and unity of the Europe that is being built before our eyes.
The writer is president of the Project on Transitional Democracies.