NATO's First Line of Defense? It Shouldn't Be Here.

By Charles King
Sunday, November 30, 2008

The tiny village of Ushguli lies in an emerald-green valley in the far north of the republic of Georgia. Hemmed in by the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus mountains, it's a jumble of slate buildings flanking a glacier-fed stream. When I last visited, local elders showed me around the medieval stone towers that dot the countryside. A millennium ago, defense was a self-help game, and families erected private fortresses to guard against vengeful neighbors and foreign raiders.

Political leaders in the United States and Europe are careering down a path that could make faraway Ushguli the eastern border of NATO. Foreign ministers from the transatlantic alliance's 26 member states will meet this week in Brussels to decide whether Georgia and Ukraine should take an important step toward membership. But Western leaders would be wise to act slowly, or the world's most successful military alliance could become as irrelevant as the ancient watchtowers of the upland Caucasus.

Last April, NATO put off both countries' applications but promised to revisit the issue in December. The August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia has sharpened the debate. To some Western observers, Russia's intervention in Georgia demonstrated the need to expand the alliance and block Moscow's imperial ambitions. Without the security guarantees provided by NATO membership, the logic goes, both Georgia and Ukraine will find themselves increasingly threatened by the bear lumbering forth from the Kremlin.

For leaders in Kiev and Tbilisi, the core advantage of membership is Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty, the document that gave birth to the alliance in 1949. Under this provision, "an armed attack against one or more" allies in Europe or North America is considered an attack on them all. So far, the alliance has invoked Article Five only once: In the weeks following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, planes from more than a dozen nations provided security and intelligence assistance in the skies above the eastern United States.

Neither Ukraine nor Georgia is slated to become a full member soon. The issue at stake is whether they will be granted a "membership action plan," or MAP, setting out specific targets that Kiev and Tbilisi must meet before they can begin formal accession talks. The Bush administration is putting pressure on its NATO allies to push forward with the MAP. But in doing so, the United States is lowering the bar set for past applicants.

Countries that have joined the alliance since the end of communism -- ex-Soviet satellites such as Poland and Romania and ex-Soviet republics such as Lithuania and Estonia -- have been held to rigorous standards. Each has had to demonstrate that it can contribute security to the wider alliance, not just consume the security guarantee provided by Article Five. That approach has produced remarkable results: a historic peace treaty between Romania and Hungary, better minority-rights protections in the Baltic states, improved civilian control of the military in Poland.

But in the case of Ukraine and Georgia, NATO has fallen victim to grade inflation. In April, NATO leaders stated plainly that both countries "will become members of NATO," while leaving the precise timetable uncertain. Moving forward with the MAP now takes the alliance down a road with a predetermined endpoint -- the extension of the "North Atlantic" to the eastern shores of the Black Sea and the peaks of the Caucasus.

Military alliances are the most serious international commitment societies can make. But politicians in Washington and Brussels have ignored their responsibility to justify the promise of blood and treasure they seem willing to make on their citizens' behalf. There are several things that more sober NATO members can do to decelerate the dash to the east.

First, NATO should demand real progress from Kiev and Tbilisi before instituting the MAP or any other form of enhanced relationship with the alliance. Georgia has used large-scale military force against its own citizens three times in the past 15 years. It has no nationwide independent broadcast media. It has never changed its head of state by holding a boringly ordinary election. Nearly a fifth of its territory is under the control of secessionist regimes. Ukraine is much closer to meeting the basic standards of good governance, but its politicians and society are deeply split over whether NATO membership is even a desirable goal. The most battle-ready military force on its territory are the Russian soldiers, sailors and airmen stationed at Moscow's leased facility in Sevastopol on the Black Sea. No Western politician who argues for quick action on Ukraine and Georgia can be serious about increasing the security of the existing 26 NATO allies.

Second, NATO's eastward expansion makes sense only if it proceeds in lockstep with the enlargement of the European Union. For former communist countries in Central Europe, NATO provided a security umbrella under which their governments could undertake the tough economic and political reforms necessary for admission to the EU. In turn, EU status ensured that NATO's newest members had a stake in behaving responsibly toward their neighbors and their own citizens. But in the debate on Ukraine and Georgia, the alliance is in expansion overdrive, while the Union is experiencing enlargement fatigue. The disconnect represents a dangerous imbalance between the two most important institutions in the Euro-Atlantic space.

Finally, NATO must work hard to repair the relationship with Russia before moving to expand a military bloc that Russians see as an inherent threat. A surge to the east less than six months after a hot war in NATO's immediate neighborhood will weaken the alliance's unity, dampen its credibility and push a petulant Kremlin farther toward the status of ill-tempered enemy.

Moving slowly on Ukraine and Georgia is not a question of bowing to Russia's will, nor of giving Moscow an illegitimate veto over NATO's affairs. But making implicit commitments that the alliance cannot keep, toward countries whose actions it has proved unable to control, in a region far from its traditional area of operations, will diminish NATO while providing nothing in the way of real security to aspiring members.

There are plenty of voices in Ukraine and Georgia calling for a more nuanced and cautious approach to foreign relations, including with Russia. But in pushing the NATO issue to the fore, the Bush administration is using its waning days to reward local leaders who have the most to gain from confronting Moscow.

NATO should remain an option for any country in the Euro-Atlantic area that has internalized the habits of restraint, consensus and prudence that have made it one of history's most meaningful alliances. But building a new line of watchtowers on Europe's eastern frontier is a poor substitute for learning to get along with your neighbors. After all, the ancient towers are still there in Ushguli, but no one feels any safer as a result.

kingch@georgetown.edu

Charles King is chairman of the faculty of Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. His most recent book is "The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company