American diplomacy under George W. Bush has been far from diplomatic at times. As such, it is unsurprising that he should commence his last NATO summit as US president by annoying allies and non-allies alike - most particularly (but not exclusively) France, Germany and Russia. On this occasion, the discord arose out of Bush's (ultimately unsuccessful) call for Georgia and Ukraine to be invited to participate in the Membership Action Plan (MAP) that paves the path to eventual membership of the Atlantic Alliance.
Often, it is the manner rather than the matter of Bush's speech that causes offense. However in this case he affronted on both counts. According to recent reports, Germany was under the impression that Bush was happy to support a compromise solution whereby Georgia and Ukraine would be encouraged to work towards future MAP participation, but stopping short of inviting such a move now. If this is the case, German anger at Bush's handling of the issue is understandable. America's stance also directly contradicted the official French position, while Russia, as might be expected, has long been vehemently opposed to any further eastward expansion of NATO.
There is also real substance to counter-arguments to Bush's call to admit Georgia and Ukraine into the MAP. Not only can it be contended that neither country is ready for such a move - as is well known the notion of joining NATO is unpopular among the Ukrainian public, while Georgia's repression of opposition movements and ongoing territorial disputes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia give legitimate cause for concern - but there is also the question of Russia's opposition to consider. It would be folly to not consider the likely deterioration in East-West relations should Georgia and Ukraine be given too green a light for NATO membership now. While it was necessary to send a message that Moscow cannot dictate terms to NATO, there is little wisdom in provoking Russia unduly; not least at a time when some hope remains for some sort of improved relations under Vladimir Putin's successor.
Quite why Bush decided to take this problematic stance is open to debate, although his behaviour this week does very much fit the much-professed missionary rhetoric for democracy (albeit the right sort of democracy) to which he is prone. Moreover, on one reading, the situation, if not quite a win-win for Bush, could be seen as something close to it. For, while it always appeared unlikely that he would succeed in having Georgia and Ukraine invited to participate in the MAP, any positive outcome could be claimed as a much-needed legacy for a presidency that is widely-hailed as being somewhat less than successful.
In addition, while Bush seemed as convinced as always by the righteousness of his cause, this could possibly be viewed as a concession-in-waiting (and a face-saving measure for a Russia he hopes to gain cooperation from on other matters like missile defence) rather than a demand he realistically expected to have met.
Regardless, NATO has more pressing matters to deal with at Bucharest than extending MAP status to Georgia and Ukraine. This can and should wait until another occasion. The challenge now is to mitigate any damage the public disagreement over this issue may cause and to keep the focus on more pressing matters.
Chief among these is Afghanistan, where NATO has come to be viewed as the architect of the currently dire security situation, something the very fate of the Alliance is being increasingly linked to. That the most ardent proponent of this linkage is the same US administration that left NATO to pick up the pieces after overthrowing the Taliban regime reeks of an irony and hypocrisy that has become all too prevalent in the Bush administration's international dealings. This is especially pertinent when it is considered that this same administration turned down NATO's offer of assistance (in the form of its historic invocation of its Article V collective security mechanism) in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.
In short, Georgia and Ukraine can wait. Afghanistan cannot. It was to be hoped, if perhaps not expected, that George W. Bush of all NATO leaders would realize this and not add further distractions at a time when the Alliance can ill afford it.
Mark Burgess is the director of the of the World Security Insitute's Brussels office and a member of the Atlantic Community.
A longer version of this article was written for the World Security Institute's own website and published here under the title "Triaging NATO: Mr. Bush (The Younger) Goes to Bucharest'.