A straight line is
the shortest way to connect two dots. It is the most direct route to move from
start to finish and in many cases the best choice among alternatives. However, as
the controversy around a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Georgia and the Ukraine shows, it may not always be
the best path to follow.
The MAP discussion should be evaluated in the context of NATO's evolution since its inception, a time that was characterized by cold war rhetoric and a very different world security equation than the one that we are facing today. It was one of a much more bi-polar balance of power and military focus. Since then, boundaries between the two former "blocks" have lost much of their previous clarity and both sides of former cold war alliances have moved closer towards each other. Today, we have achieved a respectful, active, peaceful and constructive dialogue between the two sides of the former world security equation. Focus has shifted towards questions of global security which are an equation with multiple variables in their own right (in many cases multiple unknowns).
This evolution over the last decades has fundamentally transformed the understanding of NATO as an organization, its position today, and its direction going forward. From its creation as a military defense alliance for the "Western World" NATO has extended its focus more broadly to take a global perspective on security matters. Such matters will continue to pose challenges for NATO as it further develops its understanding of, position towards and role in addressing modern security themes such as world terrorism, nuclear proliferation, totalitarian regimes, isolated civil unrest or relationships of member and partner countries with China and other Asian countries.
These subjects are as much a concern for governments of former Soviet Union countries as they are for current NATO membership states. NATO's changing perspective on this new paradigm was manifested in its 1999 and 2004 expansions and in the establishment of the Partnership for Peace program and the Euro-Atlantic-Partnership Council.
The natural extension of this process, of course, is to offer membership action plans to other countries, consistent with NATO's first steps of including selected Eastern European countries with similar perspectives on world security. Transitioning like-minded allies from a loose forum of common dialogue into a closer military alliance is sensible. However, given (i) NATO's historical context and (ii) the significant benefits that have resulted from constructive East-West relations since the end of the cold war, an eastward expansion involving countries that are close neighbors of the Russian Federation should involve consultations with the Russian government.
A "go-it-alone" expansion policy would be disrespectful to Russia's security interest, could cause a change in its domestic public debate, and potentially become detrimental to its internal political stability. A result that would be counterproductive and could hurt long-term security interests.
Of course, one can take a view that a near-term inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine would be unlikely to cause such unrest among Russia's current political and economic leadership for it to cause them to act contrary to the country's vested economic interests. However, over the medium term a forced move without an adequate process could provide a fertile ground for political forces within Russia that may seek to undermine the current stability of what is still a fragile democracy and market economy - in a country that does not have significant experience with either one.
NATO should work together with Russia towards a shared vision about its role in the 21st century and, on this basis, communicate a process for selected Partnership-for-Peace countries to join the alliance as full members together with and at the same time as Russia. To the extent that this may prove not to be a viable option in the short- to medium-term, it would still be more beneficial for NATO to seek to carve out a special role of some other sort for Russia. This role could go beyond its current partnership status, but not as far as a full integration into military command structures. The announcement of such a more prominent status for Russia should be announced together with the accession of its neighboring countries. It would create a basis for Russia's leadership to communicate the expansion of NATO in a way that is in line with both sides' common long-term interests. On a side note, such a path is also likely to cause less friction with the Chinese government than a full membership of Russia.
A statement of clear and strong support for a membership of Ukraine and Georgia is desirable. However, a straight line between where we stand today and the aim of achieving this goal in the future may not be the best way to get there. NATO must be mindful of its role vis-à-vis the Russian Federation and the impact that its actions may have on the political landscape. An offer of membership to Georgia and Ukraine against strong political and public opposition in Russia cannot be advisable. NATO membership states should consult with Russia to determine a common understanding of NATO's role in world security matters and way for Russia's security interests to be either respected or represented through the alliance.
Dr. Andre Kelleners is a member of the Atlantic Community