This weekend, NATO leaders gather in Chicago to tackle an agenda dominated by Afghanistan, coping with defense budget cuts and global partnerships. These are key issues, yet alliance leaders cannot afford to ignore enlargement. The goal should be for this summit to advance, not set back, the candidacies of Macedonia, Montenegro, Georgia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
First, the aspirants have earned it. Each has demonstrated it is able to contribute to security by providing forces to Afghanistan, developing needed capabilities and following NATO’s “smart defense” model of cooperating with neighbors on joint defense projects. Their integration into NATO will also help stabilize their regions and thereby contribute to transatlantic security.
Keeping enlargement off the agenda in Chicago would be a missed opportunity to reinforce why NATO matters. The city’s large populations who trace their heritage to central and eastern Europe value NATO because of its extraordinary success in anchoring the newest members, such as Poland and Lithuania, as free-market democracies. New members never again must worry about their survival as sovereign nations or domination by foreign powers.
Chicago’s enlargement agenda should be featured at a meeting between NATO leaders and leaders of those nations aspiring to membership, bolstering politicians who must take tough decisions to reform their nations as they prepare for membership and acknowledging those who are acting as de facto allies. Alliance leaders should make clear that NATO’s “open door” policy remains a cornerstone of its strategy to promote security.
The leaders should underscore the urgency of resolving Macedonia’s only obstacle to membership, the dispute with Greece over its name; recognize Montenegro’s rapid progress and uniquely good relations with all its neighbors; and make clear NATO’s commitment that Georgia will become a member is genuine and agree that Georgia’s path to membership is through the NATO-Georgia Commission. Chicago should also welcome Bosnia-Herzegovina into the Membership Action Plan, which prepares candidates to become allies, as Bosnia meets a final benchmark on ensuring federal authority over defense in the divided state.
Chicago should announce that all nations of the Western Balkans who desire membership and are prepared to meet alliance obligations, to include Serbia and Kosovo, will be welcomed into NATO. This declaration would dispel any misperception that enlargement would create divisions within the region.
Furthermore, NATO leaders should commit to make decisions on enlargement at their next summit. Such a dramatic statement would provide candidate leaders additional political capital to advance difficult reforms, boost defense spending and sustain contributions to Afghanistan.
Following Chicago, top NATO officials should travel to the candidates to recognize their progress, urge continued hard work and make clear that the enlargement process remains alive and well. These visits should be the start of a campaign before the next summit to help the candidates succeed. Such a strategy means doubling down on support for efforts to advance the rule of law, strengthen democratic institutions and implement defense reforms. This campaign should include a coordinated strategy among Washington, Paris and Berlin to resolve the Macedonia name issue.
Some argue that adding more, small allies to NATO only complicates decision-making. The reality is that small allies rarely block decisions within the alliance.
Some will argue that this agenda would alienate Russia further. NATO should continue to seek to cooperate with Russia on issues such as Afghanistan and missile defense and allies should signal in Chicago that an even closer relationship, to include an “alliance with the alliance,” could be an option for a democratic Russia.
NATO’s task is to ensure the lack of invitations in Chicago does not signal that the enlargement process is stalling. Rather, NATO leaders should act to ensure that the people of the Western Balkans and Europe’s East view Chicago as a milestone that puts wind in their sails, not introduces speed bumps. If the alliance takes this course, NATO officials will have to start referring to Chicago as an enlargement summit after all.
Wilson is the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. Previously, he served as special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council and as deputy director of NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson’s Private Office.