At a time when Europe is struggling with the ongoing financial crisis, renewing NATO’s commitment to its open door policy would reflect positively on the health of the European project. It would also send a strong message regarding its commitment to continue its partnership with those in its “family of values”. On the other hand, barring the accession of Macedonia until it can settle its interminable naming dispute with a crisis-rocked Greek government would weaken the alliance, contravene the decisions of important bodies such as the UN and the International Court of Justice, and could slow the momentum for any progress on regional issues such as the ongoing Serbia-Kosovo tensions.

The North Atlantic Treaty provides that any European state that qualifies for membership and that can contribute to the alliance’s security is eligible for membership. Macedonia is highly qualified on both of these fronts. It has long contributed to NATO’s joint security, participating in the regional peace missions in 1999 as well as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It completed its Membership Action Plan in 2008 – normally the final step before admission – before it was blocked by a Greek veto.


Only three months ago, however, the International Court of Justice, by an overwhelming margin of 15-1, declared that veto illegal under the terms of a 1995 bilateral UN agreement between the two countries. The Court flatly stated that the naming issue cannot be used as a pretext to deny Macedonia membership – and yet Secretary General Rasmussen has maintained that the decision changes nothing, and that Macedonia’s accession can come only after the resolution of that dispute. Which, practically speaking, puts the accession process on hold for the foreseeable future.

So why the foot dragging? Delay in enlargement could have negative impact on regional stability and raise troubling questions about the institutional health of the alliance. Denying Macedonia sets a dangerous precedent for other regional rivalries that one country can indefinitely filibuster the entrance of another. This could prove to be an incentive for holding the NATO accession process hostage to bilateral grievances. NATO should be a force for binding European nations ever closer together through mutual sacrifice and mutual interests, this position has the opposite effect. 

Ironically, making progress on this issue is key for fulfilling the ambitious collective security goals that the secretary general has laid out. The threats that he correctly cites as the “most pressing” of our time – terrorism, piracy, energy security, weapons proliferation – are all largely transnational in nature, meaning that combating them requires more cooperation and integration, not less. The kind of reforms that aspirant countries undertake to strengthen their institutions and fight corruption are exactly the kind of reforms that will, to cite just one example, make it harder to smuggle nuclear materials from Russia through Georgia into Europe. Yet aspirants such as Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro are being sent a message that enlargement is not a priority.

This must change. NATO has an opportunity at the Chicago Summit to place enlargement back on the agenda and reinvigorate the alliance. Senator Dick Lugar recently introduced the NATO Enhancement Act to encourage further enlargement of NATO and deepen US strategic partnership with NATO allies, specifically pointing out Central and Eastern European aspiring countries. “NATO enlargement has been a key element to enhancing stability and political reform among the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans.” Lugar said. “The prospect of membership in NATO has not only improved regional security, it is helping to transform nations into close economic and national security partners of the United States.”

With the ICJ ruling, the legal and political path is clear to complete Macedonia’s accession, and that would in itself place pressure on Greece to accept a compromise solution and put to rest a poisonous ethnic dispute. Such a step would reaffirm NATO’s commitment to strengthening the alliance – which, as the secretary general himself writes, must be “an alliance that is constantly changing to meet the security challenges of today and tomorrow.” The Summit in Chicago is the time and place for the NATO allies to show leadership and readiness for enlargement and an “open door” policy for all qualifying members.  

Painter is Chief Operating Officer at Blue Star Strategies, LLC, a Washington DC-based firm that conducts global government relations strategies for corporations and governments.