Admitting North Macedonia to NATO brings more risks than benefits to the US
While most Americans are consumed with the debate over President Trump’s withdrawal of troops from Syria and ongoing impeachment investigations, their elected leaders are in the process of quietly adding another burden to the long list of U.S. defense obligations.
The Senate voted on Tuesday 91-2 to extend NATO membership to North Macedonia, a small, landlocked nation in southeastern Europe. The only nay votes came from Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), both of who also opposed the previous round of NATO expansion to Montenegro in 2017.
For small countries like Montenegro or North Macedonia, the benefits of joining NATO are obvious. North Macedonia has a population of slightly more than 2 million with the 128th largest GDP in the world. NATO’s Article 5 provides for the collective defense of all members, so the North Macedonian government and its estimated 13,000-person military will have the support of significantly larger militaries, including the world’s only superpower, through ascension into the organization.
But for the United States and other member countries, the benefits of expanding NATO are neither obvious nor quantifiable. With the most formidable and technologically advanced military in the world, the U.S. gains essentially nothing from the addition of such a small force either peacetime or crisis. To their credit, the Macedonian military provided military support that served honorably in Afghanistan and Iraq, but objectively this had little impact on the outcome of either conflict.
Furthermore, many larger NATO members already fail to take their defense obligations seriously. American policymakers from both sides of the aisle have acknowledged this serious issue for over two decades, but continue to prioritize expansion over concerns about alliance functionality and the commitment of existing members.
Such supporters in the United States will stress the geostrategic importance of the alliance over the actual addition of military support. After all, NATO was conceived as a post-WWII military alliance to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating strategically important but defenseless Europe. It is one of the external forces that helped break the Soviet government.
But North Macedonia occupies a part of Europe with little strategic and even less economic importance to the United States. Its location in the historically volatile Balkans region carries a serious risk for any country with whom it shares a defensive alliance, as we are hardly two decades removed from a major armed conflict in that area. Increased involvement in the Balkans is not something policymakers in the United States consider a strategic imperative, and rightly so. American voters would likely reject the notion, as well.
What other impetus exists for Western leaders to continue such unquestioning support for NATO expansion? Advocates cite countering and deterring Russian aggression as the primary justification. As Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who helped steer North Macedonia’s NATO vote through the full chamber stated afterwards, “The Russians hate this sort of thing, they hate an increase in the size of NATO, but we want the Europeans to be encouraged.”
Russian frustration with NATO expansion is not a new issue, and it shouldn’t be the lynchpin that decides U.S. foreign policy. Soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO members quickly set about on the first round of expansion while Russia was weak and the post-Soviet government was more amenable to integration into the free world.
That expansion did not ingratiate the West to new Russian leaders nor prevent the rise of an authoritarian-style government under Vladimir Putin. The subsequent rounds of expansion into the former Soviet zones did not deter Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine as Western leaders desired.
As NATO expanded since the end of the Cold War, Russia has become exactly what supporters of NATO expansion claimed they were seeking to prevent: a destabilizing force in the region as it seeks to push back against perceived threats to it’s interests. The Russians have not been deterred from anything; instead their aggression has been, in their view, justified and necessary.
There is every indication Trump will sign off on the pending membership of North Macedonia into NATO, and their membership, while of little benefit to the United States, does not carry near as much risk as the possible membership of nations like Ukraine or Georgia. But its’ membership will do nothing to address NATO’s long-standing burden sharing problems and adds one more obligation to an already overcommitted U.S. defense structure.
When considering the possible extension of current defense agreements or creation of new ones, the United States should look primarily at how such agreements will benefit or risk our national security and economic interests, not their appeal for antagonizing geopolitical rivals or whether extension is “deserved” by strategically unimportant countries. A policy driven by a desire to annoy our only nuclear peer is not a sound basis for defense strategy.
Robert Moore is a public policy advisor for Defense Priorities Foundation. He previously worked for nearly a decade on Capitol Hill, most recently as lead staffer for Senator Mike Lee on the Senate Armed Services Committee.