The Republic of Georgia continually maintains that it is pro-Western and seeks integration with Western institutions, in particular NATO and the EU. However, despite the NATO presence in Georgia and considerable US involvement in Georgian affairs it is the US itself which is keeping Georgia out of NATO, no matter friendly Georgia is towards it. Why does the US want to keep it out, and why does Georgia still want to get in when NATO has let it down time and time again by refusing to grant it a Membership Action Plan?
NATO’s own problems
Part of the agreement reached when the Berlin Wall fell more than 20 years ago was that East would still be East and West would still be West. NATO would not expand any further. The Eastern countries would be part of the political West but not the military alliance which had the power to eradicate other spheres of influence.
The West reneged on this agreement on the grounds that the new Eastern countries wanted it to, but this did not mean that it had to accept them, or equate “Western” with being a member of NATO rather than another military bloc with a Western orientation, or none at all.
Many in the West now recognise that NATO expanded too fast in its desire to take advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some of its existing members, such as Turkey, should never have been admitted in the first place, as they create more problems than they are worth.
Under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty all NATO members are obliged to defend any other member which comes under attack. While there are benefits in persuading Russia’s neighbours to side with the West politically, few countries actually want to go to war over these faraway places about which they know nothing.
As Pat Buchanan, author of Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? recently said, “The United States is going to have to come to terms with this reality – the unwillingness of the American people to fight the wars they are committed to fight by the American government. He added “are House Republicans willing to vote America’s share of that vast sum and make Ukraine a recipient of U.S. foreign aid roughly equal to what we provide annually to Israel and Egypt?”
He added that back in 2008, “Had Georgia been in NATO when Mikheil Saakashvili invaded South Ossetia, we would be eyeball to eyeball with Russia, facing war in the Caucasus, where Moscow’s superiority is as great as U.S. superiority in the Caribbean during the Cuban missile crisis.” His thesis is that NATO is damaging the United States’ relationship with Russia, which would otherwise be “a natural ally” of the U.S. in modern times. As others also realise this, they remain unwilling to heap up more problems for themselves by taking on new members who can’t even control their own territory.
Therefore the US decision to sidetrack Georgia’s NATO aspirations is pragmatic. Fast tracking associate member status is a consolation prize for Georgia, only given because the US has already decided the country has no business in NATO, anytime soon at least.
The rush to embrace
Throughout the Cold War period all the parts of the former Eastern bloc became disgusted with the rhetoric of their own side and believed the grass was greener on the NATO and EU side of the hill. Consequently when the Soviet Union fell apart new countries emerged untainted by the Soviet past, which were keen to celebrate their independence by joining the West as soon as possible.
The reasoning unquestionably accepted was that if they joined the EU they would be rich and if they joined NATO Russia would not be able to conquer them again. In reality, however true these conceptions may be, the former Eastern bloc nations really wanted respect. Nobody on the winning side liked them during the Cold War era. If the winners now invited them to join their institutions, it would show they had moved beyond their pasts, cemented their new courses and all was forgiven them.
The trouble is, NATO and the EU come with strings attached, like all other international organisations. They will only take you if you have something they want, and don’t cause them any trouble. Armed forces have to be brought up to NATO standards and support NATO actions before the benefits of having that country as a member outweigh the risks of one day having to defend it. Economies have to develop enough exports the West wants, then withstand having this advantage taken away by an influx of goods from elsewhere in the EU.
Countries are still prepared to pay these prices to join the West because these are the only avenues with an image. You do not have to be an EU member to be a member of the Council of Europe, for example, and in real terms the late twentieth-century nations probably have more chance of influencing processes there than in the EU. Similarly there are other effective trading blocs, such as EFTA, if economics is the main issue.
But these don’t have the same cachet. You will not be taken so seriously if you don’t join the EU or NATO, regardless of the costs. For politicians rather than people, respect is everything.
NATO and the EU themselves recognise this problem. They want to be able to offer things other than membership to those who want to be somebody. But at the end of the day every offer they make has to promise eventual membership, because they have been taken at their word. They can’t now say they are not necessary, or that there are better options than themselves, without fatally undermining their own existence, which no responsible organisation, or its guardians, will ever do.
The case of Georgia
Georgia’s big problem is that the writ of its government does not run in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These frozen conflicts, and the presence of both foreign troops and peacekeeping missions on what the West universally recognises as Georgian territory, mean that conflict can burst out at any moment, conflict which NATO and its other members will not want to intervene in as they are not interested enough in Georgia to risk war with Russia over it.
From a security point of view resolving the problem of Georgia’s territorial integrity should be the priority. There is little NATO can do to affect this process, as Russia, one of the parties to the frozen conflict, will not see it as an honest broker. Therefore Georgia is being left to sort the problem out itself, for now.
Much has been made of US President Barack Obama saying, “I think that that not Ukraine and not Georgia are now on a path to NATO membership and there are not any immediate plans to expand NATO’s membership.” But there are two things he actually implied in this March 26 statement. One is that it is not the fault of these two countries that they cannot join right now because nobody else can either. They should not have unrealistic expectations, but the door is still open.
The other is that even if Georgia and Ukraine were on the road to membership they would not achieve it during Obama’s remaining months in office. His term must end on January 20th, 2017, and for several months before that his main job will be to prepare the handover to the new incumbent. His comment is more of a challenge than a rejection. If the next US President really wants Georgia in NATO he or she can incorporate it at that time, by which time it may be able to present more of a case.
So Georgia is not without hope. It simply needs to buy US-made weapons to replace the Russian ones it has now, without provoking a war over it, and be ready to address a short term mass exodus of its people to EU countries, where they will effectively be next to slave labour, producing al the goods and services which will prevent Georgians earning a living by supplying their own market. If that is what it wants, fine.
The case of Ukraine
Obama’s comments referred to Georgia and Ukraine together, as has long been customary. It has been stated by NATO and both countries at various times that they will eventually join NATO but at the same time, as one package. So any negative developments in the one will affect the other, meaning they must both encourage each other to do whatever their sponsors want to achieve anything.
At present, one country is being played off against the other. Ukraine’s new government is the latest US attempt to undermine political processes and democratic will in that country, however well founded the complaints of the Maidan protestors were. Ukraine will have to adopt the comparative serenity of Georgia very soon if it wants to remain a NATO candidate. Similarly, Georgia’s government will have to remain as compliant as Ukraine’s to avoid suffering the same fate. Joint future, joint threats, applied using the minimum of US manpower.
But the standards both countries must meet are not clear. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is still talking about Georgia as a “beacon of democracy” and praising the remarkable progress it has made. He said exactly the same thing during the Saakashvili era, but Saakashvili was removed by his US paymasters when he became exactly the opposite, even though he was convinced that he had a special relationship with the US, that it would support him when he moved into South Ossetia in 2008, etcetera.
So even if Ukraine similarly becomes a beacon of democracy, will that ensure its new de facto government survives? If not, why should the new regime bother trying to become one? Why should Georgia help it if such help results in the vilification of the new government ad both countries being further than ever from NATO?
The real reasons behind the push for NATO
Georgians do not just assume for themselves that NATO is the answer to everything. They are taught as much at schools and universities, and anyone who disagrees is branded as a Russian agent. Consequently anyone who wants to work for the government, or have any decent job, is obliged to swallow this “hook-line-and-sinker”and act accordingly.
But what should Georgia do to achieve this? It has contributed more troops per capita to NATO operations in Iraq, in terms of bodies bags sent home, to Afghanistan than any other country, but is not yet a NATO member. The logic is to bleed its way into NATO for the sake of the political class.
However, in spite of those injured and killed, it must apparently resolve its internal conflicts first, but that would not provide any guarantees either. If it did, NATO itself would have resolved these conflicts, long ago, if it is as impressed with Georgia as it claims.
NATO has put itself in a position where it has to agree with eternal expansion, as it maintains NATO membership is the best option for everyone, but has no interest in actually taking on any more members. It cannot take away aspirant countries’ dreams because failing to fulfill them would take away its own dream. But neither side wants to recognise these things are only dreams, and with good reason.
If NATO is merely a defence alliance, as it claims, its members need only meet a common military standard. They can conduct their politics however they like. For example, Spain and Portugal were not democracies when they first joined NATO and remained members even whilst under wide international condemnation. The UK’s armed forces committed war crimes in Northern Ireland whilst also being NATO forces, as did US forces at Guantanamo Bay, amongst other places.
NATO provides a free pass to the West without obliging its member states to adopt the West’s professed standards. NATO won’t look, and neither will the political West. If a country is in NATO it is hard to refuse it membership of the EU, as Bulgaria and Romania found when they were far from meeting the EU economic criteria imposed on other aspirant states. Accepting such countries, who stand or fall on NATO membership, also means NATO itself can pursue its objectives without going through the political channels, or meeting the standards, they would face in genuine democracies.
NATO is seen as the answer to everything because it justifies any behaviour. You can do anything and say it will bring you closer to NATO, or that it must be OK because you are a NATO member. It solves every problem of governments of every persuasion, and gives NATO a free hand in their countries in return. It is only the people who live in those countries, and the soldiers they sacrifice for the dream of what NATO says it provides, who have anything to worry about.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.