June 2016

On July 8, 2016 the world’s eyes will turn to Warsaw as the leaders of the world’s largest security alliance gather at the annual NATO summit. One month ahead of the official summit, the Atlantic Council offered a preview of the forthcoming talks with a major conference on “The Future of NATO Enlargement and New Frontiers in European Security.” The conference brought influential politicians, military leaders, and thinkers from across the world to Washington to discuss the state of the NATO alliance and prospects for its future.

Blue Star Strategies COO Sally Painter moderated the first panel of the day focused on the efforts of Montenegro, Georgia, and Ukraine to join NATO. Sally opened by noting that NATO now finds itself at an inflection point, where it can choose to be bold or give in to fear. That calculus will shape the future of the alliance and the fate of each of the three countries on the panel, who each aspire to full NATO membership but find themselves at very different stages in their relationship with the alliance.

Montenegro has been formally invited to join NATO, and accession is proceeding on schedule. Reflecting on Montegro’s success story, Defense Minister Milica Pejanovic-Durisic said that the debate on NATO enlargement has too often been focused on fear of provoking Russia rather than the benefits of the policy. She noted that other countries aspiring to join NATO need to explain the importance of membership from a political point of view, as Montenegro did. This kind of positive advocacy is needed to convince skeptics to “fill the gaps” in the alliance, said Pejanovic-Durisic.

Next, Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze spoke of his country’s status as an “ally to the alliance” whose aspirations to full membership have been delayed. According to Janelidze, the appeal of NATO is not merely its security guarantees but its values system. “NATO is about the security of the free world, and Georgia wants to be part of the free world,” he said. Janelidze noted that there is an overwhelming consensus in Georgia in favor of NATO and that the country is militarily ready; the question is not Georgia’s will to join but the tactical decisions needed to make Georgia a full member.

Speaking on behalf of Ukraine, parliamentarian Hanna Hopko movingly reminded the audience of the human costs of Russia’s aggression, sharing a story about an internally displaced friend and mentioning the 10,000 citizens who have been killed in the fighting. Hopko stated bluntly that the Minsk ceasefire brokered in 2015 was “a fiction,” and that Putin will not stop unless he is forced to. Hopko argued that the West needs to be more pragmatic in supporting countries like Ukraine that aspire to join the free world, and noted that Ukrainian public support for NATO enlargement has increased dramatically since Russia’s invasion in 2014.

Painter advocated that at the Warsaw Summit: Macedonia should receive an invitation for membership after having successfully completed 10 Membership Action Plans, a strong message must be sent that Georgia will receive all the military training and support they require, regardless of MAP, and that a plan for Ukraine that details a path forward to enhanced NATO cooperation is of critical importance.  Moreover, Putin must understand that NATO is unified and will be as strong as necessary to protect its interest and those countries in Europe that share NATO's values and want to work together. 

The conference’s opening conversation paved the way for the summit. One of the key issues discussed was Macedonia’s status. The Balkan country has had a Membership Action Plan since 1999, but the name dispute with Greece has prevented its full membership. Defense Minister Zoran Jolevski nonetheless expressed confidence that Macedonia would begin accession talks with NATO at Warsaw, and noted that his country’s NATO aspirations have strengthened its democracy as well as its military.

The event featured lively discussions among many distinguished speakers and officials, including Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Evelyn Farkas, and General Philip Breedlove, the Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe. One of the few dissenting voices was the University of Chicago’s Dr. John Mearsheimer, who made the case that NATO’s post-Cold War expansion was a major blunder that needlessly antagonized Russia. Although this opinion was vociferously opposed by most participants, the conference did feature a variety of views on the question of how to deal with Russia. General Breedlove argued that NATO must keep lines of communication with Russia open, despite Moscow’s aggressive anti-NATO posture.                                      

These debates are soon to be revisited in Warsaw, where NATO members and aspirants will meet to determine its future. One month ahead of the summit, the Atlantic Council provided a timely reminder that NATO remains as vital an alliance as ever.  To watch the full event please click here.