July 2016

At July’s NATO summit in Warsaw, much attention was given to the Alliance’s vulnerable eastern flank. For example, President Obama announced the deployment of an additional 1,000 U.S. troops to Poland, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would be sending an additional 450 troops and armored vehicles to Latvia, as part of a multinational battalion to reassure Eastern Europe. While these new deployments signal a welcome commitment to bolster the alliance in the east, NATO’s southern flank received less attention.

Montenegro was the exception that proves the rule. The small Balkan country was formally invited to join the alliance in December 2015, and the Warsaw summit served as a celebratory capstone to the country’s achievements. If all goes according to plan, the ratification process will be complete by next spring. To critics who have doubted NATO’s vision in recent years, Montenegro’s membership offers an encouraging sign that NATO’s open door policy is still alive and well.

At the same time, the Warsaw summit brought little progress to another NATO-aspiring Balkan country, Macedonia. For years, Macedonia has taken the difficult steps necessary to prove its readiness to join the alliance. It has committed hundreds of troops to fight alongside NATO allies in Afghanistan and Iraq—approximately 2,700 in Afghanistan and 500 in Iraq. It has made substantial, targeted increases to its defense budget to align its military with NATO standards. And it has earned a popular mandate to pursue NATO membership: according to polls conducted by the International Republican Institute, over 80% of the Macedonian population supports NATO membership.

Despite this progress, Macedonia’s entrance into NATO has long been obstructed by the objections of a single member, Greece, due to the longstanding naming dispute it has with Macedonia. NATO leaders have repeated the same message since 2008, claiming that Macedonia will be able to join once the dispute is resolved. The message is beginning to try the patience of Macedonia’s leaders.  The country’s president, Gjorge Ivanov, once again pointedly boycotted this year’s NATO Summit for what he saw as a lack of respect for Macedonia’s efforts.

Macedonia’s cabinet ministers represented the country at Warsaw, reaffirming Macedonia’s continuing commitment to NATO. Still, the much-delayed accession process has opened a rift that does not bode well for other aspiring members. This year, Serbia and Kosovo did not even send representatives to the summit. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s membership prospects have stalled due to the government’s failure to transfer military facilities from the local level to the central government, and NATO leaders have not taken active steps to move the process forward. Without bold leadership, these countries’ membership bids could remain stuck at a time when fortifying NATO’s southern flank is more crucial than ever. Admitting Macedonia, on the other hand, would both reinforce the alliance’s solidarity and signal to other wavering landlocked Balkan states that NATO membership remains an attainable goal.

Moreover, countries on NATO’s southern flank will be vital to resolving the alliance’s future security challenges, which was recognized by existing NATO allies at Warsaw. At a recent event in Washington, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov explained that his country’s goal for Warsaw was to make the Black Sea region a strategic priority for the alliance. NATO allies on the Black Sea include Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. All have been faced with a renewed threat from Russia, especially after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Bulgarian military leaders now commonly refer to Crimea as the “largest Russian aircraft carrier,” recognizing that the territory allows Moscow to more easily project force in the Black Sea. Russia has taken notable steps to beef up its military presence in the region and is undergoing a modernization program for its Black Sea Fleet, to be completed by 2020.

These threats, compounded by the continued flow of refugees into Europe from the Middle East, ensure that NATO’s southern flank will be the source of both challenges and opportunities for the alliance for years to come. The decision to expand the alliance and finally admit Macedonia could have a profound impact on NATO’s future security. There is no guarantee that Macedonia will wait forever for NATO membership, the alliance’s leaders would do well to recognize this reality, fix the wrongs of the past, and move for Macedonia to finally join NATO—a move that would have positive ripple effects for other Balkan states and for the alliance as a whole.