BRUSSELS -- By pushing the upcoming NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, to open the door for Georgia and Ukraine to join the Western defense alliance -- over Russian objections -- the Bush administration is engaged in rash behavior. Granting NATO membership to these two nations on Russia's periphery would pose a new and fundamental strategic challenge for Moscow, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the West.
There is no pressing need to decide now, except for the clock ticking on President Bush's tenure. Western Europe is divided on the membership issue. The Ukrainian people oppose it. NATO's relationship with Georgia and Ukraine is best left to the next U.S. president, who can decide, in consultation with the allies, whether enlargement makes sense within the context of a comprehensive rethinking of American policy toward Russia.
At its annual meeting in early April, NATO's 26 members are expected to invite Albania, Croatia, and possibly Macedonia to join the defense pact. It will be the alliance's sixth round of enlargement, a decade-long effort that has progressively absorbed former Soviet bloc countries. At the same summit, Washington, supported by Warsaw and Prague, would like to offer Georgia and Ukraine something called a Membership Action Plan, essentially a path to eventual NATO inclusion.
Russia argues that such a move threatens its national security. "Please do not expect for us to be happy about seeing more and more countries becoming members of the club where we do not belong and where we cannot influence the decision-making process," Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the State Duma of the Russian Federation, told the Brussels Forum here in mid-March.
But Moscow's is not the only objection. In early March, German Chancellor Angela Merkel opined that NATO membership should depend upon support by a significant portion of an applicant's population and that a prospective member should not be entangled in regional conflicts.
Ukraine and Georgia both fail this test. A late-January poll by FOM, a Moscow-based firm, found that less than a quarter of Ukrainians supported NATO membership. Georgia, meanwhile, is involved in a civil war with Russian-backed ethnic minority separatist movements.
"It's a question of taking into regard the regional environment," said Volker Stanzel, political director of Germany's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Wouldn't it be better to try to figure out how to resolve, for example, the frozen conflicts [in Georgia] with a new administration in Russia and thus facilitate this process of integrating both Ukraine and Georgia on a longer timeline into NATO?"
Supporters of enlargement reject Russian security concerns as baseless. NATO dare not give Moscow a veto over alliance actions, they contend, and they remind naysayers of similar "Chicken Little" fears about Russia's reaction to past NATO enlargements. As for the upcoming transition in Washington, these observers argue that it is best to get membership off the agenda so that the next U.S. president has one less headache.
But NATO enlargement feeds Moscow's paranoia, which has already been aggravated by the Bush administration's push for missile defense installations in Eastern Europe. Russian paranoia has real consequences for the West and must be dealt with on its own terms, no matter whether NATO poses any rational threat to Russia. Not handing Russia a veto is, at best, a backhanded reason for granting membership to Ukraine and Georgia. "We don't have to do everything the Russians don't want us to do," said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Just because the last NATO expansions went well is no assurance for the future.
The three principal U.S. presidential contenders seem in-clined to support eventual NATO membership for both Ukraine and Georgia. Therefore, the decision should be theirs, as part of a strategic rethinking of American-Russian relations, not as another fait accompli that the Bush administration leaves for its successor to deal with.
Former U.S. Ambassador Marc Grossmann told the Brussels Forum, "Surely there's a way to enlarge this conversation with Russia so that [NATO expansion] isn't the only thing people are talking about and so that both Russians and Americans, and our trans-Atlantic allies, see it in a larger context."
That conversation should await a new administration.