NATO was once a serious alliance with a serious purpose. Throughout the cold war, it was the mechanism that prevented the Soviet Union from intimidating or (less likely) attacking democratic Western Europe-a region of considerable strategic and economic importance. True, the United States was always the dominant player in the alliance, but Washington could count on credible secondary military powers, most notably Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Turkey. NATO may not have been the ideal instrument for protecting and promoting U.S. interests, since it did allow the European allies to underinvest in defense and sometimes free-ride on the U.S. defense guarantee, but the alliance at least arguably served America's security.
But the new members that the alliance has admitted since the end of the cold war are little more than weak client states that expect the United States to defend them. That was largely true even of the first round of expansion that added Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. It was more evident in the second round that embraced such military powerhouses as Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Such "allies" are security consumers, not security producers. From the standpoint of American interests they are not assets, they are liabilities-and potentially very dangerous liabilities.
Taking on the obligation to defend the Baltic countries was especially unwise, because Washington now poses a direct geopolitical challenge to Russia right on Moscow's doorstep. Relations between Russia and its small Baltic neighbors are testy, to put it mildly. At the moment, Russia may be too weak to challenge the U.S./NATO security commitment to those countries, but we cannot be certain that will always be true. One only wishes that the European powers who blocked the U.S. drive to add Georgia and Ukraine to NATO had shown the same wisdom and caution when Washington pushed membership for the Baltic states.
The endorsement of NATO membership for Croatia and Albania confirms that the alliance has now entered the realm of farce. The military capabilities of those two countries are minuscule. According to the most recent edition of The Military Balance, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Croatia's military budget is a mere $875 million, and its military force consists of 17,660 active-duty personnel. Albania's budget is $208 million, and its force is 11,020. They will augment Estonia's $356 million and 4,100 troops, Latvia's $471 million and 5,969 troops, Lithuania's $470 million and 13,800 troops, and Slovenia's $750 million and 5,973 troops. By not offering membership to Macedonia, though, NATO will have to do without Skopje's $161 million and 10,890 troops.
Collectively, such members spend less on their militaries in a year than the United States spends in Iraq in ten days. How adding such military pygmies to NATO is supposed to enhance the security of the United States is truly a mystery.
But these new allies are not merely useless, they are potentially an embarrassment to the alliance, if not a danger. When Vice President Dick Cheney asserted during a visit to the Balkans in 2006 that such members would help "rejuvenate" NATO and rededicate the alliance to the values of freedom and democracy, he showed how out of touch with reality the Bush administration has become.
Croatia is just a few years removed from the fascistic regime of Franjo Tudjman and continues to have frosty relations with neighboring Serbia. Albania is a close ally of the new, predominantly Albanian state of Kosovo, an entity whose independence both Serbia and Russia do not recognize and vehemently oppose. Albania also is notorious for being under the influence of organized crime. Indeed, the Albanian mafia is legendary throughout southeastern Europe, controlling the bulk of gambling, prostitution and drug trafficking.
It is baffling why NATO (and especially the United States as the leader of the alliance) would want to take on such members. That is a policy that verges on masochism.
NATO is fast becoming a parody of itself. It is increasingly a combination political honor society and geopolitical babysitting club. The admission of such trivial military powers as the Baltic republics, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania confirms that the alliance has outlived any usefulness it once had. Someone should take the merciful step and put NATO out of its misery.
Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America (forthcoming, June 2008).
Three Faces of Infantilism: NATO's Bucharest Summit
The Bush administration's push for an immediate offer of a NATO membership action plan to Georgia and Ukraine at the NATO summit in Bucharest has been blocked, which is good. Not so good is the fact that this was only thanks to the opposition of Germany and France; that NATO leaders like the organization's Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer continue to insist that an offer in the fairly near future is inevitable; that since both the U.S. parties and all the U.S. presidential candidates favor this course, they may well be right; and that in the United States and most of Europe, a question of immense importance for the security of the West was not even seriously debated in public.
What was also not so good-no, why engage in diplospeak? What was virtually criminal in its strategic irresponsibility and intellectual fatuity was the fact that this push took place against the background of three developments, any one of which should have counseled the greatest caution in assuming new and dangerous responsibilities.