NATO just weathered one of the most contentious summits in its history. By standing in the way of U.S. efforts to grant membership work plans to Ukraine and Georgia, Germany, France and a host of other members shot down one of President Bush's key objectives, delivering Washington an embarrassing rebuff. Bush, after all, had just hosted Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Washington and stopped in Ukraine on the way to Bucharest-all in the service of advancing their case for starting down the path toward NATO membership.
So too did the United States strongly back an invitation of membership to Macedonia, only to find that it was foiled on this issue as well. Greece vetoed Macedonia's membership due to an ongoing dispute about the new country's nomenclature- Macedonia is also a province of northern Greece.
A new day has certainly been opened for the alliance when its leading states part company on vital questions of which countries merit membership. To be sure, the Macedonian question is troublesome for the alliance, but not fundamental; the country will join the alliance as soon as the dispute over its name is resolved. But the disagreement over Ukraine and Georgia runs deeper. It is reflective of the alliance's growing pains, the diverging priorities of the United States and its European allies, and the rising power of Russia.
When NATO first expanded eastward in the 1990s, there was little divergence within the alliance about the strategic importance of enlargement. Moreover, Russia was weak and its objections less consequential. Today, NATO has moved from Central Europe, to the Baltics, to the Balkans-and is now eyeing Ukraine and Georgia. There is less consensus about the urgency of need to move the alliance this far east this fast. Furthermore, Russia is back; alienating Moscow therefore runs greater risks.
To be sure, Russia should not exercise a veto over NATO decisions. But being sensitive to Russian concerns is not to give Russia a veto, it is to practice good diplomacy. With the United States and EU needing Russian cooperation on Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iran, missile defense and energy-among other issues-now is not the time to jab Russia with a hot poker.
Georgia and Ukraine are likely headed for NATO membership down the road. At Bucharest, NATO made the right decision to put that eventual outcome on hold until it can occur under more auspicious geopolitical conditions.
Charles A. Kupchan is Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.