Georgia's Dangerous Slide Toward NATO

Tbilisi's membership in the Atlantic pact would increase the risk of war without increasing members' security.

Power shifted in Tbilisi, Georgia, when Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party triumphed at the polls. Yet Prime Minister Ivanishvili, though hostile to Western-favorite President Mikheil Saakashvili, has continued the latter’s quest to win a NATO security guarantee against Russia. Washington should firmly spike what would be a Georgian Nightmare.

Georgia suffered through a tumultuous birth when it split from the Soviet Union two decades ago. Saakashvili ousted Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, in the 2003 “Rose Revolution.” The Western-educated Saakashvili looked to the United States and Europe for support. But he found himself alone when he started and lost a war with Russia in 2008.

Even before that conflict, Tbilisi courted the United States and NATO. Shortly after achieving independence, Georgia contributed troops to the NATO mission in Kosovo, joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (later renamed the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council), and joined the Partnership for Peace program. But that was just the start. Observed NATO: “Relations between NATO and Georgia have deepened significantly over the years since dialogue and cooperation was first launched in the early 1990s.”

The Saakashvili government inaugurated an Individual Partnership Action Plan with NATO and joined the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. In 2006 Tbilisi gained an Intensified Dialogue on membership and at the April 2008 NATO Summit alliance leaders agreed that Georgia would eventually become a member.

Moreover, Saakashvili emphasized his personal ties to America, hired an adviser to Sen. John McCain as a lobbyist, and sent troops to fight in Iraq. President George W. Bush showered Tbilisi with praise and money and staged a state visit to Georgia. The Bush administration also strongly backed Tbilisi for membership in what nominally remained the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

However, leading European members of the alliance were less disposed to confront nuclear-armed Russia over a border dispute considered vital by the latter but irrelevant to Europe. The 2008 conflict vindicated their stance. Nevertheless, the Bush administration continued to press for Georgia’s admission. So has the Obama administration, though without obvious enthusiasm. Last year Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago should be the last such meeting that did not focus on enlargement.

Georgia is considered to be in the first tier of aspirants, along with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro. Although NATO insiders say opposition to Tbilisi’s membership has ebbed, several members remain negative, including Germany. A NATO research paper by Karl-Heinz Kamp of the NATO Defense College admitted that “The crunch point of the enlargement question” is Georgia.

Nevertheless, NATO and Georgia continue to act as if “yes” is the inevitable answer. Alliance officials are regular visitors to Tbilisi. Last April Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared: “Georgia is a special partner for NATO.” Two months later NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow said in Tbilisi: “At our NATO Summit in Bucharest in 2008, the Allies decided that Georgia will become a member of NATO. The Chicago Summit made clear that Allies stand by that decision and recognized the progress Georgia has made in meeting NATO’s standards.”

Last September Rasmussen commended Georgia’s “very significant” contribution to the Afghan mission and offered NATO’s “unwavering support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty within its internationally recognized borders.” He concluded, “you have a friend in NATO—and a future home in NATO.” Prime Minister Ivanishvili visited NATO headquarters in November and in December NATO foreign ministers met with the NATO-Georgia Commission amid much praise for Georgia’s participation in ISAF.

Last year the alliance also held its annual “NATO Week in Georgia.” Explained NATO Special Representative James Appathurai, “it’s very important that the people of Georgia understand not just what the goal of NATO membership is, but also what NATO is and what it does.”

Georgian officials certainly understand. NATO membership carries an American security guarantee. To win that commitment Tbilisi is working hard. Michael Cecire of the Foreign Policy Research Institute recently wrote of “Tbilisi’s desire to shed its reputation as a Euro-Atlantic security liability, dating back to Georgia’s five-day war with Russia in 2008.”

The new government reaffirmed Tbilisi’s desire to join NATO, doubled Georgian forces in Afghanistan, and continued military training exercises with the U.S. More recently Georgia announced its intention to provide troops for the European Union’s training mission in Mali (growing out of France’s invasion). Earlier this year Tbilisi promoted military cooperation with Hungary and Lithuania. Most important, Tbilisi announced plans to turn its military into a niche counterterrorism force under the NATO doctrine of “Smart Defense,” which envisions a division of labor among members. That is, Georgia will effectively disarm against Russia in the expectation that the West will offer substitute protection.