NATO's Georgia Nightmare

Georgia joining NATO would be bad for NATO. And Georgia's NATO campaign has been bad for Georgia.

The Evil Empire no longer exists. The Soviet Union is long gone. The Warsaw Pact resides in history’s dustbin. Europe is wealthier than America. Why is the United States still pushing to expand NATO?

In May, Secretary of State John Kerry opined that “We are very supportive of Georgia’s aspirations with respect to NATO and Europe.” In June, NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen visited Tbilisi, where he argued that Georgia is moving “a lot closer to NATO.” More reforms are necessary, he added, “But once you have delivered, the burden will be on us to live up to our pledge that Georgia will be a member of NATO.”

Actually, the biggest burden of admitting Tbilisi to the alliance would fall on the United States. Washington should halt the process before it proceeds any further.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created to contain Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. America preserved the system even after the scars of war faded. By the 1970s the justification for a U.S.-dominated alliance had disappeared. The Evil Empire remained both evil and an empire, but members of the Soviet nomenklatura had little interest in risking their privileged positions by engaging in military aggression. The USSR’s demise left NATO without an enemy.

For a time alliance advocates seemed embarrassed as they searched for new missions. Ideas included battling the drug trade, promoting environmental protection and aiding student exchanges. Exactly how armored divisions, air wings and aircraft carriers would advance such endeavors went unexplained.

NATO decided to take on “out-of-area” responsibilities. In short, the alliance would find wars to fight elsewhere. In between sporadic conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya, NATO acted as a prestigious social club, inviting the newly freed and created Eastern European states to join.

That process continues today. For instance, Rasmussen declared: “Georgia’s full Euro-Atlantic integration is a goal we all share. The decision taken at the 2008 Summit in Bucharest stands as firm as ever. If and when Georgia meets the necessary requirements, it will find a home in NATO.”

That’s a dumb idea. Georgia remains a security liability. It doesn’t matter if the current government cleans up the country’s political and legal systems and strengthens its military. Washington should not promise to defend Tbilisi.

Unfortunately, Georgia is stuck in a bad neighborhood. Absorbed by the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, Tbilisi won its freedom when the USSR broke up. Relations went bad and war erupted in 2008. Counting on the commitment made earlier that year to bring Tbilisi into the alliance, the Saakashvili government started the shooting. Western leaders grew more cautious about Georgia’s alliance prospects, but a month after the Russo-Georgian war NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer opined that Georgia’s “road to NATO is still wide open” and “all 26 allies agree that Georgia will one day be a member of the alliance.”

This aspiration was most closely identified with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. However, observed Davit Bakradze, parliamentary leader of Saakashvili’s party: “NATO membership is an issue which we all agree on.” In June, prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili declared that his nation will continue on its course of “joining NATO as soon as possible.”

The alternative of self-defense would be less certain and more expensive. Said Michael Cecire of the Foreign Policy Research Institute: “Georgia’s military would require significant expansion, training and upgrading, all at a prohibitive cost, to field a heavy force with sufficient deterrence value to be militarily worthwhile.” It’s cheaper to campaign for a NATO security guarantee.

Cecire explained, Georgia’s policies reflect “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 Ivanishvili government is attempting to improve its relationship with Moscow as well as transform the Georgian army. Overall, argued Cecire: “Georgia is slowly but surely overturning a reputation as a liability into that of an asset.”

Tbilisi recently promoted military cooperation with NATO members Hungary and Lithuania, agreed to aid European Union military training in Mali, and conducted exercises with the United States. More important, the government announced plans to reorient the Georgian army into a specialized antiterrorism force, consistent with the NATO doctrine of “Smart Defense.” Cecire quoted Georgian defense minister Irakli Alasania: “This is a niche we are offering to our partners to be more useful.” In effect, Tbilisi plans to abandon any serious effort to defend itself, hoping to shift that burden to NATO.