Vice President Biden visited Ukraine and Georgia this week to assure those countries that their interests were not compromised by the United States during the president's recent summit in Moscow.
The essential diplomatic problem is the relationship between those countries and NATO. In Georgia, seeking membership in the alliance is widely popular and supported by most of that country's political establishment. In contrast, polls show that most Ukrainians-and massive majorities in the eastern part of the country-oppose entry into NATO, as does half the political elite in Kiev. Russia is adamantine in opposition to either of its neighbors joining what it views as an inherently anti-Russian military alliance, and blames the United States for sponsoring the two applications.
The Bush administration strongly favored NATO membership for both Ukraine and Georgia. The Obama administration is clearly less supportive, but also does not wish to appear to compromise the interests of either country as it "resets" relations with Russia. Hence, the journey of the vice president.
There is, in fact, a fairly straightforward way to square this seeming diplomatic circle. Within NATO, two equally legitimate principles exist in parallel on potential new members. The first is that any country may seek membership in the alliance. This idea was the core of the Bush policy and remains at least rhetorically central to Obama's. The second principle-again, of equal legitimacy-is that any current member of NATO can delay or veto any application. NATO is a consensus-based body, whether the issues in question are trivial or very important, such as membership expansion.
In short, NATO membership is not Washington's to give. Twenty-eight governments must agree. Unfortunately, both the previous and current U.S. administrations have behaved as if NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia is entirely an American responsibility. It is not.
At the moment, roughly half of NATO members oppose any significant movement toward membership for Ukraine or Georgia. The other half is supportive, but with varying levels of intensity. At the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit, then-President Bush and Secretary of State Rice moved heaven and earth to obtain so-called MAP (Membership Action Plan) status for the two countries. But the Germans and the French opposed the idea. Indeed, the German chancellor and French foreign minister came out against MAP for Ukraine or Georgia before the meeting, to make it clear they would not budge.
Whether one favors or opposes NATO membership for these countries (I strongly oppose it as contrary to American interests), it is clear that entry will not happen for many years, if ever. Therefore, the U.S. diplomatic position should shift focus from the first NATO principle to the second. We should, very publicly, inform Kiev and Tbilisi that their problem is not in Washington, but in other capitals. This would not compromise their interests, but remove the United States from direct involvement in this question.
Such a shift would accomplish three things. First, it would get the membership issue off the front burner with Russia, show Moscow it should take any concerns to Berlin and Paris, and let us get on with other important topics in the "reset." Second, it would communicate to Kiev and Tbilisi (and perhaps other places) that the United States is not Santa Claus, that Washington should not be their port of call on every issue (as is now the case), and they must actually qualify for NATO membership before expecting to receive it. Third, it would shift the onus of the problem across the Atlantic where it belongs.
A smart former-diplomatic boss once told me that multilateral diplomacy is a giant variant of the hot-potato game, in which the object is not to be the schmuck left holding the scalding vegetable. Unfortunately, Washington tends to regard international hot potatoes as prizes to be pursued, seized and held.
NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia is such a false prize. It is also a nonstarter for the foreseeable future thanks to deep divisions within the alliance. The Bush administration served our national interests-with Europe as well as with Russia-very poorly by pursuing this unfortunate scheme. The Obama administration can serve our interests well by passing this diplomatic hot potato to Paris, Berlin and other locales until it cools, or rots.
E. Wayne Merry is a senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council.