The Bush administration has described Vice President Dick Cheney's trip to Tbilisi today as demonstrating U.S. support for Georgia and its NATO aspirations. Meanwhile, in the United States, some have argued that NATO erred in failing to admit Tbilisi sooner and that the alliance must now put Georgia on a "fast track" to membership. This view is based more on advocacy than analysis, however, and reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of both Russia and Europe. It is also far from clear that under current circumstances Georgia's NATO membership would be a net contribution to American security or broader U.S. national interests.
The suggestion that today's troubles could have been avoided had NATO at its April Bucharest Summit offered Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP)-beginning the practical, bureaucratic process leading to membership-is naïve and short-sighted. First, a MAP is not membership. The conflict between Georgia and Russia would not have legally triggered the alliance's Article Five provisions on mutual defense. And the Kremlin knows this.
Worse, having a MAP might have only further emboldened Georgian President Saakashvili and led him to provoke a more serious conflict with Russia in the expectation that he would receive NATO support. In that case, NATO would have faced a disastrous choice between war with Russia and failing to support a government to which it had a moral, if not legal, commitment.
According to press reports, when Russia's then-president Vladimir Putin met George Bush in Sochi after NATO's Bucharest meeting, Putin told him that NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine would be a "red line" for Moscow. Some have passionately argued that this was an attempt at "Russian blackmail" that the United States and freedom-loving people everywhere should resist. Since these same voices often urge America to establish "red lines" and to threaten dire consequences, it's hard to take them seriously. The reality is that governments sometimes make such statements to get one another's attention. We can call it "diplomacy" or call it "blackmail"-but we can't have it both ways.
More generally, Bush administration officials and their allies outside government seemed to think that the United States could determine not only U.S. policy-on NATO membership, missile defense, Kosovo and other issues-but also Russia's reaction. They were wrong. In Russia, Medvedev and Putin are the deciders.
Looking ahead, advocates of NATO membership for Georgia have widely touted a recent statement in Tbilisi by German Chancellor Angela Merkel-a key opponent of formally beginning the process in Bucharest-that "Georgia will become a member of NATO if it wants to-and it does want to." They take this as a sign of Berlin's commitment to bringing Georgia into the alliance. But they seem to pay less attention to two other comments during the same appearance that suggest Germany won't support putting Georgia on the path to membership anytime soon. NATO's December ministerial would be "a first evaluation of the situation," Merkel said, adding later, "I can not tell you when this step will be taken."
Many other major European governments harbor similar sentiments and, with the possible exception of some of the alliance's new members in central and eastern Europe, most would probably prefer to negotiate with America's next president. This is particularly tempting for those captivated by the Obama mystique who assume, rightly or wrongly, that the Illinois senator will win in November and will be more willing to incorporate their views when setting U.S. policy.
Widespread European opposition to Georgian membership in NATO-at least in the foreseeable future-should prompt much-needed debate in America. The first question should be about NATO's purpose and America's goals as one of its leading members. Is security the principal rationale of the alliance, or is it something else? When the prospects of an interstate war in Europe seemed remote, advocates of NATO's mechanical eastward expansion usually talked more about promoting democracy than increasing security. Now the alliance is larger-and less unified.
Only after NATO's purpose is more clearly defined can Americans assess whether continuing to expand it contributes to its objectives or not, and whether bringing Georgia into the alliance is right for the United States and for NATO. Among other things, Americans need to decide whether they are prepared to delegate to Georgia's hot-tempered president, Mikheil Saakashvili, the authority to take their nation to war. Georgia's American champions may argue that the NATO treaty would require only consultations-but one can already hear their calls to preserve NATO's credibility should Georgia become involved in a future conflict as an alliance member.
For the time being, it is important for U.S. officials to continue to express rhetorical support for Georgia's ultimate membership in NATO if only to avoid allowing Moscow to believe that America can be intimidated. European officials will likely do the same for similar reasons. After Americans have taken another look at NATO, and at Georgia, membership for Tbilisi may well be appropriate-especially under a different Georgian president, who is either more careful, more respectful of Washington's views, or both.
Paul J. Saunders is Executive Director of The Nixon Center. He served as a State Department political appointee from 2003 to 2005.Essay Types: Essay