NATO's Georgia Nightmare

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.

For the same reason Prime Minister Ivanishvili recently decided to go double or nothing in Afghanistan, increasing Georgian forces. Of course, the allies maintain that Tbilisi’s contribution has nothing to do with NATO membership. Rasmussen said in Georgia: “I know that many Georgians are asking how many more of their brave soldiers will be lost in order to gain NATO membership. Let me stress. Your soldiers are not in Afghanistan as a means of buying entry into NATO. They are there, first and foremost, because it is in Georgia’s security interests for them to be there.”

Actually, Tbilisi gains little from supporting the incompetent, inefficient, dishonest central government in Afghanistan.

Georgian officials are open about their objective. Prime Minister Ivanishvili explained: “Next year we should undertake a very vigorous step and get” a Membership Action Plan. In the longer term, “we should become a NATO member state and those soldiers who now serve in Afghanistan contribute most of all to this deed.”

In fact, those soldiers are committing their lives to their government’s designs: ten were killed in two bombings since May, bringing total Georgian deaths to twenty-nine. However, Tbilisi’s soldiers will remain pawns in their government’s larger political game. President Saakashvili offered his condolences after the recent deaths, declaring: “Our duty to their memory is to continue our path toward NATO membership.”

However, the Georgian people are having doubts. Observed Vasili Rukhadze of the Jamestown Foundation: “For years, the general public narrative was that Georgia’s large-scale participation in the ISAF mission in Afghanistan and earlier in Iraq could help Georgia’s access to NATO, as the North Atlantic Alliance members would see Georgia’s efforts and sacrifices and accept the country into the organization. Some now question whether such a hope is realistic. Many argue that Georgian sacrifices proved futile in convincing Western countries to accept Georgia into the Alliance.” As a result, there is growing support for withdrawal.

While NATO membership makes sense for Tbilisi, it would be a bad deal for America. For Washington, the alliance’s purpose should be to advance American security. During the Cold War that meant preventing Soviet domination of Eurasia. Today that possibility no longer exists. Russian threats against Georgia affect no serious U.S. interest.

Of course, alliance advocates contend that America’s threat to intervene would deter Russia. But history is filled with instances in which deterrence failed, especially when the commitment seemed inherently implausible. U.S. planners rightly have never thought much about the Caucasus. In contrast, Moscow remains as concerned as ever about border security and international respect.

Moreover, a formal NATO security guarantee would encourage Georgia to act even less responsibly. Tbilisi already is sacrificing territorial defense in its quixotic quest for NATO membership.

Worse, in 2008 while merely hoping for American support, the Georgian government foolishly provoked war with Moscow. Reported Spiegel International: “On the evening of August 7, Saakashvili decided to ignore all the warnings. The president gave the order to storm the South Ossetian capital. Georgian rocket launchers bombarded Tskhinvali. Saakashvili’s artillery even directly fired on the Russian military base and killed soldiers.” Bringing Georgia into the alliance would make war more likely.

Washington should finally and firmly kill Georgia’s NATO ambitions. Of course, that would not stop the Europeans from acting independently, if they believed the benefits of defending Tbilisi to be worth the costs. But Washington should say no to the possibility of war in the Caucasus.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.