Of all the arguments on the question of NATO expansion, it is particularly interesting to see anti-NATO campaigners attempts to articulate why growing the Atlantic Alliance is at odds with the purpose of an organization whose utility they are apparently unable to fathom. Unsurprisingly, the rhetorical gymnastics tend to quickly give way to misrepresentation as the contradictions become too difficult to manage. Such was the case with CATO Institute scholar Doug Bandow’s cri de coeur in the National Interest against the prospect of Georgian NATO membership.
Citing my April briefing in World Politics Review, Bandow somehow counts Georgia’s planned force modernizations as evidence that Tbilisi finds it “cheaper to campaign for a NATO security guarantee.” In reality, the Georgian defense ministry’s reforms should make the country better able to defend its borders, not less. The conscript-staffed, heavier force structure being phased out is an actual post-Soviet relic, as Bandow so often labels NATO. Scrapping this shambolic structure in favor of a professional, mobile, and Western-trained force, battle-hardened in Iraq and in Afghanistan’s unforgiving Helmand Province, provides far greater capability for Georgia’s territorial security and as a potential NATO asset.
It’s true that Georgia’s heavy losses in Afghanistan are leading some to call to question the utility of the mission (so far, however, only a narrow minority). However, this is more a function of Georgians’ frustrations with NATO’s perceived slowness to recognize their country’s outsized contributions and sacrifices. In a July poll, 73 percent supported their country’s NATO aspirations and 79 percent supported joining the EU. This is a country that seriously wants to be a part of the Euro-Atlantic community.
Contrary to Bandow’s characterizations, there are some strong U.S.-interests-oriented arguments for bringing Georgia into the Atlantic Alliance. For one, the eastward expansion of a liberal, rules-based system can only be a good thing for the United States, which is fundamentally safer and more prosperous when its core values are embraced throughout the world. And for all their imperfections and stumbles, Euro-Atlantic institutions like NATO and the EU remain the surest and most successful vehicles of this agenda in Eurasia.
Categorical critics of NATO like Bandow accuse the organization of being without a mission since the Soviet Union’s disintegration, but somehow fail to recognize that the Cold War success of NATO was as much sociopolitical as it was military. While the Atlantic Alliance was surely a hard-nosed defensive bulwark against the specter of Soviet imperialism, it was as much a political operation that embraced and advocated for Euro-Atlantic’s common liberal-democratic values (albeit not always perfectly). The Soviet Union may be no more, but the forces of authoritarianism remain active and, in some ways, are gaining ground.
As the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Mamuka Tsereteli rightly points out, the fate of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic bid will have a radiating effect on its neighbors in the Caucasus, Black Sea, and Caspian regions. Regional modernizers that aspire to a liberal democratic future are closely watching Georgia’s impressive push for integration. If Georgia—which is returning to a positive trajectory of political development and making great pains to stabilize its regional relations—is frozen out of the defensive club indefinitely, this would actively disincentivize democratization as well as future economic or security cooperation.
This would be a major blow to U.S. and European interests. The Caucasus is home to a lonely few Westward energy routes that are not controlled by Moscow. While the importance of transiting Caucasus hydrocarbons has been sometimes overstated to conspiratorial proportions, the maintenance of these alternative routes do have real geopolitical consequences. It’s no secret that the health of any economy is only as good as its supply of energy; a Russia-monopolized European energy sector could offer Moscow potentially insurmountable geopolitical leverage over a continent with which the United States has its lion’s share of its diplomatic and economic exposure. Russia's latest trade war with Ukraine, apparently spurred by the latter's choosing EU structures over Moscow, casts this danger into sharp relief. Caucasus energy corridors hardly erase Moscow’s upper hand in energy, but they do provide Europe with badly needed leverage and some breathing room to explore promising but less-traditional energy plays.
Georgia’s NATO membership also became a U.S. national interest the day that NATO members promised Georgia eventual membership in the April 2008 Bucharest summit. To abandon this strong and multilateral promise to Tbilisi would not only jeopardize the standing of pro-West forces worldwide, but would legitimately call into question the seriousness of NATO and the United States’ international commitments. Like it or not, NATO has an obligation to provide Georgia with a concrete pathway into the Alliance. If Georgia demonstrably fails to uphold its end of the bargain to meaningfully democratize and make serious attempts to ease its conflict with Russia and its separatist regions, a shut door would be a legitimate option. Otherwise, Georgia should be shown a way in.
So far, Georgia is making progress. Tbilisi’s military reforms and increasingly serviceable relations with Russia are simultaneously increasing its defense capabilities while dramatically reducing the risk of renewed conflict. And for all the punishment that Georgia received at Russia’s hands in 2008, Moscow today may be even less influential in the Black Sea region. Contrary to its onetime reputation, Georgia is currently a net stabilizing force in what has been a perennially tumultuous region. It is a fast friend to rising power Turkey, a safe place for Azeris and Armenians to freely intermingle, and its pragmatic overtures to Russia appear to be bearing fruit, despite the occasional provocation. By contrast, earlier, lawless iterations of Georgia not only incubated serious internal instability, but also directly contributed to the ethnic wars of the 1990s, helped feed Russia’s North Caucasus insurgencies, set events in motion for the 2008 war, and became a favored transit route for traffickers and seedy purveyors of fissile materials. NATO membership, achieved through a rigorous outcomes-oriented process, will only help institutionalize and deepen Georgia’s stabilizing effects.
Libertarians have an important role to play in the formulation of U.S. public policy. But the constrained interpretation of national interests that too often dominate institutional libertarianism's foreign-policy discourse is unfortunate. Engagement does not have to mean entanglement, and strength can be had without militarism. In the same way, humbly encouraging international freedom need not be construed as a challenge to freedom at home.
Michael Cecire is an independent Caucasus analyst and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.