The weekend's Chicago North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit produced very few results. Thank goodness. A lack of action was actually one of the best possible outcomes. Yes, the summit did endorse the first stage of European missile defense, and it confirmed the alliance's withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, for the most part, the summit was remarkable for all the things NATO members chose not to do.
One significant omission was any progress for aspiring members in the Balkans and Caucasus. Macedonia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Georgia have all been named "aspirant" countries, and any future round of NATO expansion would include some or all of them. Fortunately, the summit this year did not encourage the aspirants with any meaningful actions, which saved the alliance some unnecessary grief and damage to its relationship with Russia. This is a welcome change from the last alliance summit that considered questions of NATO expansion.
The 2008 Bucharest summit was instrumental in increasing tensions between Russia and its neighbors when it extended promises of future membership to Georgia and Ukraine. The promise of future NATO membership caused Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili to order a reckless military action in South Ossetia in the misguided belief that the U.S. and NATO would back him in any confrontation. The Russian response was designed to derail Georgian membership aspirations permanently. If Georgian membership were to proceed in the future, there is reason to fear another conflict. Further NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union is destabilizing and dangerous for European security, so the lack of progress on this front in Chicago has to be considered good news.
Despite months of agitation for Western military action in Syria's civil war, the alliance ignored the hawkish demand to 'do something.'
While the official summit declaration praised these four aspirant states for their contributions to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, to which Georgia is the second largest contributor among non-members, it papered over how little they can contribute to allied security overall. The summit likewise overlooked the internal political flaws of the aspirants that make them unsuitable members. According to Freedom House, three of them rank as "partly free" countries, and Georgia does not even qualify as an "electoral democracy" by the organization's standards. The idea that NATO membership encourages political reform isn't persuasive. Georgia in particular has gone backwards in terms of political rights since it began actively pursuing NATO membership. One of the reasons for this regression is that "pro-Georgian" Westerners have been willing to ignore the abuses of Saakashvili and his party for the sake of integrating Georgia into the West.
More important, the summit ignored the very real security liabilities that their membership would create for the alliance if they were admitted. Neither Bosnia nor Macedonia is politically stable enough to be able to add anything to NATO, and Georgia has unresolved territorial disputes with its separatist regions that are farther from being settled than they have ever been. Promising Georgia future alliance membership at this point is a misguided expression of solidarity and a cruel offer of false hope.
Another important thing that the summit lacked: The meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, which was established 10 years ago to coordinate the relationship between the alliance and Moscow. Because of outstanding disagreements over missile defense in Europe and lingering resentment over the Libyan war, the Russian government sent no representative to Chicago. This one is actually bad news, as it represents a significant setback in relations after the remarkably positive developments at the 2010 summit in Lisbon, where Russia agreed in principle to cooperate with NATO on missile defense. Russia's absence from the summit was all the more regrettable in light of the summit's failure to reach agreement with Pakistan over supply routes into Afghanistan, which makes NATO that much more dependent on Russian cooperation.
Last but not least, NATO refused to commit to intervention in Syria, declaring that it had "no intention" of doing so. Despite months of agitation for Western military action in Syria's civil war, the alliance ignored the hawkish demand to "do something." NATO governments remembered how overstretched many of their allies' military forces are and how weary Western nations are of foreign wars that have little or no connection to Western security. For once, it appears that a foreign conflict in the vicinity of NATO will not lead to another "out-of-area" military mission, which will be the first time in almost two decades that the alliance has opted to stay out of other nations' conflicts when there has been an opportunity to intervene.
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