North Macedonia and NATO

October 26, 2019
North Macedonia and NATO
AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski
North Macedonia and NATO
AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski
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On October 20, after a lackluster Pro-forma debate on the Senate floor, the chamber voted by a resounding 91-2 margin to induct North Macedonia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  Sen. Jim Risch, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, used the vote to reaffirm NATO’s open-door policy, which states that any state that can contribute “to the security of the North Atlantic area” is welcome to qualify for membership in the world’s oldest military alliance.

If the inclusion of North Macedonia adds anything to the military capacity of NATO or the security of the Euro-Atlantic area, it was left unsaid during the Senate debate.  The reason couldn’t be any clearer: North Macedonia contributes absolutely nothing to the alliance.  Rather than strengthening the organization, inviting the small country into the fold will continue the counterproductive, two-decade long auto-pilot of NATO expansion.  NATO’s open-door policy has long become a charity case, where even economically and militarily insignificant countries with military budgets the size of a postage stamp are free to become members of the club.

North Macedonia is the epitome of what it means to be geopolitically irrelevant.  It’s a landlocked country of about two million people with a $12.6 billion GDP, smaller than the U.S. state of Montana.  Its military is so tiny that the CIA World Facebook doesn’t even have a public estimate about its size.  At 1.19% of GDP, the North Macedonian defense budget is a pittance, putting it at the bottom half of the NATO ladder, and far below the 2% GDP defense spending benchmark, all members of the alliance have repeatedly committed to.  North Macedonia is by all indications a security consumer rather than a security producer.  In voting to support North Macedonia's accession, the U.S. Senate has essentially tacked another dependent onto an alliance already filled to the brim with hangers-on, free-riders, and cheap-spenders.

North Macedonia, however, is not necessarily the issue here.  Its inclusion is merely a symptom of a widespread illness: a NATO that continues to view enlargement as a goal in and of itself. 

The open-door policy may have served a purpose during the Cold War when containing the Soviet Union's reach in Europe and enticing more countries away from Moscow's orbit was a primary U.S. national security objective.  But the Soviet Union has been dead and buried for close to three decades—and modern-day Russia, while skilled in the arts of propaganda and disinformation, is a shell of its former self.  The principle of an open-door is still treated as gospel in Washington, D.C., even as that very principle is no longer relevant.  In fact, keeping NATO’s door open broadens the alliance’s responsibilities unnecessarily and exacerbates the dangerous trend where the interests of the United States are conflated with the interests of countries that have no bearing on U.S. security one way or the other. 

With North Macedonia, a major step closer to becoming NATO's 30th member, the entire alliance—the United States included—is, unfortunately, that much closer to taking on the country's security burdens.

All of this may sound overly harsh to NATO boosters in Washington and across Europe.  But ask many of these same people how North Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, or Croatia possibly bolster NATO's military capacity, and you will either get blank stares or the same, old talking points about solidarity.  Others will mention Russia as if poking Moscow in the eye has now replaced collective security as NATO's top priority.  Not much time will be spent answering the question—likely because there isn’t a good answer, period.

The United States should stop acting like enablers, running into the breach and compensating for members who fail to make the necessary monetary and capability investments for their own militaries.  The last thing Washington should be doing is multiplying the problem by accepting more countries into NATO, which in turn would saddle the entire alliance with more commitments and cause even more internal schisms down the road (NATO defense ministers just concluded a tough, two-day meeting, where Turkey’s invasion in Syria was the main agenda item). Continuing an enlargement policy will put the U.S. on a dangerous course, heightening the risk for U.S. troops who may one day be asked to fight and die for these new members.  Such a blunder will further stretch the alliance, strain its resources, and add more burdens on Washington’s shoulders.

The sooner the United States and its partners in NATO ditch the open-door policy, the sooner accountability can be restored, and the better off the alliance will be.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.

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