The West needs to keep NATO’s door open to new members

The allure of NATO membership is one of the West’s most effective tools of democracy promotion.

The NATO headquarters in Brussels [Getty]
The NATO headquarters in Brussels [Getty]

Recently, Douglas Lute, the US Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, sent shockwaves through much of Eastern Europe when he suggested that NATO would not be taking any new members in the near future. His excuse: because it might antagonise Russia.

Lute is a political appointee. This means he is likely to be gone one way or the other after the US presidential election in November. Even so, his ill-timed comments will be used by Russia to fracture further an already divided Europe.

NATO has underpinned Europe and North America’s security for more than 67 years, so it is no surprise that many countries in the Euro-Atlantic region who are not already members want to join the alliance.

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Perhaps this was most evident after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

The countries in the former Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe were desperately finding ways to re-enter the European community. NATO was an obvious choice. 

Security guarantee

Article 10 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty – NATO’s founding document – says that any country in Europe can apply to join. Yet NATO membership isn’t automatic.

Membership requires an aspiring country to reform their systems of governance, economy, and military to become more democratic and open.

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In many ways, the allure of NATO membership is one of the West’s most effective tools of democracy promotion.

Obama and those around him have shown very little enthusiasm for the idea of NATO enlargement.


In many ways, Lute’s remarks were merely a reflection of US President Barack Obama’s views.

Obama and those around him have shown very little enthusiasm for the idea of NATO enlargement. 

The past three NATO summits have not seen any new members invited to join. In fact, until Montenegro was asked to join last December, Obama was on track for being the first US president since the end of the Cold War not to oversee NATO enlargement on his watch.

After an explosion of enlargement after the Cold War, which brought the alliance from 16 members to the current 28, the process of adding new members has slowed down.

Of the three official candidate countries to join NATO, The Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Georgia, none are close to full membership.

Macedonia fully met all criteria to join the alliance back in 2009 but its membership is continuously and needlessly blocked by Greece over a bilateral name dispute.

Although Georgia was promised eventual membership in 2008, has been a steadfast ally of NATO and has sent thousands of troops to fight in Afghanistan, countries such as France and Germany have blocked its membership progress for fear of upsetting Russia.

NATO frigates docked at Sarayburnu port in Istanbul [AFP]
NATO frigates docked at Sarayburnu port in Istanbul [AFP]

Bosnia and Herzegovina has too many internal domestic problems preventing it from meeting the criteria to join NATO any time soon. 

Of course, there is the issue of Ukraine.

A closed door

Like Georgia, Ukraine was promised eventual membership in 2008. Unlike Georgia it has done very little to achieve this goal until very recently.

Until recently public opinion in Ukraine, for years, was against joining the alliance.

The Ukrainian Parliament in 2010 approved legislation barring the country from joining NATO which was still on the books until last year.

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Of course, recent events with Russia have changed attitudes in Ukraine about NATO – but the country has a long way to go before realistically joining the alliance.


First and foremost, NATO is a defensive alliance. Its primary mission is to defend the territorial integrity of its member states. As long as Russia does not plan to invade a NATO member, it has nothing to fear from the alliance.

Also, Russia should never be seen as having a veto over a potential country’s membership of the alliance. Just because a country was once occupied by the Soviet Union or under the domination of the Russian Empire does not mean it is blocked from joining the alliance in perpetuity.

NATO is a collection of 28 democracies. All decisions taken inside the alliance require unanimity. Any country that seeks to join must be a democracy. If a country meets the criteria and the alliance issues an invitation, the matter should be final and not up for debate with Russia. This needs to be made clear to Moscow.

NATO has done more than any other organisation, including the European Union, to promote democracy, stability, and security in the Euro-Atlantic region. This was accomplished by enticing countries to become a part of the club.

NATO must keep its door open and wide for new members – not slam it closed in their faces.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.