How to Admit Georgia to NATO — Without Triggering a War

Demonstrators carry a huge banner with a NATO sign and Georgian national flags during a rally in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Nov. 15, 2014

AP / Shakh Aivazov

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Demonstrators carry a huge banner with a NATO sign and Georgian national flags during a rally in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Nov. 15, 2014

Russia’s partial occupation of the Caucasian country has given it a kind of veto on alliance membership. Here's a way around that.

As NATO prepares for its summit in July, the issue of enlarging the Alliance will be sure to come up — and in particular, the case of Georgia. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Bucharest Summit, at which NATO promised eventual membership to the South Caucasus country. 

With each succeeding summit, NATO has reaffirmed this commitment. It regularly introduces measures to improve Georgia’s interoperability with the Alliance; in December 2016, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared that Georgia “has all the practical tools to become a member of NATO.” Even so, the country’s journey toward NATO membership has been long, at times frustrating —and apparently far from over.

As the years have gone by, the discourse that has dominated the debate about Georgia’s future membership in NATO has become predictable and, frankly, stale. Fresh thinking is required. This is why I proposed a unique solution in my recent report NATO Membership for Georgia: In U.S. and European Interest”: alliance members should hasten Georgia’s admission by temporarily amending a small section of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty.

U.S. and European policymakers say one of the biggest concerns about admitting Georgia to the alliance is Russia’s occupation of the country’s Tskhinvali region and Abkhazia. If Georgia joined NATO, the theory goes, the treaty’s Article 5 mutual security guarantee would immediately require members to go to war against Russia. No matter what is said publicly, many policymakers believe that as long as these regions are under Russian occupation, Georgia can never join NATO

Indeed, Moscow is of the same opinion, and views occupation as a de facto veto. This is unacceptable. 

Thankfully, there is a creative way around this problem.

All of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory, which includes the Tskhinvali region and Abkhazia, could be invited to join NATO. However, NATO could amend Article 6 of the 1949 treaty (which defines which territories fall under the Article 5 protection) to temporarily exclude only the Russian-occupied region from NATO’s Article 5 protection. So all of Georgia would join NATO, but only the regions of Georgia not under Russian occupation — about 80 percent of the country — will get the alliance’s security guarantee.

It is important to point out that this would only be a temporary measure, intended to last only until Georgia’s full, internationally recognized territory can be re-established by peaceful means.

There is a precedent for amending Article 6. It was done in 1951 as part of the accession protocol for Turkey and Greece when they joined NATO. Twelve years later, the North Atlantic Council noted the original inclusion of the Algerian Departments of France in Article 6 was no longer applicable due to Algeria’s independence.

In addition, there are countless examples of NATO members not having all of their territory under the protection of Article 5. Think the U.S. and Guam, the UK and the Falkland Islands, or even West Germany and East Germany.

Also, allowing Georgia to join NATO with an amended Article 6 is consistent with the country’s pledge to abstain from retaking the occupied regions by force. This is why this proposal could not work for Ukraine, for example, because Kyiv has made no such pledge regarding the Donbas and Crimea. After all, if the Georgian government has already pledged not to use force to get its occupied regions back, then why would an Article 5 security guarantee for these two regions even be needed?

Admittedly, this proposal is not without its challenges. For it to work, real political leadership is needed in Washington, D.C., and Tbilisi. The U.S. will have to convince Europeans that it successfully heads off an automatic war with Russia. The Georgian government will have to explain to its people that this is not abandoning the two occupied regions and that it is in line with the non-use of force pledge.

Russia will spin this idea as a choice between Georgians joining NATO or giving up on the two occupied regions. This is a false dichotomy.

Some of the things that first attracted me to Georgia a decade ago were its rich culture, its proud history, the general feeling of patriotism, and the national desire to restore its territorial integrity — no matter the odds.

Georgia had been around in some form or another for 2,000 years before NATO was established, and will likely be around for centuries after the Western alliance ceases to exist. So I would never suggest that the Georgian people give up on their territorial integrity in exchange for NATO membership, nor is NATO is asking for this.

Right now, Russia knows that all it has to do to prevent a country form ever joining NATO is to invade and then partially occupy it. Temporarily amending Article 6 would deny Moscow this veto, starting with Georgia. The only question is whether leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have the required creativity and political will.

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