On December 3 and 4, NATO heads of state will jet to London to celebrate the alliance’s 70th birthday. Like all NATO gatherings, the two-day event will be filled with photo ops and speeches about alliance solidarity and the importance of transatlantic unity in a world that is fast revolving around the axis of great-power competition.
But NATO will be committing a grave error in judgment if the officials decide to continue with business-as-usual. The alliance may not wish to admit it, but NATO is suffering from a crisis of confidence—and the need for a reassessment is clear.
Spurred on by French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments in The Economist about NATO suffering from “brain-death,” Europe has spent the last several weeks debating the relevance of the military organization. German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly called out her French colleague for what she regarded as inappropriate remarks and reportedly pulled Macron aside during an anniversary dinner of the fall of the Berlin Wall to admonish him. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told the Financial Times that NATO was “the most important alliance in the world when it comes to preserving freedom and peace.” Seven decades after it was created, there is widespread terror at the very thought of questioning NATO’s relevance in the 21st century.
The status quo may feel comfortable to the vast majority of NATO member states, particularly those who continue to spend a paltry amount of their own resources on national defense. However, there is one reform NATO should embrace to make the objective of collective defense more realistic: closing the door to new members once and for all.
Since its establishment in 1949, NATO has undergone seven rounds of enlargement and gone from 12 original members to 29 today. The alliance incorporates most of the European area of operations, from Iceland in the northwest to Estonia in the east. Expansion continues to be sold as beneficial to the alliance as a whole.
Yet the benefits of NATO enlargement have not matched the advertising. The open-door policy, where any country in the North Atlantic can be invited to become a full member, has saddled NATO with a collection of states that are security consumers rather than true security providers. With the Soviet Union dead and buried, enlargement has been twisted from a means into an end in and of itself.
Montenegro, a country with a population the size of Louisville, Kentucky, and a GDP one-eighth the size of Delaware, became NATO’s 29th member state in 2017. Its induction was celebrated in Washington, more so for the sheer act of entering the alliance than the security contribution the small Adriatic state could provide. No one can argue with a straight face that Montenegro—which underwent a near-coup in 2016 and boasts an army of about 2,000 servicemembers—adds any military value.
The same question applies to North Macedonia. Despite the U.S. Senate’s 91-2 vote to allow its accession, the land-locked nation nestled in the Balkans is at best a geopolitical irrelevance and at worst another cling-on to a NATO already bloated with cheap riders.
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The blunt reality is that there are no solid arguments for either’s inclusion. The case for further enlargement is becoming strained, if there were any case to begin with. Raising the blood pressure of Russian President Vladimir Putin is hardly a good justification.
According to reports, Germany has proposed the formation of an expert group to explore what the alliance can do to strengthen itself at a critical time.
With any luck, these expert navel-gazers will discover that enlargement has created more problems for NATO. The organization’s internal decision-making is jolted with by every new member. With more players, more national interests must be taken into account; achieving consensus becomes more difficult. This is particularly damaging to those officials who are rightly advocating for reform to NATO’s policies, tactics, and procedures. We are witnessing this phenomenon today. Turkey is singlehandedly blocking a military spending program for the Baltics so it can extract concessions on its position in Syria. NATO ministers should anticipate many more cases of internal gridlock if the doors remain open.
Stopping further enlargement also minimizes the risk that NATO troops may one day be called upon to deploy, fight, and possibly die in faraway conflicts that are limited in scope and don’t affect transatlantic security. This risk is even more grave for the United States, which will inevitably be tasked by its NATO allies to take the lead in any operation due to its superior military capacity. By cutting the cord, Washington would not only save itself of further trouble down the road, but also send a direct message to aspiring members including Ukraine and Georgia that they should not bet their national security on NATO membership.
Thirty years after the Berlin Wall fell, NATO heads of state need to seriously rethink how the alliance does business and more importantly how it operates in an international climate that has changed since the end of the Cold War. Next month’s conference in London is a prime opportunity to do so.