April 2, 2008
by Zeyno Baran
What is the one foreign policy position held in common by George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama? Support for Georgia's bid for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the NATO Summit in Bucharest this week.
Georgia and its President Mikheil Saakashvili enjoy rare bi-partisan support in the US. Saakashvili recently held his fourth official meeting with President Bush, and two years ago was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Senators Clinton and McCain. Just last month, Sen. Obama introduced a Senate resolution backing MAP for Georgia.
What is the reason for this broad support? Since Saakashvili took office in 2004, his government has embarked upon an unprecedented (and largelysuccessful) reform program. Moreover, the Georgian people have made clear that their value system is aligned with that of the West; in a recent referendum, 77 percent of the population voted in favor of NATO membership. While receiving a MAP does not guarantee membership, it will encourage Georgia to continue its reforms while providing a strong sign to Georgians that the West supports their aspirations.
Russia opposes extending a MAP to its former satellite state Georgia—as well as to Ukraine. After the humiliation it felt from NATO's expansion to Poland and the Baltic states, Moscow is determined to stop any further Western encroachment in Russia's "backyard." Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev has argued that extending a MAP to Georgia and Ukraine would cross a "red line." Duma Member Sergey Markov went further by arguing that Georgia's accession to NATO would be seen as "an attempt to trigger a war in the Caucasus" and that Ukraine's accession would be interpreted as "an effort to foment conflict with Russia."
Moscow has done more than just talk in an attempt to avert a future NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Following US recognition of Kosovo, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been threatening to recognize the independence of two separatist regions in Georgia: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia already lifted the sanctions on arms trade with Abkhazia and the Russian parliament passed a resolution calling for the government to move towards more formal recognition of these regions.
Putin has made an offer to Georgia ahead of the Bucharest summit: abandon your NATO aspirations and we may help you resolve the situations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This approach contradicts Russia's stated policy of supporting Georgia's territorial integrity, and marks a dangerous threat to continue stirring Georgia's separatist conflicts, which could open a Pandora's Box of instability across the Caucasus, including in Russia. In any case, neither Georgia nor Ukraine's NATO aspirations are for Putin to veto. NATO has long held open the prospect of membership to European countries that fulfill the Alliance's criteria regarding security and democratic reform. Georgia and Ukraine are moving toward fulfilling those criteria, and a MAP provides a strong incentive for them to continue on this path.
Within the alliance, Germany and France seem most opposed to granting MAPs for the two countries. And unfortunately it appears that a fear of upsetting Moscow represents the primary motivation for their opposition. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned against extending MAPs to Ukraine and Georgia, stating that it would be unwise to "further burden" relations with Moscow. The French Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, has echoed this sentiment, arguing that it would upset the "balance of power…between Europe and Russia."
Interestingly, the split within the NATO alliance on Georgia's MAP partially mirrors the rift that has formed on the issue of Europe's energy diversification. Those countries that have a long-term energy partnership with Russia (primarily Germany and France, but also the Netherlands and Italy) are often reluctant to take foreign policy stances that may irritate Moscow—and endanger their energy security. This is the key reason that the US has so strongly supported the diversification of Europe's energy supply: so that America's European allies do not shy away from doing the right thing because of their dependence on Russian hydrocarbons.
For its part, the United States government has clearly stated its support for Georgia and Ukraine's membership ambitions. President Bush firmly and unequivocally championed MAPs for the two countries in his speeches in Kyiv yesterday and in Bucharest today, arguing that "NATO membership must remain open to all of Europe's democracies." The President said that NATO must make clear that it welcomes the membership aspirations of the two countries and should offer them a clear path toward that goal.
Will German and French energy dependence on Russia once again trump broader strategic considerations of the Euro-Atlantic community? At risk is the future of NATO. Will it continue to be a united and effective alliance—as demonstrated by its decisive actions during the Cold War or the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts—or will it become as divided and fractious as the EU has often been?
Many people ask why granting MAPs for Georgia and Ukraine cannot be delayed until next year's summit. For one thing, given Russia's very public opposition to extending MAPs, failing to do so will be perceived as a victory for Russia. Regardless of whether this is true, it will send the wrong signal to President-elect Medvedev: If Europe is pushed by Russia, it will chose appeasement over confrontation. Secondly, it is wrong to believe that this issue will be any easier or less contentious next year, when Bush is out of office. Historically, new Presidents have been unwilling to challenge Russia at the beginning of their term. Both Bush and Clinton before him embraced "Russia first" policies; the next president is likely to do the same and would therefore not want to champion the MAP issue. Finally, with oil and gas prices at all time highs and Russia consolidating its market dominance in Europe, it is difficult to see how the alliance would be better positioned to offer MAPs at the Alliance's 60th anniversary summit in Berlin next year. If anything, Europeans will be less willing to upset Russia. President Saakashvili is right in challenging the Euroatlantic alliance to stand by its stated values and take action now.
Zeyno Baran is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute.
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