Georgia (Country)

Should NATO Open Its Doors to Georgia?

Conflict with Russia has been an ever-present threat in the three decades since Georgia broke away from the collapsing Soviet Union.

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Reason's December special issue marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This story is part of our exploration of the global legacy of that evil empire, and our effort to be certain that the dire consequences of communism are not forgotten.

Central to many of the thorny geopolitical issues that have surrounded Georgia since it gained independence three decades ago is what happened at NATO's 2008 summit in Romania.

President George W. Bush, attending his final NATO summit before leaving office, arrived in Bucharest intent on nudging his fellow leaders toward accepting Georgia into the fold. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia had pursued closer ties with Europe and the U.S. It was a key American ally during the early years of Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, contributing hundreds of troops to the effort and allowing the U.S. to use its airstrips. Why not make the relationship official?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy led the opposition. Inviting Georgia to join NATO or even suggesting that it was the alliance's long-term plan to do so, they warned, would needlessly spur Russian aggression. And Georgia's location—next to Russia, in the Caucasus, outside the existing NATO borders—created a major vulnerability for the rest of the alliance, with little to be gained from the addition.

Bush won the argument in Bucharest. But it didn't take long for Merkel and Sarkozy to be proven right.

Just hours after NATO published the Bucharest Summit Declaration, a statement that included vague language supporting Georgia's (and Ukraine's) eventual membership, the Russian government announced plans to provide military support to pro-Russia militias in Georgia.

Four months later, Russian tanks rolled across the border in response to a Georgian offensive against those now-emboldened militias. The war ended in less than two weeks. But it left 20,000 Georgians displaced from their homes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway provinces with large populations of ethnic Russians. More than a decade later, those two provinces remain under de facto Russian control, even though the Georgian government still claims them.

Now the Biden administration is once again suggesting that Georgia could join NATO—with a few important caveats.

Asked about the status of the former Soviet state during his confirmation hearing in January, Secretary of State Antony Blinken left the door decidedly ajar. "If a country like Georgia is able to meet the requirements of membership and if it can contribute to our collective security," he said, then NATO should not foreclose the possibility.

"If you are successful," interjected Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), "then we will be at war with Russia now."

Conflict with Russia has been an ever-present threat in the three decades since Georgia broke away from the collapsing Soviet Union. For that reason, the Georgian government has long sought ties with the European Union (E.U.) and NATO—and recent surveys show that a majority of the Georgian people favor closer economic and military integration with both entities. Georgia has a free trade agreement with the E.U., which is its top trading partner, and Georgian passport holders have been allowed visa-free travel into Europe since 2017.

But even as European institutions have opened to Georgia economically, European leaders remain wary of officially extending a military alliance to the eastern edge of the Black Sea. "I don't see Georgia becoming a NATO member anytime soon," Merkel said during a diplomatic trip to Tbilisi in 2018.

It's not that NATO is opposed to expansion. Indeed, 14 new states have been added as full members since the end of the Cold War. That includes former parts of the Soviet Union—the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—and former East bloc countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Romania.

Proponents of bringing Georgia into NATO argue that the U.S. has already pledged to support Georgia's national security in other ways. Indeed, the U.S. signed the Charter on Strategic Partnership with Georgia in 2009 and has provided more than $200 million of military assistance to Georgia since 2010, including the sale of 400 anti-tank missiles in 2017, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Keeping Georgia in a semi-permanent state of "ambiguous limbo" only "reinforces the Russian narrative that the West does not want Georgia, thus advancing Moscow's goals of discrediting liberal Euro-Atlantic values and establishing special zones of influence," wrote Amanda Paul and Ana Andguladze, researchers at the European Policy Centre, in a briefing published in 2018 that argued for Georgia's admission as a full NATO member.

There may even be security gains to be had. At the January hearing where Paul claimed that extending NATO membership to Georgia would be a "provocative" move tantamount to triggering hostilities with Russia, Blinken pushed back. "I think just the opposite," he said. "I think we have seen that countries that join NATO have not been the same target of Russian aggression."

This is the chicken-or-egg problem at the center of NATO expansion in the post-Soviet era. Russia has been more aggressive toward Georgia and Ukraine than it has been toward, for example, the Baltic states with which Russia also shares a border. Is NATO membership a deterrent to Russian aggression? Or is Russian aggression toward Ukraine and Georgia a natural response to NATO's admission of the Baltic states, and an attempt to prevent what Russia sees as the alliance further encroaching on its borders?

Still, there are legitimate questions that should be asked about what NATO gains by continuing to expand. Full members of the alliance are committed to collective defense: An attack against one is regarded as an attack against all. The goal is geopolitical stability, but the leaders of France and Germany are probably right to question whether committing to defend Georgia is worth the risk, and whether it improves their own citizens' security in any way.

"Extending a security commitment to…Georgia would extend NATO requirements beyond any degree of realism," Henrik Larsen, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies, wrote in a June op-ed for the foreign policy blog War on the Rocks.

The inability to make serious security commitments to Georgia (and Ukraine) leaves NATO in a bind. Rescinding the Bucharest Summit Declaration would be a strategic retreat that would acknowledge de facto Russian influence over countries that are otherwise aligned with Europe and the United States. But moving forward with the promises made in 2008 would "expose enlargement as a gigantic bluff that would kill NATO's credibility as a defense alliance in any theater," Larsen wrote.

Georgia has for years existed in a sort of gray zone within the former Soviet realm—with a government that is firmly anti-Russian but cursed by geography to remain tethered in Russia's orbit. It seems likely to remain stuck there, as the Biden administration's approach to the situation is probably more nuanced than the January exchange between Paul and Blinken would make it appear.

For one thing, Georgia cannot currently meet "the requirements of membership," as Blinken put it, because NATO views ongoing territorial disputes as a major impediment to granting membership. Unless Georgia or Russia is willing to drop its claims to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia probably isn't getting into NATO.

That brings us full circle to the events of 2008. Knowing that NATO was considering offering membership to Georgia, and knowing that membership is withheld from states with territorial disputes, Russia's efforts to stoke a conflict on the border with Georgia can be seen more clearly. (It might very well have been a strategy that worked so well, Russia duplicated it in Ukraine in 2014.)

For an alliance like NATO to work, of course, concerns about Russia's response to strategic moves cannot be a trump card. Sometimes you simply have to do things your geopolitical adversary doesn't like.

But the benefits must outweigh the costs. If the price of backing Georgia's membership in NATO is stressing American relationships in Europe and heightening the risk of war with a nuclear-armed opponent, the Biden administration should be in no rush to change the—admittedly imperfect and awkward—status quo.

NEXT: Brickbat: Electrifying News

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  1. Georgia in NATO is not worth a war with the Soviet bastards Russia.

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  2. Georgia may not be eligible to join NATO so we should just offer to let them join SEATO or the Pan-African Congress or OAS. Why not? Most of these international organizations are just make-work schemes for government bureaucrats anyways. Imagine a million John Kerry's, people too stupid to hold a job in the private sector thinking they're smart enough to run the world.

    1. No need to imagine, just watch.

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  3. Pretty simple, the US should leave NATO.
    Georgia should join NATO if they want to and if NATO want's them to join.

    1. Indeed. Let them have our spot and whatever intra-office perks. Does NATO have any raffles or competitions among employees?

  4. Didn't turn out so well for Russia in Afghanistan so what makes these fascists think it'll be any different in Ukraine or Georgia? So far it looks like they're moving into to areas where there are pockets of of local support, places where they've corrupted and captured some of the politicians. Putin almost reminds me of Hilter.

    1. "what makes these fascists think it'll be any different in Ukraine or Georgia?"

      Ask Abkazia and South Ossetia.

    2. Afghanistan didn’t have native Russians living there. How did Afghanistan work out for the United States?

      1. Why is Russia's favorite causus belli "protecting countrymen" in Sudetenlands?

        (Answer: because you're fascists)

        1. Fuck off and die for your masters' money laundering in Ukraine, faggot

        2. Maybe Russia should abandon their people like Biden did in Afghanistan. Or Jimmy Carter in Iran.

          1. I'm fine with an ordered withdrawal of Russian forces from its neighbors. You've spilled enough blood.

            1. I haven’t spilled any blood nor am I advocating for it unlike you. Warrbonerring costs lives and money. It rreally does.

              1. You're a liar and a Russian troll. Don't make claims about your identity, as they aren't credible.

                Russians are dying right now, on the orders of your dictator to invade sovereign states, to speak nothing of the innocent victims in those other countries.

                Your lies are in service to him and his mad quest for empire, so you're culpable for his crimes.

                1. You're a complete fucking idiot.
                  Kiev is shelling their own citizens based on their ethnicity, and you're simping for them like a good little global socialist eunuch.
                  Eat a bullet.

                  https://www.zerohedge.com/geopolitical/russian-forces-are-growingin-russia-pentagon-awkwardly-downplays-ukraine-invasion-hype

                2. Warrbonerr, you rreally couldn’t be more wrong about everything you post.

                  Rumsfeld and McNamara are smiling at you in their graves.

                  1. Here's Russian troll Chumby lying about Russia's invasions:

                    https://reason.com/2021/11/18/a-glimmer-of-success-in-miserable-moldova/?comments=true#comment-9217982

                    Points for audacity. None for dignity.

                    1. Warrbonerr, when you and your best bud Biden gonna bomb back bad Bolsheviks better? Or you need to put down the Xbox controller first?

    3. Afghanistan didn't work out because the Soviets pulled their punches.

      Georgia is tiny and would be a walkover if the Russians really wanted it all.

      Ukraine is less of a walkover, but still wouldn't present an insurmountable problem.

  5. Wait, I thought Georgia was full of racists and bigots, and did not deserve to play baseball.

    Huh? Oh, never mind.

    1. They moved to the other Georgia under the auspices of Putin's new Stalin-Stalin pact

  6. Member when reason would argue against nato? Rev kuck remembers.

    1. And Pepperidge Farm too.

  7. The devil went down to Georgia...

  8. "The goal is geopolitical stability, but the leaders of France and Germany are probably right to question whether committing to defend Georgia is worth the risk"

    These countries haven't covered their Shar of defence in years, the US has been footing the bill and backing them up, the have almost no skin in the game. Too bad reason pushed to have the only president that knew this was a crap deal out

    1. Well, it does say, "concerns about Russia's response to strategic moves cannot be a trump card." Get it?

    2. "The goal is geopolitical stability"

      Lol.
      Yes, the McCain+Nuland Maidan coup and continued investment in Ukraine totes aims for "stability"

  9. NATO needs to go the way of the dinosaur. There's no reason for it anymore.

    America can make it's own bilateral treaties.

  10. The United States should leave NATO.

    1. Don Meinshausen thinks he can reach out to DSA and get them to agree with this. Like it's 50 years ago when Don was riding high.

    2. Thanks for the advice, Russia.

      1. Biden is trying to get the United States into a nuclear conflict. If you want to use military force in eastern Europe, you are free to go there now and do so.

        1. Your threats might be more credible but you say that about every American president. Everything that offends Russia is the U.S. "trying to start a nuclear war."

          There is no circumstance where the U.S. shoots a nuke off first. When Russia decides it wishes to no longer exist (a constant danger, to be sure) it will shoot first. Or it won't. Up to you.

          1. You are a pussy.

          2. NATO is playing the game it is accusing Russia of doing.

            My threats? Now I’m Biden? Warrbonerr, stop reading UsA Today.

  11. Um, Mr. Boehm? How, exactly, did you manage to get through this whole thing without explicitly mentioning the key problem with admitting Georgia to NATO, which is that there are 10,000 Russian troops occupying 20% of Georgia right now?

    I mean, yes, your "South Ossetia and Abkhazia . . . remain under de facto Russian control, even though the Georgian government still claims them" hints at that, but that's an astonishingly poor way of actually informing readers that thousands of Russian troops are currently occupying a fifth of the place.

  12. Does Boehm accept that Russia is a geopolitical adversary of the USA?

    Seems the main reason for libertarian analysts to still gather here is for each other as commenters. Besides a few issues like narcotic pain treatment (Symbolic, huh?), we don't get much useful input from the bloggers.

    1. Communism is everything's adversary. Russia was a backward monarchy tiny Japan beat senseless in 1905.

  13. Doesn't really matter. Georgia isn't in Europe, even if it is culturally European-ish, so nobody would have any formal obligations to defend Georgia in case of an attack. Article 5 only applies in Europe and North America.

  14. Libertarians for neocon institutions.

  15. Sure, let's risk another 1914.

  16. I think if the American public really understood that admitting a country to NATO required us to go to war in its defense, the alliance would not have expanded at all.
    For those of us old enough to remember the old Soviet Union, try to imagine how America would react had Mexico joined the Warsaw Pact.

    1. Our grandparents got dragged into the Austro-Serbian war after loaning cash to a bunch of welchers. Our parents wouldn't listen to Lindbergh when those same deadbeats came crying about the wrong socialism beating them up. Nuclear weapons have deterred war better than Leagues of Nations, so we could put the Europeans in long pants to look after themselves--maybe place bets on the outcome.

  17. It's a moot point while Russia has troops in Georgia's borders. That's part of the point of Russia's invasions - they make it untenable for a nation to join NATO while control over its own territory could trigger mutual protection.

    So, just keep sending armaments to our friends in Eastern Europe. Eventually Russia runs out of soldiers or reaches an excess of furious mothers with dead sons, whose real cause of death can't even be revealed to them because of the ridiculous Russian commitment to pretending that it's "local separatists" and not Russian regulars running their various occupations.

    1. Can't wait until pussies like you die when forced to put your money where your global socialist cock sucker is.
      If you weren't an evil piece of shit, you'd have eliminated yourself long ago.

    2. That strategy worked out well when the US secretly, with taxpayer money, funded the Mujahideen in the 1980s.

      If you want to war boner, log back in to Call of Duty or go over there yourself using your skin and money.

      1. Yeah. It did. We're one less evil empire now. Now it's just you: evil Russians longing for the days of yore. But your capabilities are so diminished.

        Somehow you seem to think you're the lesser evil among Dark Age barbarians. You're not. At least extremist Muslims believe God commands them to conquer. What's your excuse?

        1. rreally: dangerously psychotic coward who should be put down asap

        2. Warrbonerr, what are babbling on about now? You’ve lost the plot. And why are you here? Thought you were heading off to fight the evil empire.

  18. Surprising that Atlantic Council (global socialist) Reason isn't beating the war drums for Ukraine yet, considering how much NATO is trying to push for war there at this exact moment.

  19. Why does NATO even exist anymore? Time to shut it down along with the CIA. How anyone at Reason supports an obsolete organization what could pull America into foreign wars is the question. Russia is a regional power, we have no more right to interfere there then they would in Mexio or Canada. Stop it neocons...the czar didn't do anything to my people.

  20. Nicely argued. An alternative would be to trade them OUR Georgia, for theirs, but insist they take Marjorie Greene Teeth along with it.

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