Much ink has been spilled over whether NATO will
give Ukraine and Georgia a "membership action plan," or MAP, at its
upcoming summit. The U.S. administration supports it; Angela Merkel of Germany,
America's best friend in Europe, opposes it.
Merkel is trying to save America from a dangerous mistake, one potentially
worse than Iraq.
It is not easy to dismiss Merkel with the usual smears – as anti-American,
or as a Russian puppet – but still the attempts are being made. America should
be thanking her instead. As chancellor of Germany, she has done more than anyone
else to rebuild trans-Atlantic relations in the last three years. And as one
of East German origin she has been blunt in talking back to Putin and supporting
human rights against the Communist regime in China.
What Merkel did, in the speech that has aroused so much attention, was to remind
NATO of two of the most basic conditions it had set in the 1990s for new members:
- "A country should become a NATO member not only when its temporary political
leadership is in favor but when a significant percentage of the population
- "Countries that are themselves entangled in regional conflicts can, in my
opinion, not become members."
This means, plain and simply, that Ukraine and Georgia do not qualify, and
aren't going to do so anytime soon – as a MAP would imply.
Merkel recalled the conditions in her own words. The actual NATO wording about
the need for a solid majority of public support for joining NATO was stronger
than Merkel's. Otherwise, the country, once inside NATO, would become a drag
on the alliance. A new member would not be worth it to NATO in such conditions,
just as it would not be worth it for NATO to walk into a new member's war.
Ukraine plainly fails to meet the first condition; Georgia plainly fails to
meet the second. Neither gives evidence of having a prospect of meeting the
conditions in any foreseeable future. As long as they proceed on a path of trying
to get into NATO without and against Russia, the result has been to continuously
reinforce the conditions that disqualify them. The whole issue would seem to
be a non-starter.
Moreover, the harder Ukraine tries to join NATO on an anti-Russian basis, the
further it pushes its public away from meeting the condition of wanting to join.
For the pro-Western Orange leadership, pushing the NATO button has been a way
of shooting itself in the foot. And the harder Georgia pushes the same way,
the worse it exacerbates its problems with Russia and its own breakaway regions.
On the evidence of the last few years, issuing a MAP and moving toward membership
is worse than a non-starter – it would be self-defeating.
There is only one thing that could change this stark conclusion: since a MAP
is not membership itself, it could – if worded in an unusual way, unlike all
previous MAPs – lead Ukraine and Georgia to drop the anti-Russian orientation
of their pursuit of NATO membership and stop shooting themselves in the foot.
This is not, however, what the advocates of an immediate MAP have in mind.
It is a simple fact that a MAP is not membership; it is a roadmap of the path
toward membership and the progress that has to be made along the way. As such,
it is always tautologically possible to issue a MAP, even when membership is
not seriously in contemplation. Proponents have argued for a "MAP now"
on this basis.
However, in reality a MAP is issued only when membership is intended to be
granted, and not too far off at that. Diplomatic moves like this are not made
to lead countries on, they are made to prepare for full-scale commitments. A
"MAP now" would not, then, be exploratory or hypothetical about membership,
so it would not be innocent of risk. Rather, it would create momentum and expectations
for NATO to proceed to offer membership, no matter how self-destructive that
There is an additional risk. The usual, somewhat standardized NATO MAP does
not focus on the two decisive criteria brought out by Merkel, which are what
Ukraine and Georgia need to be brought to focus on. Instead it goes over a whole
long list of criteria. It focuses on other, less relevant and less important
criteria, including relatively technical ones such as the investments the countries
need to make in reforming and modernizing their militaries along NATO lines.
Such an ordinary MAP would fail to guide the two countries on a path toward
reaching the core political conditions that they presently fail to meet.
In other words, it would be the wrong MAP, a false roadmap, a way of trying
to sneak the countries in without resolving the real issues, taking them down
a path, replete with difficult and expensive adjustments, that leads nowhere,
or worse than nowhere.
At the end of the path, Ukraine and Georgia still would not qualify. NATO would
face tremendous pressure to admit them anyway rather than leave them in the
lurch. After all, it would be said, they accepted the MAP in good faith; they
would have followed their MAP as well as most other new members have in recent
years; they would have met most of the criteria while, like the others, falling
shy on a few (the most important ones, in this case).
It would be added that Russia is against it, so it must be done. Failing to
admit them, it would be intoned gravely, would reward Russia and encourage it
to think it can do anything to them. This last argument is already being heard.
In fact, it has become the main argument for both MAP and membership for Ukraine
and Georgia. And MAP advocates generally equate the MAP with membership in this
way, despite the formal argumentation that a MAP is possible at this time because
it is not membership.
NATO would risk disaster if it did admit Ukraine or Georgia without prior resolution
of the two basic problems Merkel fingered. The dangers are obvious and large-scale:
in the case of Ukraine, putting NATO's internal health at risk; in the case
of Georgia, risking walking into a war. Leaders in Washington seem blind to
these dangers, but it is a self-imposed blindness.
The disaster with Georgia would be that of walking into an ongoing territorial-ethnic
conflict with Russia. It is the sort of risk of outright war with Russia that
for decades, during the Cold War, the West carefully avoided, knowing it bore
the potential for our own annihilation. Have we forgotten about this danger?
And even if we were to escape the worst and had only a simmering local conflict
with Russia, would it really be wise for us to push Russia the rest of the way
back to being our enemy?
The disaster for NATO from Ukraine would be that of taking in a country that
could not be a good ally no matter how much its leadership wished to. It would
be a deeply divided country, wracked by an instability that NATO membership
would exacerbate. Most of its people do not want to be in NATO; the disaffected
East is bitterly against it. It would weaken NATO. It would also weaken Ukraine's
prospects for democratic development.
There is only one country in the world whose support for these countries' accession
to NATO could make it a viable proposition: Russia. It is a paradox for those
who want these countries inside NATO against Russia. For the rest of us, it
is a basic reality, one that we need to understand and deal with.
Only after such a time as Russia-NATO relations have become good – good enough
that they are not only no longer perceived by most people on each side as adversaries,
but are perceived as genuine allies, reliably on the same side for the long
haul – would the Ukrainian population agree to NATO membership. Likewise, only
in such conditions would it be possible for Georgia to join NATO on terms not
directed against Russia, presumably after having resolved its own conflicts
Let us start with Ukraine.
The theorist for the self-defeating approach in Ukraine is a former foreign
minister under Yushchenko. His policy line – which is also a line of domestic
political argument – has run as follows: Ukraine should stop trying to balance
its relations with Russia and the West, as it did under Kuchma. Ukraine should
orient itself to the West and join NATO, and Russia should respect this choice.
None of this suggests that there has been any thinking about NATO itself;
it's all about Ukraine and its identity. In truth, it's not quite even about
that. It's about the identity politics of those Ukrainians who take
this position in a domestic political fight against the Eastern Ukrainians,
who think of Ukraine's identity in a different way and are never going to fall
into line against Russia. It is evident that they would like to get some respect
and a sense of total independence from Russia. That, it needs to be recognized,
is their personal problem; it may be harsh to say it, but it is a set of wishes
that is doomed to go unfulfilled. The Orange leadership can sometimes, barely,
win elections against the Eastern Ukrainians, but it has shown that it cannot
thereby lead the country into solid public support for joining NATO – just the
The proponents of this one-way line got their chance early in Yushchenko's
presidency to try out their line in practice. What happened? The more Yushchenko
pushed on the NATO issue, the more Eastern Ukrainians and Crimeans agitated
against NATO, with mass demonstrations and a real consensus in their regions
against joining NATO. His Eastern-based opponent Yanukovych regained some popularity
instead of fading away, increased his voter share, and became prime minister.
The East-West divide in Ukraine grew sharper. Western Ukrainians began to realize
that forcing the NATO issue was ruinous for Ukraine. More and more Ukrainians
turned against joining NATO – some polls reached 80 percent against. Current
polls still show under 20 percent in favor of NATO.
Has anything been learned from the experience? Or are we expecting someone
to put Eastern Ukrainians through a transmogrifier and all come out as Western
What the join-NATO-against-Russia line has meant in practice for Ukraine is
to create trouble with Russia at every step along the way without ever getting to
the goal; actually, the harder it's tried, the farther Ukraine gets from the
goal. It does maximum damage to Ukraine (and everyone else) for minimum
benefit. It doesn't serve Ukraine's interests, nor the West's; it can only be
explained in terms of acting out some personal psychological issues vis-à-vis
There is only one country in the world that could ever convince Ukrainians
to want to join NATO, and that country is Russia. Two scenarios present
themselves. Russia could be so nasty to Ukraine that the Eastern Ukrainians
finally blame Russia, rather than the Ukrainian nationalists, for the bad relations
and start hating Russia as much as Western Ukrainians do. This is not likely.
Alternately, Russia could itself join NATO. This scenarios is also unlikely,
but at least it has some long-run potential and doesn't maximize damage along
Every time the NATO issue has been pressed by President Yushchenko and the
Ukrainian leadership, the public has turned further against joining NATO – and
against Yushchenko as well. The frequent insistence by Yushchenko on this is
one of the two main things that have nearly ruined the Orange Revolution (the
other being the abandonment of Yushchenko's campaign promise to elevate the
status of the Russian language). From the start of Yushchenko's rule, it gave
a strong campaign issue to his opponents – a substantial, popular issue, one
that the Eastern Ukrainian public has been very effectively mobilized around
and aroused against. Every time NATO is pushed on Ukrainians, the political
situation in Ukraine becomes worse and Ukraine gets further away from actually
qualifying for NATO membership. The insistence on the NATO issue and the backtracking
on the language issue were what wrecked the initial prospect, after the Orange
Revolution, of isolating the anti-democratic forces and reconciling the East
to the democratic revolution. It is what made possible the comeback of Yanukovych,
after an initial period when it seemed he would fade away in the face of his
discrediting as an electoral cheat. Ukrainians need solid relations on both
sides, East and West; the Central Ukrainians know it, and the Eastern and Western
Ukrainians each resolutely insist on a solid relationship for their own end
of the geographical stick, giving the more sober Central Ukrainians the swing
vote. Every time either Russia or the West presses too hard on Ukraine to line
up against the other side, it loses in the subsequent Ukrainian elections. It
seems we have learned nothing from the experience; we keep making the same mistake.
Yushchenko said March 27 that no NATO bases would be deployed in Ukraine if
Kiev became a member of NATO. Why did he need to say this, when Ukraine's constitution
forbids the establishment of foreign military bases in the country? Because
people were mobilizing against the expectation of such a base. As Yushchenko
put it, "Some people are spreading the fable that there will be a NATO
military base in Sevastapol. There will be no base." In reality, NATO membership
inevitably would mean such a base sooner or later; the only question is whether
it would be one operated jointly with a Russia that would itself be intimately
allied with NATO, or whether it would be directed against Russia and the large
pro-Russian majority of the local population. Three weeks earlier, Kiev reportedly
said it was giving up its bid for membership in the Western military alliance.
Such is the inevitable backtracking that comes from pushing too hard to one
side in a divided country. It is the opposite of a stable, reliable orientation
to NATO. For Ukraine, the only way to have a stable, predictable Western orientation
is for it to be a part of the very same balanced approach – oriented toward
East and West at the same time – condemned by Tarasyuk. It is indeed possible
for Ukraine to have a deep, entrenched, and reliable Western orientation, but
only if Russia and the West work out a way to be on the same side, so that the
Western orientation of Ukraine is no longer contradictory to its Eastern orientation.
What would an honest MAP for Ukraine read like? It would point in the opposite
direction from a standard MAP. It would recognize the uniqueness of Ukraine's
political situation and the inevitable, legitimate depth of its interdependence
with Russia. It would accept the wisdom of a former Ukrainian ambassador to
the U.S.: the preferred scenario for Ukraine is to join NATO at the same time
Russia joins, not without or against Russia. It would accept the wisdom of Yulia
Tymoshenko, when she was being wise: that Ukraine cannot be a member of a different
alliance than Russia, much less an opposite one. In practice, after issuing
such a MAP, Ukraine might still get into NATO more quickly or more completely
than Russia, but the way it would get there is by sincerely working to bring
Russia in too. The unresolvable problem of the naval base at Sevastapol would
find a natural resolution: it would become a joint Russian-Western-Ukrainian
base under the NATO aegis. NATO, instead of exacerbating the problems between
Russia and Ukraine and the West, would become a healing factor.
Now to Georgia. NATO membership for the country
in its current condition – in two major ethnic and territorial disputes with
its minorities and its neighbor – would risk considerably greater damage to
the West than taking in Ukraine. It would be akin to taking in Israel as a member,
without a prior peace settlement (something that does have its advocates nowadays;
it is the sort of thing that makes me embarrassed to have raised the issue of
NATO expansion in the first place in 1985-89). In the case of Israel, this would
mean the U.S. and Europe taking on a very messy conflict with the Palestinians
and a state of war with most of the Arab countries. In the case of Georgia,
it would mean taking on even more – Russia, a nuclear superpower.
The NATO standard of prior resolution of ethnic and territorial conflicts was
intended for precisely this situation: to make sure NATO would not walk into
an ongoing conflict when accepting new members. It was a highly practical standard.
One could imagine that it might, as an equally practical matter, be waived for
a big new member that is engaged in a small conflict, but not for a small new
member in a potentially huge conflict. It seems almost surreal that some of
our leaders would forget this rule now, when the prize would be Georgia and
the adversary taken on would be Russia.
We have a right to ask ourselves whether our leaders have gone crazy.
Moreover, the country to whose fight the West would be committing itself is
a Georgia with a fiercely tribalist political culture, one that played a major
role in creating the present conflicts under the extremist ethno-nationalist
regime of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. The pretense that it is all Russia's fault is
false; it is immature of the West, an application of Cold War-style simplification
to a post-Cold War problem. It seems some people have spent their lives reducing
all issues involving Russia to a matter of blaming Russia, and now they don't
know any better. However, NATO has for more than a decade had as its aim to
project democracy and conflict resolution in the former enemy space, not to
blame everything on one side, and to refocus globally on the security needs
of the future, not to resurrect the Cold War with Russia. Applying NATO's true
principles would mean continuing to urge Georgia to resolve its problems with
Russia realistically. A standardized MAP would have the opposite effect of egging
Georgia on. Nevertheless, there is an increasing tendency to invoke instead
the "principle" of "standing up" to Russia by granting Georgia
both MAP and membership, no matter what the costs or consequences.
The Vicious Circle in Western Thinking
Where is the logic in this? An innocent reader
might think there is no logic, only madness. The innocent reader would not be
entirely mistaken. There is, however, a method to the madness. The logic used
is bad, but it has had a powerful resonance – powerful enough to hold in its
thrall the minds of important actors in Washington and Brussels, leading them
to overlook their own standards for NATO membership and the extraordinary risks
they are running by flouting the standards. Why? Russia is against it, therefore
NATO must do it.
That simple "therefore," that bare non sequitur, is what it
always comes down to, no matter what the intervening terms in the argument.
The intervening terms have been, variously, as follows: NATO's credibility is
on the line, Russian imperialism will be encouraged if NATO doesn't proceed,
Russia must not be allowed to divide NATO, Russia must not be given a de facto
veto over any NATO internal decisions, Russia is the enemy NATO must unite against.
It is evident that these reasons will seem even stronger to their proponents
at the end of a MAP process, if Georgia should be given a MAP this month. There
would then be enormous pressure to follow through with membership, no matter
how dangerous the act.
The argument for doing whatever Russia opposes is, upon examination, circular,
and vicious in its circularity. Not only does it send us out of our way to spite
Russia; it takes Russia's opposition to this spiting as the main reason to do
One of the characteristics of a circular argument is that it takes a deep hold
on the mind and is hard to shake; the circle, once established in the mind,
is impenetrable to fact or reason, and it can endure long after the original
reasons for a few of the points along the circle have disappeared. This was
why Gorbachev and his reforms were for years dismissed in the West – particularly,
I have to say with some shame for my friends, in the very Atlanticist circles
I have always frequented – as a "plot to divide and deceive the West."
Then the Berlin Wall came down, and reality finally began to penetrate even
the most sealed-off minds. Brent Scowcroft, an exponent of the divide-and-deceive
line, made a dazed comment that it showed the changes were for real.
The vicious circle about Russia took hold in the decades when Russia really
was the enemy of NATO and one of Russia's main plays in the diplomatic game
was to try to divide the West. It was compounded by the fact that NATO, with
its habit of requiring a front of unanimity for its every decision, was inherently
fearful of being divided and rendered impotent by a single member country getting
"peeled off" into disagreement with the majority. The blame for this
was projected onto Russia, sometimes with reason, sometimes arbitrarily. In
those decades, there were reasons for many of the concerns wrapped up in the
circular argument; they provided the temptation for swallowing the circle whole.
Western elites became, in this sense, paranoid, although they managed their
element of paranoia with caution during the Cold War. They knew well the costs
of the war going hot, and they would sometimes joke that we can be glad the
Communists haven't endorsed motherhood and apple pie, or we might have to renounce
those too. With the end of the Cold War, the caution faded faster than the circle.
Today, 15 years into the era when NATO proclaims it does not view Russia as
an enemy, the vicious circle endures. Whenever Russia indicates that it is not
fully convinced by NATO's assurances of non-hostility, Western elites assume
a tone of righteous indignation against Russia for its lack of trust in our
word. Meanwhile it is still the case that almost every time Russia opposes a
move NATO is contemplating, this is taken as a reason why NATO must proceed
with the move without regard for any other considerations – neither its own
standards or considerations of what is good for the alliance, nor Russia's considerations,
some of which, if viewed without prejudice, would be seen to have merit. A disinterested
observer might be forgiven for taking this as evidence that NATO is being deceptive
when it denies that it is hostile to Russia. A more generous view would be that
NATO is sincere – sincerely blinded by the vicious circle in its discourse.
Vicious circularity lends to a line of thought a peculiar kind of potency,
in the sense of a determination to follow that line even if it means going straight
off the deep end. Taken to its logical conclusion, the circularity of the standing
argument in NATO about Russia is one that leads to a particularly deep end:
it would direct NATO to march straight onward in any disagreement with Russia,
up to and over the threshold of war.
This is not hyperbole; it inheres literally in the logic. Unfortunately, neither
is it just an abstract conclusion about where the circular logic could in theory
lead. In the case of membership for Georgia, there are all too many plausible
scenarios by which it could actually come to war.
Georgia has several times come to fighting in its disputed territories, and
several more times it has come to the brink of war with Russia over them. Its
current president, whom NATO is told it needs to encourage with a MAP, is one
who has reveled in brinkmanship with Russia. Far from needing to encourage him
in this, the Bush administration has at times found a need to tell him to cool
off. The risks from encouraging him are substantial. The risks of NATO committing
itself to his front line are extraordinary. Westerners may reassure themselves
with nice lines like "Russia isn't going to start a world war for Georgia,
or for Ossetia, and neither are we," but it is scant consolation for a
relation with endless possibilities for accident, misunderstanding, and escalation
– a simmering border and ethnic conflict, numerous skirmishes, locals with little
to lose, and plenty of self-righteousness on all sides.
What would an honest MAP for Georgia look like? It would point Georgia in almost
the opposite direction than the boilerplate one. It would place front and center
the need for Georgia to reach an enduring accommodation with its neighbor Russia.
People would, to be sure, complain that this was unfair to Georgia and gave
Russia a "de facto veto" over its membership. A sincere NATO would
ignore the complaint and write the MAP this way anyway.
It might add that improving relations with Russian would mean that Georgia
would have to stop talking about joining NATO against Russia, as this talk only
serves to keep relations with Russia inflamed. The path to joining NATO would
be to pipe down about NATO. Georgia could also start talking about allowing
joint Russian-Western bases on its soil, rather than about simply kicking out
the Russian bases and giving unconvincing reassurances to Russia that they won't
be replaced by NATO ones.
Furthermore, if NATO really wants Georgia to join, NATO itself has some remedial
work to do with Russia. It should upgrade its talk about a possible eventual
NATO membership for Russia, turning it from a pious phrase into something that
can be taken seriously. This, not a Ukrainian or Georgian MAP, is the greatest
single thing NATO could do to improve the prospects for Ukraine and Georgia
to be able to meet the NATO membership standards. It would mean working out,
in dialogue with Russia, realistic terms for an eventual Russian membership,
"realistic" being defined as terms that would make it in the interest
of both sides; figuring out which membership standards and Russian reforms are
relevant to NATO's needs, and which reforms and adaptations on NATO's own side
are needed for enabling NATO to function effectively when it includes Russia;
and working out enough of a joint strategic doctrine to justify a close alliance.
Those who raise a hue and cry about a "Russian veto" forget that,
in every previous case, third countries involved in a conflict with a candidate
for NATO membership have been given the same capacity for obstruction or "de
facto veto," since NATO has required the candidate to resolve the conflict
prior to membership. NATO has balanced this by offering the third country or
countries a realistic hope of either simultaneous or subsequent membership,
too, thus dampening any impulse to drag out the conflict and obstruct its neighbors'
membership. Romania did not inflame relations with Hungary and thereby obstruct
Hungarian membership, partly because that would have put Romania's own subsequent
membership in doubt.
Russia is the only third country that has not been accorded such civility.
There has been a statement, to be sure, that membership for Russia is not excluded,
but few people on either side believe that even this is sincere. Some leaders
of new NATO countries have openly said they would oppose Russian membership
in all circumstances – thereby already breaking their commitment, required of
them as a condition for joining NATO, not to obstruct or veto other new members
from the Partnership for Peace grouping – without any protest on the part of
the old NATO-West. No effort has been made to figure out what a realistic MAP
for Russia, one that would make Russian membership a benefit to both sides,
would look like (I am not counting my own attempt, "A MAP for Russia,"
and the European Union: New World, New Europe, New Threats).
Paradoxically, a MAP for Georgia that accepts the supposed "Russian veto"
– meaning the fact that the NATO standards on conflict resolution serve to give
Russia, like all previous third parties, a de facto power of obstruction – is
(a) the sole workable roadmap for Georgia to make its way into NATO, and (b)
the sole way to avoid running in practice into an operationally deadly Russian
veto. A Georgia that genuinely tries to resolve its issues with Russia in a
realistic manner with reasonable compromises, not just demands, that respects
the interests of the ethnicities that have appealed to Russia as their protector
rather than merely condemning them as criminals and Russian agents, that ceases
the habit of going out of its way to inflame matters with Russia – and that
also grows out of the Jacobin authoritarian aspects of Saakashvili's rule, some
of which have a lot in common with Putin's, including the undermining of free
media and the practice of smearing the opposition as agents of foreign influence
and destabilization – this would be a Georgia that a sober NATO could judge
worthy of taking in, and that NATO might conceivably someday take in over Russian
objections if the latter remained obstinate.
Honest MAPs could, then, be drawn up for Ukraine and Georgia. They would stress
the need to develop better relations with Russia, to reassure and reconcile
the Eastern Ukrainians and the national minorities of Georgia by practical compromises
instead of lofty declarations, and for NATO itself to provide a realistic roadmap
for Russian membership in the alliance, turning its declaration of openness
to a future Russian membership into something better than a throwaway line along
the path to letting other countries in. There would be no guarantee of a positive
result for Russia, but it is the only way to a positive result for Ukraine and
This is not, unfortunately, the kind of MAP that is intended by advocates of
an early MAP for Ukraine and Georgia. That MAP would be given for the explicit
purpose of spiting or "defying" Russia; it would be written in such
a way as to allow the countries to proceed step by step down the path toward
membership without ever satisfying the decisive criteria – improving their relations
with Russia and with the important Russia-friendly sectors of their own countries.
At the end of the path, NATO would be under enormous pressure to proceed with
membership for unqualified countries and, therewith, to walk into self-inflicted
damage internally and dangerous conflict externally.
It is fortunate, in these conditions, that Angela Merkel is opposing the MAP
move. In Merkel we have an allied leader who is a true friend to America, one
who has done more than anyone else to revive the transatlantic relationship
in the last three years. Friends do not let friends make suicidal blunders.
And she is trying valiantly to spare us such a fate. Let us hope she sticks
by her guns. It will buy NATO time to get the MAP right. Until it does, far
better for us all that there be no MAP at all.