The July 11-12 NATO summit is not about defense expenditure only. It strikes the eye that the support for Georgia’s NATO membership has been growing for some time to make it look like something that could really happen in the not so distant future. The talks about the
possible results of the abovementioned event for Tbilisi have been intensifying. Addressing the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in May, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Georgia had all the tools to become a NATO member. The country already enjoys a privileged status being part of the NATO Enhanced Opportunities Program it joined in 2014.
Georgia appears to enjoy strong US backing of its NATO bid. On July 5, just 6 days before the event, United States Permanent Representative to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison made a statement to emphasize the US support for the open door policy and Georgia’s aspiration to join.
The Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank has recently put forward a fast-track proposal to grant Georgia membership by temporarily excluding the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from NATO's Article 5 security guarantee. Luke Coffey, Director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation and the author of the report, believes that Georgia can be invited to join NATO by amending Article 6 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which defines specific territories within a given nation that would be subject to NATO's security guarantee. He points out that the same procedure was used in 1951 when Turkey and Greece joined the alliance. Formally, Georgia’s accession will be presented as a temporary measure that would last until the “internationally recognized territory is re-established by peaceful and diplomatic means.”
At the 2008 Bucharest summit, NATO agreed that Georgia will join the alliance but no date was set. The possibility of skipping the membership action plan (MAP) process appears to be quite acceptable. The “more NATO in Georgia and more Georgia in NATO” concept serves as an alternative to a MAP, providing all of the necessary instruments to achieve the goal. The country is a party to the Annual National Plan and the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package (SNGP), which includes support of 13 different areas of defense and security related areas. These programs make a MAP redundant. Tbilisi is ready to contribute into the NATO deployment in Poland and the activities in the Black Sea region.
Does NATO really need it as a full-fledged member? The country provides the shortest route to export oil and gas from Asia to Europe. It has contributed to NATO military operations in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Georgian forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were the largest non-NATO contingents to dwarf those of most NATO members. The alliance believes it needs to expand. But NATO needs the ability to fulfill the obligations to defend Georgia if attacked according to the Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. It presupposes an enormous effort, expenditure and confrontation with Russia. This is the case when geography is not on the alliance’s side. Besides, deploying “substantial forces” near Russia’s borders is what NATO pledged not to do signing the NATO-Russia Founding Act. A massive presence of NATO forces in Georgia will turn the country into a hotbed. The alliance is not in the position to do it as it is teetering on the verge of a break-up.
There are reasons for NATO to think twice before giving Georgia a membership but the United States sees this nation as a useful ally located in the strategically important region. It is a valuable stopover for transporting forces to the Middle East. This is the time the US is balancing on the brink of armed conflict with Iran. American aircraft could reach the Middle East in a few hours if they take off in Georgia, which has upgraded its key airports and port facilities. America will need it badly as an allied nation to support military activities in the Middle East.
There is a serious rift dividing the US and other members of NATO. The alliance’s future is vague. It has never happened before but the differences over defense spending and “free riding” appear to be insurmountable at present. The things could be temporarily smoothed over but the problem will remain.
NATO may lose relevance. New alliances may emerge, such as a group of European states led by Germany, the US alliance with pro-American European nations such as Poland and the Baltic States, or the recently emerged “mini-NATO” including Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova.
The latter one can be enlarged.
Georgia may find the US major non-NATO ally (MNNA) status even more important than North Atlantic membership. A lot depends on the results of the July11-12 NATO summit and its fallout. The Trump-Putin summit can also change a lot of things to make Georgia reconsider foreign policy priorities.
NATO membership may look to be very close and never become real with obligations to shoulder and no commitments on the part of the alliance in return. This situation has been lasting for a long time with solemn promises to give and new “programs” offered instead of real membership. The MNNA status may be a coveted goal too but what does it change? The country will be told what to do and how much to spend on defense not to be called a free-rider. The US will have a springboard in the volatile region but Georgia’s security would be reduced as it would become a target for Russian military, be it a NATO member or a privileged US ally.
If the July 16 Trump-Putin summit ends as expected to launch the process of gradual normalization of the relations, then Georgia will have a slim chance of formally becoming a member of NATO or a US-led anti-Russian alliance. It’ll have to face a new reality as new European security architecture will be emerging. Geographic, economic and political factors dictate the need for launching a dialogue with Russia on new security arrangements, taking into consideration the ongoing changes and emerging trends. This policy will enhance Georgia’s security in a much more efficient way than losing sovereignty to become a pawn in the games plays by NATO or the United States.