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NATO Media Archive

Should NATO Seek Further Expansion?

by John N. Carey

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‘NATO’s enlargement has been an historical success, strengthening our alliance and serving as a powerful incentive to promote democratic reforms among aspiring members. I believe the process of NATO enlargement is not complete. NATO’s door must remain open. However, NATO candidates must provide added value to the alliance. They must be contributors to security, not consumers of it.’1

– U.S. General. B. J. Craddock

The formation of the Atlantic Pact and the subsequent creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 confirmed America’s security relationship with Europe. NATO supported the reconstruction of Western Europe, defied the Soviet bloc, and was an ‘essential precondition’ for the development of the European Union (EU).2 However, the shift in the security environment since the end of the Cold War has forced NATO to address its purpose, and the circumstances in which it might act in the future. This reassessment is a work in progress, and, in 2004, there was significant growth in NATO membership. At Bucharest, NATO embarked upon further enlargement, including Albania and Croatia as member states.

This article examines whether NATO should seek further expansion. It will argue that greater membership in NATO reverses attempts to develop military capability, creates a de facto two-tier system, and makes NATO’s ‘open door’ statement an empty promise. The Alliance’s ‘manifest destiny’ is not sustainable. However, before acknowledging this assertion, it is necessary to examine why supporters of expansion, particularly the United States, contend that greater membership nurtures democracy and stabilization in Eastern Europe.

Views on NATO expansion

It was Henry Kissinger’s earlier view that to ‘...make NATO stronger, it must be made larger.’3 Further, the NATO Secretariat and three successive American administrations have stated explicitly that NATO is no longer a ‘eurocentric alliance.’4 At Riga in 2006, President George W. Bush declared the likelihood of partnership agreements between NATO and ‘contact countries’ linked to it in Afghanistan, including Japan, Sweden, South Korea and Australia.5 In 2005, Dutch politician and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that NATO must “deepen relationships” with states in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Africa.6 Since 2001, NATO’s military framework has been actively involved in tasking outside the Atlantic Pact mandate. Soldiers have been engaged in security operations in Afghanistan, training missions in Africa and Iraq, earthquake assistance in Pakistan, and disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina.7

The case for NATO expansion is persuasive. Advocates of enlargement argue that it safeguards the freedom and security of its membership. First, international crises within a global community affect the security and prosperity of citizens everywhere. Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer insists that NATO be an “...alliance with global partners.”8 Strategically, NATO must be prepared to engage threats at their source before they develop in Europe, the United States, or Canada. Broadening membership is preferable to short-term ‘coalitions of the willing,’ as traditional alliances are likely to have greater military interoperability and shared understanding. Greater membership should mean an increase in regional military capability as smaller nations are able to “...leverage their capabilities to form part of a coherent whole.”9

Second, enlargement reduces the likelihood of local conflict among NATO membership.10 Greater integration of nations in an alliance less religiously and ethnically aligned should provide more effective security against contemporary threats like terrorism, aggressive nationalism, and potential misuse of weapons of mass destruction. Member states are forced to counsel each other concerning “security dilemmas,” and “...accept current borders and pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes.’11 NATO is not a supranational organization. Consequently, an increase in membership reduces spheres of influence and regional dominance by larger member states, particularly since NATO decision-making requires consensus.

Third, expansion furthers freedom, democracy, and free enterprise in Eastern Europe. Relying largely upon Woodrow Wilson’s democratic peace theory, NATO seeks to spread democracy and free markets because liberal democracies evidently do not declare war on one another. Furthermore, in the shadow of the past, supporters believe NATO represents a commitment by western nations, primarily the United States, to deter future Russian belligerence.12 George W. Bush, in his 2005 Inaugural Address, declared: “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one...it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.’13Generally, countries with a policy of democracy share similar values and beliefs. Free-market economic ties provide, to Western nations especially, access to financial opportunity. Moreover, there is less likelihood of human rights abuses within a democratic state.14

Critics of NATO expansion argue that the alliance must remain a European-Atlantic military pact that maintains traditional values, safeguards, and missions. NATO must not abandon its traditional transatlantic charter. Bringing in new members damages NATO’s credibility as ‘...fundamentally a defensive organization... NATO must focus on what it knows and does best.’15 Moreover, there is concern that the Article 5 Security Guarantee could be undermined as further countries join NATO.16 Because of uncertainty regarding Russia, new member states – particularly those from the former Soviet Union – could become entangled either militarily or politically with Russia and, consequently, lessen security for all of NATO’s membership.

Recently, at Bucharest, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned NATO that the emergence of a prevailing military bloc on its western borders was a “direct threat.”17 Russian General Yuri Baluyevsky, after being informed of Georgian and Ukraine ambitions for NATO membership, fumed: “Russia will take unambiguous action toward ensuring its interests along its borders.”18 Supporters of this argument allege that enlargement endangers NATO’s relationship with Russia on strategic arms control, nation-building, the Middle East, energy security, immigration, and, especially, with respect to ballistic missile defence. NATO’s isolation of Russia incites hostility, ultranationalism, and military aggression against the West, and it renews Cold War animosities. Due to these potential consequences, the former Undersecretary of Homeland Security and noted lawyer and academic Michael D. Brown considers expansion “... [as] unnecessary given the current strategic and political situation in Europe.”19

There is also concern that the financial risk of enlargement will reduce NATO’s military capability and obscure decision-making. As US General B.J. Craddock declared, rather than increase burden-sharing, new membership could “consume” NATO’s military capacity and dilute regional security. For example, as NATO’s missions have expanded into Afghanistan, there have been questions raised about the competence of some of Europe’s armed forces, their conduct of warfighting operations, and with respect to limited troop and equipment contributions.20

Russian President Vladimir Putin

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the 43rd Annual Conference on Security Policy in Munich, Germany, 10 February 2007.

Analyzing conflicting paradigms

Spreading democracy and free trade through NATO seems almost utopian, were it not for the historical fact that Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany after free elections.21 Unfortunately, Bush’s rhetoric in support of republican liberalism “...provides both an idealistic and a national interest rationale for the policy of promoting democracy [by force].”22 Unquestionably, NATO decision-making through consensus limits United States unilateral action. Nevertheless, as US Congressman Ron Paul acknowledges, NATO enlargement could be a justification for increased United States interventionism in Europe.23 Since 2004, nine former communist nations, supported particularly by the United States, have become members of NATO. At Bucharest, American efforts to have Georgia and Ukraine commence their membership process were rejected by Germany and France, due to concerns from Russia.

NATO initiatives, such as Partnership for Peace and the Membership Action Plan, support democratic institution-building. However, they are not enough. Stability will not be achieved in Eastern Europe through enlargement unless ratification of NATO membership is conducted in parallel with the EU.24 This promotes ‘...a self-reinforcing process of increased economic prosperity and increased military security.’25 Collective security without internal economic reform can trigger internal and external crises, threatening the society, the nation-state, and, indirectly, the wider alliance relationship. The frustrations of Bosnia and Kosovo reveal NATO’s limitations in supporting the creation of legitimate governments capable of generating opportunities for free market interdependence. Achieving governance and economic pluralism together has always been problematical for NATO, due to an unwillingness to better integrate civilian and military efforts. Further, this issue has restricted NATO members from contributing military forces elsewhere, particularly to Afghanistan.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has warned that “NATO must not – cannot – become a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not.”26 Military commanders in Afghanistan indicate that this is already the case.27 Greater membership should bring new capabilities and increased burden-sharing. However, although most NATO countries have some resources in-theatre, the majority are either limited in number or restricted from operations, particularly the south, by national caveats. Andrew Purvis indicates that only the US, the UK, Denmark, Canada, and the Netherlands have enough troops in the region to provide any real substance. Example caveats include not being allowed to fight at night, firing only in self-defence, and not being able to operate outside national areas of responsibility. These restrictions reduce NATO’s freedom of action and complicate decision-making.28

A further problem concerns the compatibility of military forces. Although NATO has combined training centres and exercises that focus on interoperability, this area needs much improvement. Many European armies do not possess the required professionalism, training, doctrine, or equipment to be effective in environments such as Afghanistan or Kosovo. Recently, at a NATO military course in Munich, I was told as much by military officers from the former Soviet Union. Many European nations appear to lack political will. Last year, 51 percent of the Spanish population indicated that they did not want to be represented in Afghanistan. And 71 percent of the German population do not agree with Germany’s participation.29

NATO’s reassessment of the NATO Reaction Force (NRF) is another example of empty promises. At the Prague summit in 2002, NATO members supported the development of a NATO multi-national expeditionary force. The NRF was to be capable of high readiness and to be deployable in support of Article 5 missions, counter- terrorism, humanitarian assistance, and non-combatant evacuation operations. At the time, US General James L. Jones suggested ‘...the NRF is the primary vehicle for transforming the Alliance’s force structures and improving its military capability.’30 However, disagreement over force generation, financing, missions, and support to other operations has required NATO to reconsider the size and scope of the NRF. The fact that its role mirrors the EU Rapid Reaction Force is also a limitation. Doctor Peter Schmidt, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Mannheim and a specialist in transatlantic, NATO, and UN relations, notes “...[that] NATO and EU are chasing after the same highly skilled soldier and of course the same euro to finance these missions.”31

Consequently, it should be expected that a policy of NATO enlargement ought to resolve some of these problems. Greater collective defence should reduce financial constraints on national military capability. However, some member states – even after completing the Membership Action Process – possess no serious capabilities. European armies based upon conscripts are not relevant or ready to support NATO’s vision of an expeditionary, deployable military force. “Seven out of NATO’s 26 members meet the alliance benchmark of spending 2 percent of their GDP on defence – compared to 3.8 percent in the U.S. – and in most cases, those percentages are falling.”32 Hungarian soldiers, for example, are not issued capable field gear. German helicopters cannot fly at night, due to a lack of navigation equipment.33 Training and education remain rudimentary by Western standards – former Warsaw Pact armed forces lack an intellectual understanding of fighting in the modern security environment. Unfortunately, this failure is reinforced by the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and Australia not sharing sensitive information and/or operational lessons learned with wider NATO membership, due to security concerns.

NATO expansion

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US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (centre) with a group of NATO aspirant defence ministers from Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, 7 June 2002.


NATO has been described as “...first and foremost a political alliance devoted to strengthening and defending ... democratic values at home and around the world.”34 The broadening of the alliance to other countries that share democratic values using “advanced partnerships” is likely long-term.35 As Robin Shepherd, a Senior Fellow at Britain’s Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, commented at the recent Bucharest conference, there were definitely “fears for the future.”36 Uncertainty remains about NATO’s role in global affairs, the NRF, and burden-sharing in Afghanistan. There is ambiguity and indecision regarding Russia’s relationship with NATO, missile defence, and the enlargement of NATO’s membership.

This article has examined whether NATO should seek further expansion. Although bringing new members into NATO is important for long-term stability in Europe, the revolutionary zeal displayed since 2004 is reversing attempts to develop military capability that is both credible and robust. This situation is creating a de facto two-tier system, and is making NATO’s ‘open door’ statement an empty promise. NATO has been too ambitious and needs to consolidate. The recent veto of Georgian and Ukrainian membership by Germany and France provides NATO the time and space to resolve its current political, financial, and military affairs. Nevertheless, NATO should continue to search for stability by broadening its membership, and by clearly defining and supporting its global role. This will take some time to be effective. Much will depend upon NATO and Russian détente (perhaps with Russia becoming a member state), and the next stage of the Global War on Terrorism. Javier Solana, a former NATO secretary general, reinforces in a clear statement why expansion is critical:

By enlarging NATO and the EU we are enlarging the zone of security and prosperity enjoyed by only half of Europe over the past 50 years...Not to enlarge would lead to a permanent division of this continent into a prosperous West and a stagnant, frustrated East...we either export stability or import instability.37

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Major John Carey, Australian Army, is currently the Division Chief Engineer Captains Career Course at the United States Army Engineer School. He has provided engineering support to jungle, airmobile, and amphibious operations, has commanded an engineer squadron in East Timor, taught tactics at the Royal School of Military Engineering in the United Kingdom, and served as an adviser on peace operations in Israel, Jordan, and Bougainville. He is a graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy, the Royal Military College Duntroon, and the Australian Command and Staff College.


  1. General B.J. Craddock, ‘NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Europe comments on NATO Enlargement,’ at <www.defenselink.mil/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=49262>, 12 March 2008.
  2. Daniel Fried, ‘NATO: Enlargement and Effectiveness,’ (US Department of State Washington), at <www.state.gov/p/eur/rls/rm/102134.htm>, March 2008.
  3. Henry Kissinger, ‘NATO: Make it Stronger, Make it Larger,’ in The Washington Post, 14 January 1997, p. 15.
  4. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, ‘Reinventing NATO – Does the Alliance reflect the changing nature of Transatlantic Security?’ at <www.int/docu/speech/2005/s050524a.htm>, Brussels, 24 May 2005.
  5. Nile Gardiner, ‘The NATO Riga Summit: Time for Backbone in the Alliance,’ at <http://www.heritage.org/Research/Europe/wm1261.cfm>, 2004.
  6. de Hoop Scheffer.
  7. Fried.
  8. de Hoop Scheffer.
  9. Andrew Purvis, ‘NATO: Alliance of the Unwilling,’ at <www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1725548,00.html> Berlin, 26 March 2007, p.7.
  10. N. Triantafyllou, NATO Organisation and Force Structure/Multinational Formations, (ENTEC Presentation, Munich), 5 December 2007.
  11. Dan Reiter, ‘Why NATO Enlargement Does Not Spread Democracy,’ in International Security, <www.muse.jhu.edu/demo/international_security/v025/25.4reiter.html>, 2001, p.1.
  12. Fried, p.1.
  13. President G.W. Bush, Second Inaugural Address, in <http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/01/20050120-1>,Washington DC, 2005.
  14. James L. Richardson, Contending Liberalisms in World Politics: Ideology and Power (Boulder, CO: NP, 2001), p.72.
  15. Richard Myers, ‘What Will It Mean? The Military and Financial Implications of NATO Enlargement,’ at <www.fas.org/man/eprint/myers.htm>, Quantico, VA, 1997, p. 5.
  16. Triantafyllou.
  17. Michael Evans, ‘Putin: NATO expansion is direct threat,’ in The Australian Newspaper at <http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23494443-26040,00.html>, 7 April 2008.
  18. General Y. Baluyevsky quoted in Deutsche Welle, ‘Russia talks tough in response to NATO’s eastward expansion,’ at <http://dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,3261078,00.html>, 11 April 2008.
  19. Myers, p .6.
  20. Purvis, p. 2.
  21. Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom, (New York, Norton, 2004), p.17.
  22. Richardson, p.72.
  23. Ron Paul, ‘Don’t Expand NATO,’ Antiwar.com at <http://www.antiwar.com/paul/?articleid=2256>, 6 April 2004
  24. Myers, p. 6.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Purvis, p. 2.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid., p. 3.
  30. Triantafyllou.
  31. Peter Schmidt quoted in J. Dempsey, ‘NATO Retreats from Establishment of Rapid Reaction Force,’ in <www.iht.com/articles/2007/og/20/europe/force.php>, 20 September 2007.
  32. Purvis, p .3.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Victoria Nuland, ‘US NATO Ambassador Address at Skopje, Macedonia,’ (London, 2006, at <www.nato.usmission.gov/ambassador/2006/Amb_Nuland_Macedonia_030806.htm>).
  35. Ibid.
  36. Richard Shepherd, ‘Fears for the Future,’ (London, April 2008), at <www.theworldtoday.org>, p.1
  37. Javier Solana, ‘Dinner Speech,’ at <www.nato.int/docu/speech/1998/s980517a.htm>, 17 May 1998.


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