NATO caution on Ukraine, Georgia

New members have been good for the alliance. Let's not rush toward Ukraine and Georgia.

Where Germany and other NATO old timers demur in Afghanistan's hot spots, newcomer Poland is willing to go. Ditto newbies Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, and the Czech Republic which have deployed to combat areas. Count that as a plus for a larger NATO.

This week, the 26-member military alliance will again consider adding new members (the last admissions were in 2004 and 1999). As with many questions about its identity and purpose, though, the group is split. Does NATO benefit from more members?

It's hard enough reaching consensus with so many countries now in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which did such an outstanding job as safety guarantor of Western Europe during the cold war.

New threats and changing geopolitics make agreement even harder. NATO still vacillates on its post-cold-war purpose. Should an out-of-area deployment such as Afghanistan be an exception or not? And how should NATO deal with a Russia reverting to autocracy?

This last question bears directly on the enlargement decisions. In advance of this week's NATO summit in Romania, President Bush arrives in Ukraine to support its request that it be allowed to start the long road toward possible NATO membership. Georgia, Russia's southern neighbor, has also asked NATO for a "membership action plan," or MAP.

The US, as well as several Central European members, favor Ukraine's and Georgia's request. But Germany, France, and other Western European members of NATO have misgivings. They don't want to antagonize oil-and-gas supplier Russia, which views NATO enlargement as a threat. Russia warns it will target nuclear missiles at Ukraine if it joins NATO.

So far, enlargement has been good for the alliance. The prospect of membership acted as a democratic, military, and economic reform incentive for previously communist countries. That's why Mr. Bush is keen to grow NATO eastward.

The newcomers have also contributed militarily to NATO. They've sent peacekeepers to the Balkans and have about 3,000 troops – the equivalent of a US brigade – in Afghanistan. Their numbers are not huge, but they do count.

And three Balkan countries on the verge of admission this week (Croatia, Macedonia, and Albania) can help batten down that volatile region.

But NATO should proceed with caution in Ukraine and Georgia. The majority of Ukraine's population actually opposes NATO membership (most especially in the Russia-favoring east). Georgia has two frozen territorial conflicts within its borders.

And where is the US debate about a commitment that could involve defending these two countries?

The alliance should never allow Russia veto power over members, but it's also clear that Russia is still alarmed over NATO's push east. Bush is right that democracies on Russia's borders will provide stability, but the alliance needs to patiently help Russia reduce its nationalist fervor.

New leaders are on the horizon in the US and Russia. Let's keep the door open for Ukraine and Georgia, but not rush toward them.

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