What does it take to join NATO?

EXPLANATION : NATO is the world’s most successful military alliance, essential both to the West’s success in the Cold War and to securing the European order that followed. He struggled with many doubts about his purpose in the post-Cold War world. Yet it has grown considerably over the decades, growing from the original 12 allies in 1949 to 30 today. The last to join was North Macedonia in 2020. Now Finland, and probably Sweden, is knocking on the door. Why do countries want to join NATO and what does it take to become a member?

The main attraction is Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, NATO’s founding document, which sets out the mutual defense promise: “The parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or in North America will be considered an attack on them. This is often seen as a guarantee to militarily defend an attacked ally; in fact, a member only undertakes to “assist” and take “such measures as he deems necessary” to restore or maintain security in the North Atlantic region This may – or may not – include the armed force.

Flags flutter in the wind in front of NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Olivier Matthys/AP

Flags flutter in the wind in front of NATO headquarters in Brussels.

There are few treaty rules for joining the alliance. NATO does not have a European-style acquis, the vast body of legislation that new members must adopt into national law. Article 10 of the Washington Treaty states that the allies may unanimously invite “any other European state in a position to promote the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic region”.

It does not define “European”, nor does it say what the members’ contribution should be. Membership is therefore largely a matter of political discretion – above all the wishes of America, the largest contributor to the alliance and its ultimate guarantor, which extends its nuclear deterrent through NATO.

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Greece and Turkey, although governed at various times by military juntas, have been members since 1952. But with the accession of post-Franco Spain in 1982, NATO membership became more closely linked to the democratization of Europe, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. . Membership therefore became a more formal process with accepted standards. One is NATO’s “open door” policy, whereby the alliance offers the prospect of membership to all European countries willing and able to join.

Others were the requirements set out in the NATO Enlargement Study, a policy document from 1995. They included: a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy; fair treatment of minorities; a commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflicts; the ability and willingness to make a military contribution to NATO; and civilian control over military forces. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined in 1999.

That year, NATO launched a “Membership Action Plan” (MAP) to help other hopefuls. For many countries, NATO membership has become, in effect, a step towards EU membership. NATO members have promised to spend 2% of their GDP on defence, but this target is not binding and most allies are still not reaching it.

Two sets of problems have slowed down NATO enlargement in recent years. One concerns the tangled conflicts of the Western Balkans. North Macedonia only joined after settling a drawn-out dispute with Greece over its official name; Bosnia and Herzegovina, torn by internal tensions, remains in the antechamber.

US President Joe Biden speaks about the Russian invasion of Ukraine during a press conference after a NATO summit.

Evan Vucci/AP

US President Joe Biden speaks about the Russian invasion of Ukraine during a press conference after a NATO summit.

An even greater difficulty has been Russia’s hostility to NATO that has spilled over into ex-Soviet territories, particularly Georgia and Ukraine. At the Bucharest summit in 2008, the divided NATO allies agreed on an awkward compromise: the two countries were not formally admitted to the MAP, but were told vaguely that they “would become NATO members. Later that year, Russia fought a short war against Georgia in support of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Similarly in Ukraine, in response to the Maidan revolution of 2014, Russia seized Crimea and fomented a separatist revolt that led to the creation of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, allegedly in the name of further NATO expansion, caused a profound shift in mentality in the West. Russia is again an acute threat; defense spending is increasing in Europe, especially in Germany; the allies pour weapons on Ukraine; and after a brief internal debate, Finland is about to apply, almost certainly followed by Sweden.

Despite their tradition of non-alignment, both Finland and Sweden have been close to NATO, especially since 2014, sending soldiers to Afghanistan, participating in NATO exercises, sharing intelligence and attending alliance meetings. Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, declared “we will welcome them with open arms”.

Since these are mature democracies and highly interoperable with NATO, membership should be quick. Prospective members must send a letter of intent to NATO and, assuming it approves, hold talks on a range of political, defence, legal and technical issues. NATO would then draft accession protocols which could be signed by ministers or ambassadors to NATO.

While these preliminary steps can be completed quickly, within weeks, membership requires ratification by all existing NATO members, which can take months. Macedonia signed the accession protocol in February 2019, but did not officially join until March 2020. NATO officials expect the process for Finland and Sweden to be much faster. “These are not normal times,” said one.

Even so, at a time when Russia accuses NATO of waging a proxy war against it and waves the nuclear saber, the accession process creates a period of vulnerability where an aspiring state may face retaliation or harassment by Russia but not formally covered by Article 5. Allies may offer interim assurances. The most explicit came from Britain, which on May 11 exchanged letters with Sweden and Finland promising to help them if attacked. Even more reassuring would be a similar promise from America.

© 2020 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. Excerpt from The Economist published under licence. The original article can be found at www.economist.com.

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