On Nov. 9, 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron issued a warning to his security partners in the West — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the military alliance founded in 1949 to prevent Soviet expansionism in Western Europe, was undergoing “brain death.”
Macron’s comments shocked the French president’s NATO allies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel pulled Macron aside during a 30th anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall and chided him for being disruptive. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg sought to heal the rift during NATO’s 70th anniversary summit in December, when leaders agreed to establish a panel to review the alliance’s future.
After months of deliberations, that panel is now in operation. Unfortunately, if precedent is any guide, the project will likely be a bureaucratic exercise consisting of copious amounts of talking, tedious examination of procedures and — when the review is completed — a final report outlining a series of minor, technical recommendations.
Such an exercise would be a monumental waste of the alliance’s time. NATO’s problems are far more systemic. As its most powerful member, the United States has a responsibility to ensure that some of the alliance’s core assumptions are reevaluated. That inevitably means seriously debating an open-door policy that has long outlived its usefulness.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO has adopted a liberal expansion policy. Over the last 20 years, the alliance has roughly doubled its membership from 16 to 30. Most of the newest members have been the smallest economically, and least impressive militarily, adding virtually nothing to the alliance’s collective military power.
Montenegro, which joined NATO in 2017 thanks in part to a lopsided 97-2 ratification vote in the U.S. Senate, is a tiny Balkan country with an active-duty army of less than 3,000 personnel and a gross domestic product of $5.5 billion — roughly the size of Christian county in Kentucky.
The metrics of North Macedonia, inducted with great fanfare on March 27 as NATO’s 30th member state, are hardly any better. Residing in a landlocked section of the Balkans and cut off from the Adriatic and Aegean seas, North Macedonia’s GDP ($12.6 billion) is less than one-tenth the size of Alabama’s economy. The country holds no geopolitical value whatsoever to Europe, let alone to the United States. Its military is so small that even the Central Intelligence Agency hasn’t released a public estimate of its end strength.
At a time when Washington is correctly emphasizing the concept of burden-sharing in U.S. foreign policy and legitimately encouraging European states to embrace primary responsibility for Europe’s external defense, accepting countries like North Macedonia, which only spends 1.19 percent of its GDP on its defense budget, is inimitable to the Trump administration’s objective.
NATO enlargement, however, is not just about numbers and budgets. It’s also about American lives. While nobody is predicting outright war in the Balkans in the near future, the region is notoriously unpredictable and explosive. The fact that North Macedonia is now a formal part of the alliance means that U.S. troops could theoretically be deployed 5,000 miles away to defend this small nation if the North Macedonian government requests military assistance. By continuing to support NATO’s open-door policy, Washington is accepting more risk, burdening itself with nonsensical security commitments, undermining its own National Security Strategy and practically asking to send American service members into a strategically pointless military confrontation sometime in the future.
U.S. support for NATO enlargement over the last 30 years is also having a negative impact on its bilateral relationship with Russia, a country whose political leadership never misses an opportunity to remind Washington of what it perceives as a duplicitous campaign to enhance U.S. power and constrain Moscow’s influence. U.S. strategist George Kennan warned about exactly this outcome 23 years earlier, when he wrote that "expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.”
History has proven Kennan right. NATO expansion is an enabler of Moscow’s most aggressive instincts. It is no coincidence that the Russian military invaded Georgia months after the Bush administration publicly lobbied for Tbilisi’s membership during a 2008 NATO summit. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stealth military operation in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula six years later may have been a violation of the rules of the road, as so many in Washington and Brussels have said. But Moscow’s foreign policy is also a product of the Kremlin’s longstanding fear of U.S. strategic intentions.
Today, relations between Washington and Moscow are arguably at their lowest since the early 1980’s.
A legacy alliance, NATO has seen better days — today, it is covered in cobwebs and dominated by stale thinking. The world has changed significantly since the alliance’s only adversary collapsed in 1992, yet Cold War assumptions remain.
If NATO’s new committee seeks to reform how the organization does business, it could start by recommending the termination of the alliance’s open-door policy. Keeping those doors open increases the probability of U.S. troops someday being asked to go fight a war totally disconnected from U.S. national security.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.