The Cruel Irony of NATO Membership: If You Want to Get In, There’s No Way You’re Getting In

How It Works
Aug. 29 2014 2:51 PM

The Cruel Irony of NATO Membership

Par7959488
Members of Ukrainian volunteer battalion Dnipro stand in a truck covered in steel plates near the small southern Ukrainian city of Novoazovsk, Donetsk region, on Aug. 27, 2014.

Photo by Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images

In a reversal of the old Groucho Marx/Woody Allen line, NATO is now a club where the only countries who want to join have no choice of becoming members.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

With Russia ramping up its military involvement in Ukraine, Kiev is reopening the question of NATO membership in what Reuters calls “its most decisive step yet to pursue Western military protection from what it now describes as an invasion by its neighbour.” Article 5 of NATO’s charter would require other members of the alliance to come to Ukraine’s aid in the event of an outside attack.

Advertisement

NATO membership has long been a goal for Ukraine, but one vigorously opposed by Russia. Back in April 2008, the question of membership for Ukraine and Georgia split a NATO summit in Bucharest, with the Bush administration pushing for the two post-Soviet states to be admitted and most European states opposing.

Four months later Russia invaded Georgia, which could be seen as a vindication of Bush’s position—Article 5 protection could have acted as a deterrent against Russian aggression—or as a vindication of Europe’s: The treaty could have drawn the United States and its allies into a costly and potentially catastrophic war with Russia.

Much of the postwar analysis of the Georgia war suggested that it had made membership less likely for those Eastern European nations that aren’t already part of NATO. After all, few governments want to shoulder the burden of protecting Vladimir Putin’s neighbors. And indeed, NATO stopped short of offering a membership plan to Georgia at a summit in June, and the United States reportedly didn’t put up much of a fight over the issue this time.

This is the irony of NATO membership. The events of the past few months have made it very clear why Ukraine is interested in Article 5 protection. Past agreements, which affirm the country’s territorial integrity but don’t include any guarantees of military assistance, have proved pretty useless. NATO membership is the main reason why the risk to countries like Poland and the Baltic States is likely pretty minimal.

But NATO is never going to offer a security guarantee to a country under imminent risk of attack—or in Ukraine’s case, under actual attack. In short, the countries most in need of a security guarantee are the least likely to be given one.

The crisis also makes clear that the Eastern European countries that are in the club are lucky to have gotten in during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when tensions weren’t running quite so high. The road to membership is a much tougher one now. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The Feds Have Declared War on Encryption—and the New Privacy Measures From Apple and Google

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You

It spreads slowly.

These “Dark” Lego Masterpieces Are Delightful and Evocative

Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Activists Are Trying to Save an Iranian Woman Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?