This weekend's NATO summit in Chicago is the first in decades to make little to no progress on the enlargement of the organization, leaving several countries to wait another two years to move toward membership in the world's premier military alliance.
In the official 65-point summit declaration issued Sunday, there were several references to the four countries vying for progress on their road to NATO membership: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Georgia. But none came away from the summit with any tangible progress to tout back at home. NATO expansion was just not a priority of the Obama administration this year, U.S. officials and experts say, given the packed security-focused agenda and looming uncertainly caused by the deepening European financial crisis.
The 28 NATO foreign ministers did meet with leaders of the four "aspirant" countries, and the declaration praised those countries' contributions to NATO missions, but offered them little more than polite thanks.
"We are grateful to these partners that aspire to NATO membership for the important contributions they are making to NATO-led operations, and which demonstrate their commitment to our shared security goals," the declaration said.
"We're caught in this halfway place of ‘the door is open,' but it feels as if there's no political will or energy to make it happen," said Heather Conley, senior fellow and director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "NATO enlargement has always been about strong American leadership, but this has not been a top priority for this administration."
Each would-be NATO member has its own roadblocks to membership. Bosnia still has some constitutional reforms to enact before it can be eligible. Georgia, recently named an "aspirant" NATO member, has its bid tied up by the Russian occupation of two of its territories. Montenegro has been granted its NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), the final step before membership. But Macedonia, which was granted MAP status way back in 1999, can't join NATO because Greece is still demanding that the Republic of Macedonia change its name.
There was a concerted effort in Washington in the lead up to the summit to push for a resolution to the Macedonia name dispute, but to no avail. Last month, 54 members of Congress wrote to President Barack Obama to ask him to break the logjam. Obama's own former National Security Advisor, Jim Jones, wrote an op-ed May 18 urging the president to do more on enlargement.
"The alliance's enlargement has been a priority at each major meeting of NATO heads of state since the fall of the Berlin Wall," Jones wrote. "This weekend, when NATO leaders convene in Chicago, enlargement may be swept under the rug in deference to other topics of concern. That would be a blow to stability in the Balkans and to the Republic of Macedonia in particular."
Just before the summit began, former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, with former Defense Secretaries William Cohen and Donald Rumfeld, wrote a letter to the president urging him to break the impasse over Macedonia's membership or risk alienating European countries in transition that want to look to the West.
"Today, NATO is at a crossroads. As defense spending among NATO members falls, new aspirant nations in Southeastern Europe will provide needed manpower and resources to the Alliance. And while the region has made steady progress since the conflicts of the 1990s, stability in the Balkans cannot be taken for granted," they wrote. "We cannot afford to send mixed messages to those nations that are willing to stand up and be counted."
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), came to the defense of Georgia's membership aspirations last week. In an op-ed in The Hill she argued for enlargement and called in a separate statement for progress on Georgia's bid.
"Georgia's security and sovereignty is critical to U.S. interests in the region. Georgia was invaded by Russian forces in 2008, and large portions of its territory remain under Russian occupation," she said. "I strongly urge our Administration to work with our allies at the NATO Summit in Chicago later this month to ensure that Georgia becomes a full member of the Alliance as soon as possible."
Conley pointed to the Serbian elections this weekend, where Serbians chose an ultra-nationalist known as "Toma the Gravedigger" to be their president, as evidence that these countries could slip back toward authoritarianism if not given full support and inclusion by Western organizations.
"If we let this agenda lapse, we may not like what we see in the future," she warned.