Seth Mandel and Christina Lin recall the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit:
Fast-forward to the 2008 NATO conference in Bucharest. At a meeting of NATO foreign ministers presided over by Condoleezza Rice, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made a case against Georgia’s accession to NATO predicated on the troubled breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, calling them “frozen conflicts” with Russia. Then the pile-on commenced. One official called out Germany’s hypocrisy, noting that West Germany was admitted to NATO in 1949, despite its own “frozen conflict” with Moscow that wouldn’t be solved for another four decades. Poland’s foreign minister then spoke up, referencing the Munich Agreement of 1938. Rice, according to her own recollection, pleaded with Steinmeier: “We can’t let [Moscow] split the alliance.”
If the official in question referred to West German accession happening in 1949, it’s understandable that this argument was ignored. West Germany didn’t become a member of NATO until 1955. Sloppy chronology aside, this argument is not very good for another obvious reason. Any comparison between admitting West Germany into NATO then and the prospect of bringing Georgia into the alliance now has to ignore that the West German government didn’t have outstanding territorial disputes with separatist regions*. When West Germany was incorporated into NATO, its territorial boundaries were not in dispute. No one thought that a security guarantee to West Germany would oblige the alliance to defend East Germany against attack. Extending that guarantee to Georgia would oblige the alliance to defend parts of Georgia that have not been governed by Tbilisi in twenty years.
Even before the August 2008 war and Russian recognition of the “independence” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it was still necessary for Georgia to resolve its internal territorial disputes. This is not unique to the Georgian case. It is one of the standard requirements for all new NATO applicants beginning with the first round of post-Cold War expansion in the mid-90s:
6.States which have ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional disputes must settle those disputes by peaceful means in accordance with OSCE principles. Resolution of such disputes would be a factor in determining whether to invite a state to join the Alliance.
Whether we consider the disputes with South Ossetia and Abkhazia to be external or internal, that doesn’t get Georgia any closer to meeting this requirement. Russia didn’t divide the alliance over Georgian membership. Rather, it took advantage of existing divisions that the debate over continued expansion created. Georgian membership was a controversial idea pushed by the U.S., and it would almost certainly have alarmed the Germans because of Georgia’s “frozen conflicts” and because of Germany’s desire to maintain good relations with Russia whether the Russians were represented at the summit or not.
* The comparison between West Germany and Georgia also has to ignore that West German accession to NATO enhanced allied and European security, and Georgian accession would create an immediate liability for the alliance. The U.S. had concrete interests that were served by bringing West Germany into NATO. There is no American or allied interest that is served by bringing in Georgia.