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Zombie NATO Expansion Stumbles On

Leonid Bershidsky makes a good case against bringing North Macedonia into NATO:

For the U.S., which provides the security umbrella for NATO countries, North Macedonia looks to be just another freeloader. Its military spending will amount to 1.19 percent of gross domestic product this year – roughly the same level as in Germany, which Trump has repeatedly upbraided for its pacifism. In absolute terms, it’s a pittance, some $153 million in 2019 for a military with about 8,000 active personnel. NATO gains nothing by taking it in and stretching the umbrella a little more.

The alliance isn’t losing much, either. Once can hardly see Russia, or anyone else, attacking Montenegro or North Macedonia. But the U.S. does need to consider what it gets out of an alliance with an increasing number of small members primarily interested using it as a step on the way to EU accession.

Everything Bershidsky says is true, and it lines up with what I have been saying about adding Montenegro and (North) Macedonia to the alliance for years. The U.S. doesn’t need more security dependents, and expanding the alliance to include these states doesn’t make the U.S. one iota more secure and it doesn’t make the alliance any stronger.

By padding the alliance’s membership with small states that add little or nothing to U.S. and European security, NATO expansion has become a zombie process that continues for its own sake long after it ceased to serve any legitimate purpose. Bershidsky is more generous about previous rounds of expansion than I am, but adding North Macedonia is so ridiculous and unnecessary that he throws up his hands in dismay:

It’s hard, if not impossible, to make any kind of geo-strategic case for North Macedonia’s NATO membership. The country didn’t play a major role in the Balkans conflict. It is tiny, landlocked and resource-poor. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government hasn’t even tried to make the case. It’s interested in a NATO membership less as a security guarantee than as a de facto prerequisite for EU membership.

The funny thing about the latest round of expansion in the Balkans is that it has taken place on Trump’s watch. Atlanticists have been pulling their hair out for years over Trump’s alleged anti-NATO attitudes, but when it comes to how the alliance is run Trump has done nothing significantly different in practice from his predecessors. He will whine about how other members aren’t paying what they “owe,” and he doesn’t seem to grasp that alliances are not protection rackets, but that hasn’t stopped the alliance from adding two new free-riding allies while he is president. The president’s supposed hostility to NATO has never been as strong or as serious as his hawkish detractors have claimed, and this is just one more issue on which the president likes to make a lot of noise while doing nothing to change the status quo.

The danger from these useless rounds of expansion is that it will tempt the alliance into trying to bring in even more states in areas that matter more to Russia. Russia protests all NATO expansion, but there are some countries along its borders that it will absolutely not allow to join. The alliance has had a bad track record of understanding the second part. The alliance should be satisfied that it now has a nice round number of 30 members and never add another. Unfortunately, there will likely continue to be agitation for more expansion in both the north and the east. Based on the experience of previous rounds, there will be almost no serious debate in Washington over whether to make NATO even bigger.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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