Should NATO Open Its Doors to Georgia?
Reason‘s December special issue marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This story is part of our exploration of the global legacy of that evil empire, and our effort to be certain that the dire consequences of communism are not forgotten.
Central to many of the thorny geopolitical issues that have surrounded Georgia since it gained independence three decades ago is what happened at NATO’s 2008 summit in Romania.
President George W. Bush, attending his final NATO summit before leaving office, arrived in Bucharest intent on nudging his fellow leaders toward accepting Georgia into the fold. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia had pursued closer ties with Europe and the U.S. It was a key American ally during the early years of Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, contributing hundreds of troops to the effort and allowing the U.S. to use its airstrips. Why not make the relationship official?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy led the opposition. Inviting Georgia to join NATO or even suggesting that it was the alliance’s long-term plan to do so, they warned, would needlessly spur Russian aggression. And Georgia’s location—next to Russia, in the Caucasus, outside the existing NATO borders—created a major vulnerability for the rest of the alliance, with little to be gained from the addition.
Bush won the argument in Bucharest. But it didn’t take long for Merkel and Sarkozy to be proven right.
Just hours after NATO published the Bucharest Summit Declaration, a statement that included vague language supporting Georgia’s (and Ukraine’s) eventual membership, the Russian government announced plans to provide military support to pro-Russia militias in Georgia.
Four months later, Russian tanks rolled across the border in response to a Georgian offensive against those now-emboldened militias. The war ended in less than two weeks. But it left 20,000 Georgians displaced from their homes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway provinces with large populations of ethnic Russians. More than a decade later, those two provinces remain under de facto Russian control, even though the Georgian government still claims them.
Now the Biden administration is once again suggesting that Georgia could join NATO—with a few important caveats.
Asked about the status of the former Soviet state during his confirmation hearing in January, Secretary of State Antony Blinken left the door decidedly ajar. “If a country like Georgia is able to meet the requirements of membership and if it can contribute to ou
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