Becoming NATO’s Next Ally

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When NATO leaders meet in Chicago this weekend, they will review the process of enlargement and the performance of candidate nations. While no invitations will be issued, the summit is an opportunity for allies to affirm that NATO will continue to enlarge and that Montenegro is on track to earn a place among their ranks. Indeed, Montenegro can become NATO’s next ally.

Montenegro regained independence only six years ago. In deciding to pursue membership in NATO, Montenegro’s leaders are putting the country on an irreversible path to ensure its sovereignty, deepen its democracy, and provide stability fostering economic growth. NATO after all is as much a community of shared values as one of shared interests.

Membership within an alliance of democracies is the best guarantee for the permanence of the Montenegrin state. As an ally, Montenegro–much like Estonia or Poland–would never again be concerned about its survival as a sovereign nation or domination by other states.

For many Montenegrin citizens, the decision to join the Alliance is a difficult one. Many know NATO best from the 1999 air campaign against Slobodan Milosevic, during which bombs struck Montenegrin territory, accidentally killing innocent civilians.

The reality is that NATO minimized targeting Montenegro during the 1999 campaign to underscore that the source of the conflict was Milosevic, not Montenegro. NATO reluctantly intervened in the Balkans only after Milosevic demonstrated how determined he was to subjugate and slaughter Kosovars. Even the people of Serbia decided that they deserved a better future than the one offered by Milosevic’s failed policies.

Some argue that NATO or the United States is pressuring Montenegro into the Alliance. Rubbish. NATO should welcome Montenegro, but does not need Montenegro. The Alliance is not seeking military bases. No allies expect to profit from arms sales to a new ally. That is not how NATO works. Furthermore, there is no strategic imperative for the Alliance to ensure its members are geographically contiguous, even along the Adriatic coastline. Such thinking is from the 19th century.

Others argue that once Montenegro joins it will lose control of its own destiny. NATO is an organization based on consensus, not coercion. The truth is that any single ally can block the Alliance from acting. In practice, the members share such similar values and interests that they agree on most big issues. Each ally decides how it will contribute to any alliance decision. Honor, trust, and loyalty–not coercion or force–help ensure the alliance works well.

Some Montenegrins think that membership in NATO will preclude close ties to Serbia or Russia. This is not the case. Relations between Poland and Russia, for example, have actually improved since Poland joined the Alliance.

NATO and Serbia maintain a constructive, professional relationship. NATO seeks much more cooperation. In all likelihood, Belgrade will intensify its relations with the Alliance after Serbian elections this year.

NATO has been making real efforts to work closely with Russia on issues of shared interest such as Afghanistan and missile defense through a NATO-Russia Council and the Alliance seeks more cooperation. The limitations to the NATO-Russia relationship tend to reflect a divergence in shared values as Russia has become less democratic. But it is not true that Montenegro cannot welcome Russian investment in its economy or must minimize its cultural and economic links to Russia. Montenegro is right to welcome foreign investors who can help grow the economy and who abide by transparent rules. As a sovereign state, Montenegro determines its own destiny.

What is attractive to NATO is the fact that Montenegro is a model of peace and stability in a region plagued by a history of violence and insecurity. Montenegro is the only nation in the western Balkans to avoid conflict. The integration of the western Balkans into the transatlantic community is a formula for permanent stability in the region. Therefore Montenegro’s accession, much like that of Croatia and Albania, contributes to European security.

Joining NATO is not easy. Alliance standards are high. Despite only beginning NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) in 2010, Montenegro has made great progress in meeting the reform benchmarks and the responsibilities of membership.

The country has held free and fair elections, and has another opportunity to burnish its democratic credentials in parliamentary elections this fall. The voice of the opposition is heard. The country has worked to overcome the legacy of years of suffering under embargos targeting Milosevic by launching a serious effort to tackle organized crime, narcotics trafficking, and corruption. Montenegro has adopted the right legal framework and now the international community looks forward to demonstrable results.

Montenegro has developed a coherent national security strategy and modest but useful capabilities to contribute to Alliance operations. Since 2010, an infantry platoon has served with distinction as part of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral Jim Stavridis, during his recent visit, affirmed that Montenegro is on track toward membership. Montenegro would strengthen its candidacy by developing a plan to restore defense spending to two percent of GDP as the economy grows.

The day after Chicago, Montenegro’s goal becomes to secure an invitation for membership at the next NATO summit in 2014. To achieve this, Montenegrin advocates of NATO membership must do much more to educate the people of Montenegro about NATO – and dispel misperceptions.

NATO membership is not something nations can take lightly. It is not simply a stepping stone to membership in the European Union. Rather accession to NATO requires countries make a solemn pledge to consider an attack on one as an attack on all–that is, to commit to the pledge in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. Such a profound commitment cannot be the commitment of one government or one political party. The Alliance must be confidant that an enduring majority of the people in Montenegro are committed to the values, interests, and institutions that define the transatlantic community.

NATO membership for Montenegro is possible, even likely. If Montenegro continues decisive reforms at home, maintains constructive relations in the region, and intensifies its public awareness campaign, it can become NATO’s next ally.

Damon Wilson is the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council and a former US National Security Council and NATO official who has worked on NATO enlargement since 1999. He led an Atlantic Council transatlantic assessment mission to Montenegro in April. A version of this essay appears today in newspapers across Montenegro and is part of a series of New Atlanticist pieces on NATO’s 2012 Chicago Summit.

Related Experts: Damon Wilson

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