Washington and London have proposed dropping the NATO MAPs for Georgia and Ukraine, favoring instead an open-ended development plan to bring both countries closer to membership. While Germany and France protest such unorthodoxy, this more flexible approach may allow NATO to prudently balance its interests with Russia and for eventual Georgian-Ukrainian expansion.

NATO foreign ministers met in Brussels this past Tuesday and Wednesday for the first time since this summer’s war between Russia and Georgia (caused in large part by Tbilisi’s ambitions to join NATO). US and British diplomats pressed their European colleagues to bypass the formal process of issuing membership action plans (MAPs) to Georgia and Ukraine in favor of an informal process of aiding the two countries along the path to membership.

The ministers all agreed that the timing was wrong to issue MAPs now, but Germany and France in particular remain opposed to Washington’s idea of dropping the MAP concept altogether. They should come on board, since the US-British proposal could resolve the Alliance’s biggest conundrum: how to maintain its commitment to eventually admit Georgia and Ukraine without reigniting its battles with Russia.

No matter what, Georgia and Ukraine are many years away from meeting NATO’s membership criteria (in contrast to countries that have received MAPs in the past). Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s commitment to democratic principles leaves much to be desired; he has broken up opposition rallies and shut down television stations critical of his rule. Despite several years of US-led training and an extended deployment of Georgian troops to Iraq, Georgia’s military performed poorly against the Russians and remains woefully unprepared to contribute to NATO’s collective defense mission. Ukraine is in political turmoil as it awaits parliamentary and presidential elections, and less than a quarter of its citizens support NATO membership.

The Germans and French want to maintain the MAP process because they believe it imposes a rigid set of criteria that Ukraine and Georgia must meet, in effect dragging out the membership process. They criticize the US approach as an end-run around the rules that could allow Kyiv and Tbilisi into NATO through the back door, and accuse the US of substituting a political agenda for the technical question of Ukraine and Georgia’s readiness.

The problem is that a decision on NATO membership is fundamentally political, and the West needs the flexibility to respond to changing political circumstances. Russian diplomats have signaled that they consider the ball to be in the West’s court regarding the future of relations. Moscow would perceive a decision in favor of MAPs as a deliberate, political step to ratchet up the confrontation sparked by the war in Georgia. Moreover, a decision in favor of MAPs would deprive President-elect Obama of flexibility in crafting a new approach to Moscow.

Were the alliance to focus instead on the nuts-and-bolts of bringing the two countries’ military and political systems up to NATO standards, it would signal to Russia that the two countries are not being given a timetable for membership. It would acknowledge that the question of membership is fundamentally political, and dependent, among other things, on the state of relations with Moscow.

The West should not simply bar the door to Georgia and Ukraine. Doing so would remove one of the strongest inducements for Kyiv and Tbilisi to continue reforming. It could well also embolden Moscow to step up its meddling in both countries. Nor should NATO court a new crisis with Russia by rushing to extend MAPs when neither Georgia nor Ukraine is close to ready for full membership anyway.

The idea of scrapping the whole MAP process while keeping Ukraine and Georgia on the path for eventual membership offers several advantages. An open-ended pledge to bring Georgia and Ukraine up to NATO standards would deepen their practical cooperation with the Alliance, avoid a politically-driven timetable for membership, and allow NATO to await developments with Moscow.

After Washington first browbeat them into reconsidering the decision made in February not to issue MAPs to Georgia and Ukraine, the Europeans are furious that the US is now proposing dropping the MAP concept altogether. Whatever their frustrations with the Bush Administration’s mixed signals, Europe – not to mention the incoming Obama administration – should support a proposal that gives them an opportunity to move relations with Russia forward without abandoning Georgia and Ukraine.

Jeffrey Mankoff is associate director of International Security Studies at Yale University and adjunct fellow for Russian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of the forthcoming book Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics.  This piece previously appeared at Atlantic-Community  and is republished with the kind permission of the author.