Fostering NATO Expansion and Enlargement
The atmosphere was tense, and one item on the agenda was particularly controversial: the decision whether to offer the two former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine Membership Action Plans, an important way station on the road to eventual NATO membership. US President George W. Bush and Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski strongly advocated for the accession of the two countries, while France, Germany, and the United Kingdom urged caution, fearing this move would further provoke Russia. President Vladimir Putin, who was invited to the summit, strongly opposed the NATO membership bids. The German Marshall Fund was deeply engaged on the issue at the time, a decision whose importance is starkly evident today.
Bucharest was almost totally cordoned off. The national delegations gathered in the Palace of the Parliament, a monstrous edifice built by Romania’s former dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. There was hustle and bustle; presidents, prime ministers, secretaries, and experts raced back and forth between the main conference site and another sought-after meeting place, a nearby historic palace where GMF hosted a public side conference as it had done during previous NATO summits. Quite naturally, the main topic of the conference was the alliance’s planned eastward expansion.
Since NATO enlargement began, GMF had carved out for itself the role of giving voice to the Central and Eastern European countries that applied to join NATO but were often drowned out in the concert of the powerful nations.
Since NATO enlargement began, GMF had carved out for itself the role of giving voice to the Central and Eastern European countries that applied to join NATO but were often drowned out in the concert of the powerful nations. This marked a significant change for GMF. Until that time, it had served as a neutral convener: a platform for policymakers and experts to share their often contrary opinions.
During the debate about Europe’s future security architecture, however, GMF took sides and formulated its own policy recommendation—for the first time in its history. By supporting NATO’s expansion, it offered its own interpretation of “Europe whole and free and at peace.” This was a controversial position that attracted criticism from outside and inside the organization.
The shift toward such clear positioning did not happen overnight. Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, GMF started to award grants to leading organizations and think tanks that worked on security issues in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as to help give voice to publics in countries that had just escaped the yoke of Soviet oppression and were eager to slip under NATO’s security umbrella.
The fund’s own commitment to NATO’s eastward expansion increased when GMF President Craig Kennedy hired Ron Asmus as a senior transatlantic fellow in 2002. Asmus, who later became the head of GMF’s Brussels office, was a brilliant foreign policy analyst and his ideas shaped the organization. In the late 1990s, he had served as deputy assistant secretary of state and had become one of the chief advocates and, despite his relatively junior position in the US government, a principal architect of NATO’s enlargement.
In September 1993, Asmus and two co-authors put forth their pro-expansion argument in what became an influential article in Foreign Affairs magazine. They reasoned that expanding NATO was the logical continuation of US policies throughout the post-Cold War and, at the same time, would be necessary to create and maintain a Europe whole and free. In early 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked Asmus to join her team. “Ron,” she told him, “I am looking to you to help us enlarge NATO, work out this deal with the Russians, and come up with a strategy for the Baltic states.” Two years later, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland were admitted as NATO members. In 2004, the alliance was enlarged again with the addition of seven countries, including Slovakia and former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In 2009, 2017, and 2020, another four countries joined the alliance.
In these pivotal enlargement years, GMF helped to mainstream the controversial debate in the transatlantic space. It aided in developing and spreading the intellectual underpinnings for NATO’s enlargement, an effort that began under President Bill Clinton and continued under President George W. Bush—it was a bipartisan endeavor.
In these pivotal enlargement years, GMF helped to mainstream the controversial debate in the transatlantic space. It aided in developing and spreading the intellectual underpinnings for NATO’s enlargement, an effort that began under President Bill Clinton and continued under President George W. Bush—it was a bipartisan endeavor. Asmus had excellent contacts in Central and Eastern Europe, right up to the highest levels of government. He was a friend and a counselor to the new generation of leaders in the region, and within NATO he was their advocate. Knowing Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili well, the goal of NATO membership for that country and Ukraine was particularly close to his heart. Later, as the host of GMF’s NATO summit side conference in Bucharest, Asmus strongly argued against inadvertently pushing these countries back into Russia’s embrace and sphere of influence.
Ultimately, the alliance decided against taking in Georgia and Ukraine in April 2008, but it also announced that membership for them would be a long-term goal. For Asmus, this was a half-hearted decision and the door-opener for Russia to invade Georgia just four months later.
“The only deterrent to Russia,” Asmus wrote in his book A Little War that Shook the World, “would have been a unified and powerful signal of NATO commitment that enlargement was indeed inevitable and that trying to stop it would have real consequences.” In gloomy foresight he said: “This was a war that was aimed not only at Georgia, but at Washington, NATO, and the West more generally.”
Asmus, a hugely influential policy shaper at GMF, passed away in 2011. In the years that followed, the organization has continued to amplify Central and Eastern European voices, as well as offer policy recommendations and neutral convening spaces. But the question remains unanswered: Would early NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, as Asmus argued for in the US government as well as at GMF, have changed the course of history?
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