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NATO Is Expanding, and Everyone Is Curiously Silent

Why isn't anyone talking about North Macedonia's accession into America's most important strategic alliance?

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

North Macedonia has existed, technically, for only about a year. Not the nation itself—that country, an outgrowth of the Yugoslavian collapse, will soon be entering its fourth decade as an independent polity. But “North Macedonia” only came into being in early 2019, when the Macedonian government in Skopje officially changed the country’s name from “Macedonia.” The name change eased an ongoing dispute with the Greek government, which claimed that Macedonian nationalists had designs on the similarly named region in northern Greece.

The dispute was, for a region buffeted by bloodshed in the 1990s, a clear victory for the forces of dialogue. “They had imagination, they took the risk, they were ready to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good,” Donald Tusk, then serving as European Council president, said at the time. It was, in a very real sense, inspirational: After nearly three decades of tension over the country’s name, Skopje and Athens found a solution that pleased both polities. More importantly, the deal eased North Macedonia’s path firmly into the European fold, ending Greek reservations that had prevented North Macedonia’s formal move into NATO. With Greece’s concerns alleviated, Athens stepped up as a champion for Macedonia’s rush toward Europe.

North Macedonia is expected to join NATO sometime in early 2020, the thirtieth member in the alliance’s ranks. It will open a hopeful chapter in the country’s history: a new security alliance, a new set of partners and potential, and a new affirmation of the country’s role as a member of the Western community in good standing.

But in the United States, the public discussions surrounding North Macedonia’s impending accession are nonexistent. You’d be forgiven for not knowing North Macedonia is about to join. Typically, the occasion of a new NATO member state brings the debate about American responsibility, American intent, and American capabilities to center stage. Where recent chapters of NATO expansion devolved into American senators accusing other American legislators of things like “working for” Russian President Vladimir Putin outright, the lack of hyperbole and histrionics surrounding North Macedonia joining has been remarkable.

Much of that has directly to do with America’s current political moment, and the current president himself. Donald Trump, after all, has questioned the role of the U.S. in NATO time and again, rattling the alliance in an unprecedented, and unnerving, manner. (Former National Security Adviser John Bolton has even gone so far as to suggest Trump may pull the U.S. out of NATO wholesale, should he win reelection.) Despite his administration’s perfunctory support for North Macedonia’s accession, Trump has not yet publicly commented on the move. Nor has he offered any of his patent insanities on the accession, as he did in 2017, when he suggested that the “very aggressive” people of new NATO member state Montenegro could spark World War Three. (How quaint.)

“Normally, it would be the administration that would be making the case, because on the face of things, why should U.S. citizens care about North Macedonia or Montenegro joining NATO?” Jasmin Mujanović, an assistant political science professor at Elon University and author of a recent book examining political dynamics in the Western Balkans, told The New Republic. “That’s where you’ve needed U.S. presidents to make the strategic case to the American public as to why expanding the Atlantic community advances U.S. interests. That’s been historically the kind of authorial role the U.S. has taken, as the largest military power in the alliance.”

Trump, though, apparently couldn’t care less. Added Mujanović, “To be perfectly blunt, I’m not entirely sure the president is aware this is going on—and I don’t know that the president cares.”

For years, one of the most common, and most blinkered, arguments against NATO expansion has rested on a single conversation that former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker had with flailing Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. Months after the Berlin Wall began its final crumble, Gorbachev fumbled for a response, lost in the tides of transition already sweeping Central and Eastern Europe. With German reunification barreling toward reality, Baker, then operating under George H.W. Bush, had offered that NATO would not move, as he said, “one inch eastward.”

Those three words have, for the past three decades, provided the rocks upon which anti-NATO advocates have built their arguments. Naturally, those anti-NATO voices, pointing to Baker’s quip, have gladly ignored any evidence contradicting this interpretation. They’ve ignored the fact that Gorbachev revealed in 2014 that Baker’s comments—made to a country, and to a government, that no longer exists—were directed solely toward NATO’s presence in eastern Germany, not eastern Europe writ large. “The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years,” Gorbachev said, adding that Baker’s comment was specifically “made in [the] context” of eastern Germany. (Gorbachev “made clear there was no promise regarding broader enlargement,” according to a Brookings Institute summary of Gorbachev’s comments.)

These detractors have also ignored the reality that Boris Yeltsin, wrangling in the mid-1990s over NATO’s growth into former Warsaw Pact countries, never bothered to cite Baker’s pledge in trying to get the U.S. to slow the expansion. Most pertinently, they ignored the realities that Yeltsin and an early Vladimir Putin even made noise about potentially joining NATO themselves, or that Putin hardly raised his hackles when NATO expanded into, say, the Baltics in the mid-2000s. These arguments and debates typically pop up whenever NATO expansion bubbles up: when NATO expanded into Croatia and Albania in 2009, when Montenegro joined the alliance in 2017, when Georgia and Ukraine drifted into NATO’s orbit—with the Kremlin using the latter as an excuse to feed its revanchist militarism.

And yet, with the dawning of this decade, there’s been a deafening silence greeting the latest round of NATO expansion. Instead of public debate and the inflamed passions of isolationists and integrationists, North Macedonia’s move toward increasing NATO’s ranks has been greeted with silence. It’s fallen into something of a black hole in American politics.

Normally, backing the accession would be a political gimme for the White House: As the Chicago Council recently found, the percentage of Americans favoring increasing U.S. commitments to NATO is as high as it’s ever been. But Trump and his constellation of supporters are loath to highlight the fact that the U.S. is extending its security umbrella that much further, lest it upset his nominally isolationist base. Meanwhile, Democrats are hardly predisposed to credit Trump with enabling the expansion of NATO member states—even though North Macedonia took drastic steps, well in keeping with liberal values, to complete the process. And so North Macedonia’s accession into NATO rolls on—but the kind of public debate around the wisdom of the move and implications for American national security seen in the past is nowhere to be found.

The silence is, for any number of reasons, unfortunate. Not only does it point to the broader atrophying of the Balkans in America’s strategic calculus—even as local strongmen threaten the hard-won territorial integrities in the region, or while others discuss swapping regional territory outright—but it also ignores a chance to beat back NATO’s detractors, or those who’d blame Russia’s recent efforts to carve up its neighbors on NATO expansion itself, rather than on the irredentist dictatorship currently ensconced in the Kremlin. (Those claiming that NATO’s ongoing expansion has led to Russia being “encircled,” and therefore being right to lash out, may want to look at a map.) 

Regionally, North Macedonia’s accession not only signals NATO’s continued interest in stability across the Balkans but further tamps down concerns about potential state fracture, three decades on from the Yugoslav collapse. “North Macedonian accession is a very, very good thing,” Mujanović said. “There’s now another very important voice at the table in the world’s most important security alliance, which will in the long run undermine these nineteenth-century-style, line-in-the-sand kinds of discussions about things like land swaps” across the region.

The costs of accepting North Macedonia into the alliance will be minimal and will further confirm Western interests across the Balkans—interests French President Emmanuel Macron recently called into question. Indeed, many of the arguments surrounding NATO’s most recent accession, that of Montenegro in 2017, can also be applied to North Macedonia. “Adding the Balkan republic to the alliance does not meaningfully increase costs or risks to the United States,” Ben Denison and Matthew Fay wrote about Montenegro joining the alliance. The same is arguably true of North Macedonia. “[N]ot following through on a promise of alliance membership will harm future U.S. foreign policy in the region, and eliminate the small, but real benefits” of extending NATO membership, they write.

The reasons to back North Macedonia’s membership in NATO are legion—as are the benefits of extending NATO membership across the entire region. Not only has expanding NATO membership solidified the region’s Western course, but welcoming nations that once stood apart from the alliance into the fold has helped prevent everything from Polish authorities attempting to jump-start their own nuclear weapons program to Hungarian irredentism in Romania. Western, Central, and swaths of Eastern Europe have enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity because of NATO’s extension—and it has countered the Russian neo-imperialism many former Warsaw Pact states feared in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s crack-up.

The expansion of NATO eastward has not always been smooth, but on the whole it remains an unmitigated, unceasing good—for the U.S. and for Europe. Regardless of the White House’s lack of interest or the current political dynamics at play in Washington, it’s time for the Macedonians to share the fruits of such expansion and for NATO to continue expanding inches, and miles, eastward. The fear, however, is that at some point in the future, the current silence will be broken by a president who, in turning his attention once again to the alliance whose values he’s loudly mocked, will abandon the work, and spur fissures anew.