The past few weeks have been deeply mixed ones for Georgia’s quest to be integrated into Euro-Atlantic political, military and economic structures. Georgia’s signing of an association agreement with the EU, although only a step towards the ultimate goal of EU membership, was viewed in Tbilisi as a significant victory and cause for great celebration. The celebrations were at least a little bit bittersweet because they occurred just as the realization that the Georgia is most likely not going to get a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the NATO summit in Wales this fall were beginning to sink in.
It is tempting for Georgia to bemoan this diplomatic setback and to focus on the reasons why some members of NATO are reluctant to extend a MAP to Georgia. It is similarly easy to accuse countries or even individual leaders of NATO countries of failing to stand up for Georgia at this key moment. However, it is more useful for Georgia to begin to craft a policy to address the important questions their country now faces.
NATO has indicated that Georgia will get a package of assistance, encouragement or something else instead of a MAP, but this will nonetheless create problems for Georgia. Encouragement from NATO but no MAP does not solve anything for Georgia and may exacerbate existing tensions with Russia. This approach from NATO signals to Russia that Georgia is still moving towards the alliance, increasing, or maintaining, the possibility of a Russian incursion, attack or invasion of Georgia, while failing to move Georgia significantly towards the one thing that can most reliably stop this from happening-membership in NATO.
Additionally, the very real possibility that Georgia will not get into NATO, or even get a MAP, anytime in the near to medium range future is something that will have to be considered after Wales. It is difficult to imagine a moment where Georgia will look like a better NATO candidate. Defense reforms are continuing, the prospects of democratic consolidation, at least for the moment, are looking good in Georgia, and Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine have made some NATO member states anxious to send Russia a message by bringing Georgia in. If all this is trumped by enlargement fatigue, concern about Russia, unresolved issues regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or anything else now, it is unlikely any of that will change in the future.
If, as expected, Georgia does not receive a MAP at the Wales summit, the Georgian government will face two related but nonetheless distinct challenges. The first, with regards to foreign policy and national security, is that absent a MAP and with chances of NATO ascension looking dimmer, Georgia will need to craft a strategy to ensure its national security. Second, Georgia will confront a domestic political challenge of maintaining the pro-west and pro-NATO consensus despite yet another setback.
The current as well as previous Georgian governments have placed NATO at the center of their national security strategy. This has been a reasonable approach as NATO membership is probably the best way to preclude a Russian invasion or attack. However, continuing to pursue NATO membership to the preclusion of anything else, at a time when the prospects for NATO membership are looking worse as time goes by is not a wise approach.
Nonetheless, it is almost certain that regardless of whatever setback it experiences at Wales, Georgia will continue to work towards NATO membership and do whatever it can to continue to try to strengthen its candidacy. Defense reforms, support for various NATO efforts around the world, and whatever cooperation with NATO forces that is possible will continue. This will allow Georgia to both keep alive its modest NATO chances while continuing to signal to NATO that Georgia is a country with whom it is worth having some kind of relationship.
This approach, however, will not be sufficient. Georgia needs a security strategy that does not exclusively rely on NATO membership as its ultimate goal, as that goal may be many years away. Accordingly, Georgia is already trying to bolster defense relationships with NATO countries that support their membership aspirations. The US is considering providing defensive weapons to Georgia, a request that had been turned down several times in the past. There are also other countries in NATO, notably in the Baltics and eastern Europe that are strong backers of Georgia. These countries, along with the US, can help Georgia through weapons sales, messaging to Moscow and stronger bilateral relationships. Somehow, Georgia needs to plausibly convince Moscow that it has allies who will support it and not stand idly by in the case of further Russian aggression in Georgia.
The weak western response to the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia makes it more difficult for Georgia to effectively send this message, but the somewhat stronger response to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine changes that at least a little bit. Overall, the failure to get a MAP in Wales will require Georgia, whether or not it wants, to rethink its big picture security strategy. This will be an enormous challenge for the country.
The second challenge that the failure to get a MAP will bring is domestic and will have also have very significant bearing on Georgia’s security. Georgia currently has essentially a pro-western, and pro-NATO consensus. As recently as April 2014, fully 72% of the Georgian population approved of Georgia’s NATO aspirations while only 15% disapproved. Similarly, in the October 2013 presidential election, more than 80% of the vote went to pro-NATO candidates. This consensus is an enormous asset for Georgia as it seeks to join NATO, but it is also is in danger of eroding if NATO again rebuffs Georgia.
Despite all this, another perceived failure at another NATO summit will lead many in Georgia to wonder whether or not their country will ever get into NATO, and to think that the west is essentially stringing Georgia along. This will both potentially create an anti-NATO backlash and force many Georgians to rethink their vision for their country’s future. These sentiments will be valuable fodder for Russia. According to many in Georgia, Russia is playing an increasingly large, although not public, role in the political and civic life of the country. The combination of Russian efforts to foment anti-western sentiment and perceived legitimate reasons to be angry at the west could rapidly erode Georgi’s pro-west consensus. If this happens, Georgia will have almost no chance of getting into NATO. NATO, after all, will have little interest in welcoming a country where, in addition to all of their other concerns about Georgia, substantial proportions of the population do not even want to join the alliance.
Preserving the pro-western consensus in this environment will be very difficult. The Georgian government will need to find ways to maintain the hopes of the Georgian people for eventual NATO membership despite evidence that this goal is slipping away. At the Wales summit, NATO will undoubtedly offer some combination of words and action to convey support for Georgia, just as they have in previous summits. The Georgia government needs to find a way to persuade the Georgia people that these words and actions, which will stop conspicuously short of a MAP, are still a reason to continue have faith in NATO.
Georgia’s two dilemmas are that they must continue to do what is necessary to get into NATO while at the same time preparing national security strategies that recognize that NATO membership may be a long way off. Similarly, on the domestic front, they must simultaneously begin to manage expectations in advance of the Wales summit while maintaining the pro-west consensus amongst the Georgian population. There is a lot at stake for Georgia here. If the pro-NATO, pro-West consensus deteriorates, or if Georgia is not able to continue to pursue the policies necessary to move towards NATO, Georgia’s chances of eventually joining the alliance will disappear altogether. However, focusing all their efforts on NATO will not meet Georgia’s security needs.
Getting this right will require strong and perhaps even visionary leadership from a relatively new government. Georgia’s leaders have, in recent years, focused more attention on addressing the excesses of the previous government, trying to manage the government competently and on pursuing longstanding goals such as the EU association agreement and NATO, rather than crafting a new vision for Georgia. Now as the pro-west consensus could be threatened and Georgia needs to think creatively about its national security, the need for leadership and building a new consensus is very strong. This will prove challenging for a government that since it came to power has sought to be a triumph of competence over charisma and focused more on governance than on vision.
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