In the interest of tackling populist movements in the Western Balkans, NATO must generate momentum for its “open door” policy, explains Lazar Elenovski. But who will take the lead?

More than 20 years have passed since NATO published the merits of its “open door” policy in the Study on Enlargement. Promoting the continent as “free, whole and at peace”, it gained considerable traction and represented a new paradigm for Europe. The fundamental purpose of enlargement, as stated in the study, was to “provide increased stability and security for all in the Euro-Atlantic area”. This was an immense milestone for NATO, which was in danger of becoming obsolete following the fall of the Berlin Wall, after which the Alliance seemed to lack clear purpose.

Successes in 1999, as well as the “big bang” enlargement at the beginning of the millennium, helped support NATO’s policy of establishing a new role for itself as an emerging security organisation. Out-of-area operations in the 2000s underlined the importance of this strategy, which fits within the new global security environment. To the satisfaction of everyone in NATO, the Alliance was prosperous, growing and enlarging.

What should be stated as an important issue when reviewing Europe’s security at the time was that the Western Balkans were also experiencing a period of positive transformation, as they emerged from a decade of war. In particular, smaller countries were enthusiastic about becoming members of the privileged NATO club (except for Serbia). Showing their interest in gaining membership, they launched a series of domestic reforms, many of which had the support of NATO and the European Union (EU). Many reforms regarding the rule of law, human rights, democratisation of the country, market economy and so on passed partly due to the influence of the Euro-Atlantic integration process. Regional cooperation also played a role in furthering the open door policy, through initiatives that operated on an official and civil-societal level. Countries, their institutions and people within the Western Balkans showed a high level of commitment towards reform and regional cooperation. Public support for NATO membership in some countries reached as high as 90%.

However, in the following decade, NATO had to deal with the impact of the global economic crisis in 2008, including austerity and restraint measures and huge defence cuts, especially in the European wing (though the latter trend actually began at the end of the Cold War). All of this had a negative impact on NATO’s general strategy and open door policy.

In the years following the crisis, the economic and political situation in the West did not improve. On the contrary, it became even tougher. The EU, United States (US) and NATO all turned inwards, becoming predominantly occupied with domestic issues. Not only did they lose sight of the big picture, they also lost their stature as global leaders focused on values and global responsibility, creating a geostrategic vacuum in many places around the world. The ramifications were felt in the Alliance’s neighbouring areas, in Eastern Europe and in the southern states of the Arab world (in the vast Middle East and North Africa region).

REGRESSIVE MOVEMENTS GAINING GROUND

The countries in the Western Balkans that were, in general, young democracies with fragile democratic institutions felt partly forgotten. Combined with the other difficulties they were facing, such as economic, migrant and domestic political crises, NATO’s diminished presence in the area freed up space for the revival of nationalism. Over the past few years, many democratically backwards processes in the rule of law and human rights have gained ground. As a result of this populist wave, public support for Euro-Atlantic integration has slowed.

Albania and Croatia became NATO members in 2009, and since then the only other country to join was Montenegro in 2017. The other countries in the Western Balkans are still waiting for an invitation, despite the fact that some of them fulfilled the membership requirements in 2008.

The future of the open door policy will be determined by a variety of factors. The world today is very different to when the policy was first introduced. Present security challenges – such as the war on terror (foreign fighters and homegrown terrorism), migrant crises, Russia’s assertiveness, wars in NATO’s remit and cybersecurity – make the situation more complex. However, the process of enlargement is well known to candidate and observer countries, and therefore the logical conclusion is that the process of enlargement needs to be modified.

What is most important for the future of the open door policy as one element of NATO’s system is how it will fit within the Alliance’s general policy. The key priority going into this year’s NATO leaders’ meeting in Brussels was to redefine a proactive global policy that would include a serious attempt to restore the Alliance’s reputation as the world’s guardian of human rights and values – a cause that many generations in the past have been devoted to and fought for.

For the current US administration, that dilemma will be a key challenge in the country’s transition from global power in the world of interests, as some their officials see it, to global leader in the world of civilisation values (which undoubtedly include interests). The European allies, after defeating the populist movements in France and the Netherlands, should also start thinking about this leadership issue. A very positive sign towards that goal can be found in the 2016 White Paper on Strategic Review and Way Ahead on Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr, which states that Germany “is prepared to take the lead”.

BOOSTING REGIONAL COOPERATION

With this new mindset, it is possible that enthusiasm for democracy around the world – which polls indicate has lost ground over recent years – could return. This would involve supporting democratic forces around the world, including in the Western Balkans.

In the institutional form, the open door policy should speed up and give direction to the membership process within a few years. Keeping in mind the basic security mission of enlargement, the last piece of Europe’s puzzle should be placed. This would encourage countries in the Western Balkan region to continue to implement domestic reforms and strengthen regional cooperation. This will put a stop to populist and nationalistic tendencies, as well as block other big powers that do not offer democratic concepts or alternatives, but instead want to return to old-world policies and divisions. After all, that is the core mission of NATO’s open door policy. It is time to get back on track.


Lazar Elenovski is a former Minister of Defence of the Republic of Macedonia and the country’s former Ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg.

Projecting Stability | ATA special publication for the Brussels Summit 2017

For the occasion of the NATO Special Meeting in May 2017, ATA has published a dedicated monograph where high level policy makers and experts tackle the strategic issues of the summit. This publication was distributed to all the delegations and representatives that were taking part to closed-doors discussions and parallel meetings that took place before and during the Summit.

The publication is available in its entirety here:  Projecting Stability | ATA special publication for the Brussels Summit 2017