Why Every NATO Member Joined (And Why Everyone Else Hasn’t)
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the most powerful alliance in the world. Some of the reasons countries do or do not join are straightforward. But others are downright bizarre. This video explains them all, including how the pyramid schemes and the word “North” kept two countries out for years.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the most powerful alliance in the world.
It’s no surprise that 30 countries are currently members of it.
If we get out the chalkboard and think about why countries
do or do not join, some of the reasons are straightforward.
But looking at it deeper, some of the reasons are downright bizarre and a matter of technicalities.
With that in mind,
here is why every member of NATO joined the alliance but everyone else hasn’t.
To truly understand NATO, we go back to its founding.
Lord Ismay, the first Secretary General of NATO said it best: the purpose of NATO is to
“keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
The first bit is straightforward. It’s the only thing that people born
after 1940 think about, which at this point is just about all of us.
Keeping the Americans in seems odd, but it is a basic part of alliance politics.
The central fear of protégé states is that their patrons will abandon them in a time of crisis.
After all, the U.S. had sat out the first two years of World War II,
and Europe did not want to repeat that experience.
Keeping the Germans down is downright bizarre in the modern context,
but remember that the treaty was signed in 1949—just four years after World War II ended
and less than thirty years after World War I
ended. No one in the west wanted to play this game a third time.
This takes us to the founding member of NATO:
Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy,
Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Each of those had the three central interests in mind when signing.
Greece and Turkey would hop along a few years later for the same reasons.
West Germany joined next in 1955,
which represented a large shift in priorities.
The whole “keep the Germans down” thing quickly got blown up.
Instead, the goal became to rebuild West Germany.
Part of this was to integrate West Germany within
NATO’s military apparatus so that there would not be another war against that government.
But NATO also desperately wanted West German soldiers
to compete with the seemingly endless throngs of potential Soviet invaders.
The Soviet Union was especially annoyed with West Germany ascension,
leading to the Warsaw Pact to form as a counterbalance.
It featured Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania.
The Pact would serve as the primary NATO foil for the rest of the Cold War.
In 1966, France pulled out of the NATO’s integrated command force.
Charles de Gaulle, the head of France at the time, despite maintaining NATO membership,
still sought more strategic independence.
Part of that was wanting to avoid the United States and United Kingdom dragging de Gaulle
into a war that was not in France’s best interest.
This is a problem known as entrapment. It’s the other major issue that comes along with alliances.
Think of it as the flip side of the abandonment issue.
Spain was the final addition during the Cold War, joining in 1982.
The delay was because Francisco Franco ruled Spain up until 1975.
He worried that a NATO member would veto Spain’s entry
due to his help to the Axis during World War II and the autocratic nature of his government.
Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty requires unanimous agreement
among existing member for a new state to join, so it is a hard bar to meet.
Then the Cold War ended.
No more Soviet Union,
And no more Warsaw Pact.
Free from Soviet influence, the remaining Pact countries began reevaluating their positions.
Almost by default, East Germany entered the NATO alliance in 1990
as a part of its merger with West Germany.
The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland were the first all-new countries added, entering in 1999.
It is not a coincidence that the Soviet Union had invaded each of these three countries.
Remember the “keep the Russians out” part? Yeah, they were all for that.
In fact, the general consensus among the non-Soviet
Warsaw Pact states became NATO membership.
Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia also joined in 2004.
Albania was the only hold out.
The 2004 class also included Slovenia,
a western-facing former Yugoslav republic
that had made NATO membership a priority from its independence.
But the biggest blow to Russia was Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania’s pivot toward the west.
Prior to World War II, each was an independent country.
However, they were occupied during the war, and integrated into the Soviet Union afterward.
Joining NATO was a step to ensure that that would not happen again.
In 2009, Albania finally joined.
In doing so, it became the last non-Soviet Warsaw Pact defector.
Albania wanted obtain membership sooner.
However, NATO requires that countries have some level of domestic stability before joining.
This is where things went wrong in 1997, when Albania spiraled
into a civil war due to rampant pyramid schemes. Yes, I said pyramid schemes.
The government was blamed for its complicity. About two-thirds of the
population were involved in scams, leading to six months of unrest.
It took twelve years for Albania to reach a point of stability to earn entry into NATO.
Croatia joined them also in 2009,
delayed by turbulence from its war of independence.
And France reintegrated with the unified command at that time.
Montenegro joined in 2017
after working toward membership since its independence in 2006,
though NATO’s popularity in that country is mixed
due to the scars of NATO’s campaign against Slobodan Milosevic in 1999.
North Macedonia is the most recent entry, coming in 2019.
The delay here was another weird one. Greece and the country formally known as Macedonia
were in a dispute over the latter’s name.
Greece has an internal administrative region called “Macedonia” dating back to the ancient era.
Greeks worried that a country named “Macedonia” would implicitly have a
desire to expand its borders to reclaim all areas with the Macedonia label.
Greece played hardball:
the country would not support Macedonia’s entry unless there was a name change.
However, in 2018, Macedonia signed the Prespa Agreement, and renamed itself North Macedonia.
With the barrier gone, it entered into NATO the next year.
And that completes our journey through every member state.
But why hasn’t everyone else joined? Broadly, there are five categories of explanations.
The first is geographic.
Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty reduces the scope of this question. It says that
“The Parties may … invite any other European State … to accede to this treaty.”
The United States and Canada are allowed to contribute by virtue of being founding members.
But this immediately eliminates Mexico, the next country south, from consideration.
Countries further south like Brazil also need not apply,
despite President Trump expressing a preference for Brazil’s membership in 2019.
It also rules out other traditional U.S. partners like Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan,
the Philippines, and Thailand.
They were once part of an organization called SEATO—it was like NATO but for Southeast Asia.
It didn’t have the same buy-in from its members as NATO, though, and it folded in 1977.
The Europe-only rule also eliminates Japan and South Korea
despite their common alignment with Western interests.
Taiwan is in the same boat, except it’s also missing the “state” part of the equation.
The second class of explanations is dislike of NATO.
Heading back to Europe, we can remove Russia from the discussion.
The sentiment of Lord Ismay’s philosophy of keeping the Russians out is mutual.
We can also cross off Russia’s alliance partners. The Collective Security Treaty
Organization is Russia’s version of NATO for Soviet successor states.
Belarus is a part of it,
never mind the fact that its president,
Alexander Lukashenko, is best friends forever with Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, Kazakhstan has a small portion of its country within continental Europe.
But it is in the CSTO as well.
Armenia is not a part of continental Europe because the Caucuses lie just north.
Sometimes gets lumped into being European anyway. Regardless, they have the CSTO knock against them.
In addition, Turkey does not have diplomatic relations with Armenia,
so there would be a veto problem there too.
The last CSTO issue is with Serbia, who is an observer state within Russia’s alliance.
There is also the slight problem of how NATO fought a war in 1999
against the predecessor state to Serbia, making NATO not particularly popular within the country.
The third category is neutral states.
For example, Austria was occupied by American,
British, French, and Soviet forces at the end of World War II.
But the country did not experience the same division as East and West Germany.
Instead, the occupying forces withdrew in exchange for an Austrian declaration of neutrality,
which its government passed a few months after independence.
That keeps Austria out still today.
Ireland is also a neutral country,
though underlying tensions with Great Britain have historically
troubled its relationship with NATO as well.
Malta has been a neutral state since 1980.
And Switzerland is the most famous neutral country of all,
holding true to the principle for more than the two centuries
since the Congress of Vienna and Napoleon’s final fall.
Sweden also began a policy of neutrality after the Napoleonic Wars.
And Finland pursued that policy during the Cold War.
However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine soured both Sweden and Finland on their neutrality positions,
and they will now be joining imminently.
Meanwhile, the Vatican straddles this category and the next,
which is microstates.
These include the Vatican, Andorra, Liechtenstein, San Marino, and Monaco.
NATO as a military institution was never really built with microstates in mind,
which is why these do not get very far.
The final category is instability and conflict,
the thing that stalled Albania’s entry from earlier.
We are witnessing this right now in Ukraine.
Remember back to the entrapment issue that concerns alliance partners?
NATO is well-aware of it and has a general policy to not admit
countries until they have settled their territorial conflicts.
This was one of the motivations that Putin had for the Russo-Ukrainian War.
If Russia exacerbates tensions between Kyiv and Luhansk and Donetsk, NATO will be unwilling to
make Ukraine a full partner. Indeed, the current war is history repeating itself.
14 years earlier, Georgia was getting close to joining NATO.
That required settling issues with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But Russia made this impossible by invading.
And thus there is no Georgia in NATO today.
There are a few other less famous cases that fall under the instability umbrella.
We can also cross off Moldova.
It has been dealing with the separatist Transdniestria region from its independence,
and has Russian troops deployed on its de jure soil.
Cyprus is out as well.
This, oddly enough, involves another NATO member.
In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus. The war lasted a month until—
you guessed it—some lines were drawn on maps.
Since then, Cyprus has been de facto split into regular Cyprus and Northern Cyprus.
That alone would be a problem.
But to make matters worse, Turkish forces have aided Northern Cyprus since that time,
which adds an extra layer of complication because of Turkey’s veto power.
Azerbaijan won’t work either. It has the Nagorno-Karabakh region in dispute with Armenia,
fighting a war over it in 2020.
Thus, it is a no go.
And the same is true for Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This is a unique case. They have a membership action plan with NATO, so the holdup is explicit:
The country is actually two separate entities with one central government:
the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina,
and the Republic of Srpska.
NATO is requiring that all its military facilities come under
the control of the central government. The Republic of Srpska is holding out.
Finally, we have Kosovo. Slovakia, Romania, Spain, and Greece do not recognize Kosovo’s independence.
Fixing that would seem to be a precondition for Kosovo’s membership.
And there you have it: why every country is or isn’t a member of NATO.
Let me know what you think in the comments,
and check out my new book on the causes of the Russia-Ukraine War.
And if you enjoyed this video, please like, share, and subscribe,
and I will see you next time. Take care.
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