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NATO welcomes its 30th member, strengthening the ties that bind

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Ambassador Christopher Hill

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This op-ed was originally published on The Hill

The United States has a new ally. North Macedonia is now the 30th member of NATO and, as of last week, its flag now flies over NATO headquarters in Brussels. On March 27, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for Europe, Philip T. Reeker, met the Spanish ambassador to Washington, Santiago Cabanas, who handed over — at arm’s length and without a handshake, in these days of COVID-19 — the final bilateral ratification of North Macedonia’s membership for filing this latest accession to the Treaty of Washington. 

It has been a long process. North Macedonia began its membership drive in 1995 when it joined NATO’s partnership for peace, but it was continually blocked from achieving full membership because of Greece’s objection to the name Republic of Macedonia. When Macedonia agreed in 2019 to change its official name and add the word “North” — a modifier designed to differentiate the country from the province of Macedonia in Greece — North Macedonia was on its way to membership. 

During its 25-year wait, successive Macedonian governments decided that even though the country was not a full-fledged member, it would act as if it had become one, including through participation in NATO out-of-area deployments and facilitating NATO movements. It has not been easy. During NATO’s action in Kosovo in 1999, then-NATO Commander Wesley K. Clark asked Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov if he would agree to store war materiel in the event that NATO needed to invade Kosovo with ground troops.  

President Gligorov listened carefully, and replied to Gen. Clark: “Would this mean that Macedonia is a member country?” Before the general could finish explaining that membership is a much broader question that could be solved at his level, Gligorov continued in his deliberative style, “I ask because, if we are to help in the invasion of our neighbor, we need to bear in mind that the Serbs have long knives but even longer memories.” 

Membership for North Macedonia provides another land link that helps connect the 30 NATO countries to each other — in this case, a direct route from the Adriatic to the Black Sea. It also helps take what was known for centuries in Balkan history as “the Macedonia Question” and reinforces the answer. With only Bosnia and Serbia to go, membership for North Macedonia represents an important step toward completing the mission of a Europe that is whole, free and at peace.  

North Macedonia’s membership comes at an important time for Europe and the world’s premier military and security organization. More than any other single institution, NATO has bound the United States to Europe. The United States left Europe during a period of isolationism, which ended when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor while Adolf Hitler — in solidarity with his Japanese allies — declared war on the United States. Over the course of four bloody years, Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, with an assist post-war from an extremely aggressive and belligerent Soviet Union, set the U.S. on a course that made it an essential element in European security.  

When the Balkans exploded into bloody conflict in the 1990s, the United States and Europe came together in Bosnia, and later in Kosovo, to reestablish peace and bring that part of Europe into European institutions where it belongs. In Afghanistan, NATO states deployed under NATO command and fought a long, difficult war to make sure that country did not, as it was before, become a breeding ground for terrorism with global reach.

With countries such as North Macedonia, the complex task for NATO has been to maintain military standards while also insisting on standards for internal behavior and democratization. These latter expectations at times have proven more difficult to achieve than the military standards. North Macedonia has done well so far. It has succeeded in the important task of holding elections in which the government changed peacefully. As a former Macedonian prime minister said to me upon learning that his party had lost an election, “One of the greatest tests of a democracy is not just the behavior of the government, but also the behavior of the opposition. We will do our part.”

NATO’s future rests on a myriad of factors. Will new members understand the responsibilities of membership? Will military standards be strengthened and better shared? Will a broad commitment to democracy and NATO’s values be sustained? Can consensus decision-making be maintained with 30 members? These are all valid questions as NATO moves forward. 

Ultimately, however, a great deal rests on U.S. understanding of this vital element of its security.  An active U.S. presence in Europe, far from being a drain, has made the U.S. stronger and more influential. The fact that North Macedonia is now a member speaks to a U.S. commitment to collective defense that still holds. But, like many things in the world, it requires constant and relentless effort.