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Is a bigger NATO better?

If you look just north of Greece on some maps of Europe, you're apt to see a strange-looking name: FYROM.

It stands for "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,'' one of several countries that emerged from the breakup of communist Yugoslavia. Since independence in 1991, this small, landlocked nation has made such impressive political and economic strides that it's a candidate for European Union membership.

But Macedonia's bid to join NATO — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — is being blocked by neighboring Greece for what might seem a petty reason. Greece doesn't like the name "Macedonia.'' And the feud speaks to the larger issue of whether NATO has become too big to be effective.

President Bush is among the leaders meeting this week in Romania to consider expansion of NATO, created in 1949 as a defense pact among the United States, Britain and 10 other nations bordering the Atlantic. Membership now stands at 26 nations.

"In an ideal world, you'd say the alliance should have been kept more compact, but the alliance has played a huge role in stabilizing and democratizing part of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries,'' says Stanley Sloan, former CIA analyst and founder of the Atlantic Community Initiative.

"You can say expansion has made the decision-making more difficult in some ways. On the other hand, most of the difficulties are caused not by new members, but old members.''

A case in point is the flap over whether NATO should invite three more countries to join: Ukraine, Georgia and Macedonia.

Bush surprised and angered some members Wednesday when he pressed for inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia, former Soviet satellites. In the French and German view, neither country is ready to join and inviting them would only anger Russia, which sees NATO's eastward expansion as a threat.

Ukraine is an especially problematic choice since a majority of its people don't even favor membership.

"The politics are split along the lines of those who want to become part of the Euro-Atlantic community and those who want to maintain a stronger relationship with Russia,'' Sloan says.

In the Balkan region, Albania and Croatia are scheduled to join next year while Macedonia will be shut out until it resolves its dispute with Greece.

Ever since the new Republic of Macedonia was born in 1991, Greece has objected to the "Macedonia'' part as implying a claim to the Greek province of the same name. In what was intended as a temporary compromise, Macedonia became known in most official circles as the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia'' for FYROM.

Greece's objection is "old politics and doesn't have a place in today's debate,'' Sloan says, "but Greece is a member of NATO, which makes decisions by consensus.''

I admit to a warm spot in my heart for Macedonia, where I spent weeks in 1999 while NATO bombed Serbian forces that were brutally purging Kosovo of its Muslim population. More than 100,000 refugees poured into neighboring Macedonia, severely straining its limited resources.

The Kosovo War was NATO's first large-scale military engagement. Today NATO troops are deployed even farther from the Atlantic, battling the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Members may disagree over the threat from places like Kosovo and Afghanistan, but they remain behind Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty: an armed attack against one member shall be considered an attack on all.

"This was made clear when the United States was attacked on 9/11,'' Sloan says. "They didn't know exactly what they were going to do, but within one day of the attack every member of the alliance offered to come to the defense of the United States.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

>>fast facts

NATO membership

To join, nations must commit to the rule of law and human rights and be able to contribute to NATO's defense and missions.

Original members: United States, United Kingdom, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Iceland

Joined in 1952: Turkey, Greece

Joined in 1955: Germany

Joined in 1982: Spain

Joined in 1999: Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland

Joined in 2004: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia

Source: NATO

Is a bigger NATO better? 04/03/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 4, 2008 9:10am]
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