NATO’s 30th Member, At Last: Republic of North Macedonia

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NATO leaders listen to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (centre right) while attending their summit at the Grove Hotel on December 4, 2019 in Watford, England. Photo: Dan Kitwood - Getty Images

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, good news often goes missing.  It’s worth highlighting that today, March 27, NATO has a new member, the Republic of North Macedonia.   Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted the news from NATO HQ in Brussels, and Skopje, the capital, was ecstatic: "The Republic of North Macedonia is officially the new, 30th NATO member," the government said in a statement. "We have fulfilled the dream of generations."

The Republic of North Macedonia’s journey was a long one, dragged out by a dispute with Greece over the name of the country, and who had the greater claim to certain historical figures, particularly Alexander the Great.  For a long time, Athens feared that Skopje would go after its territory, the region of Greece that also goes by the name Macedonia.  Because Greece is a member of both NATO and the European Union, it could hold up Skopje’s membership in both institutions.  Luckily, the logjam was broken by an important compromise in 2018, when the country agreed after difficult negotiations with Athens to go by the name “Republic of North Macedonia.”

One can easily see the importance of NATO membership to the Republic of North Macedonia, but what is its importance to NATO?  The first point to emphasize is that no country gets invited to join NATO unless it has gone through a long and difficult process to bring its armed forces up to NATO standards: countries cannot enter NATO unless they are capable of being security providers, serving in NATO operations when they are called on to do so. 

The second point is that the Republic of North Macedonia is in a difficult neighborhood, the Western Balkans, long a source of bloody disputes among neighbors and never-ending instability.  To become a member, Skopje had to resolve those disputes, and not only with Greece, but also with NATO members Bulgaria and Albania.  As a result, new stability has come to a region stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, across the southeast of Europe.  New stability means a better shot at economic development, as the last member to enter NATO, Montenegro, found out.  Its economy grew strongly in the years after its accession in 2017.  Economic health, in turn, further bolsters stability—a beneficial cycle.

So what the Republic of North Macedonia can do for NATO is help provide for stability in a region of the globe that has long suffered a dearth of it.  This result would be good at any time, but while we must grapple with the implications of COVID-19, having this small country with NATO in the fight will be a benefit to all. 

NATO is a military alliance, but it also provides its members with assistance, training and expertise on matters such as disaster relief and border security.  The high standards that NATO maintains ensures that its members can contribute responsibly both in their regions, but also, if asked, on the international front.  Whether NATO as an institution will be asked to contribute to address COVID-19 is not clear at this time.  Perhaps the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting virtually next week will have something to say on that score.  But we can say that NATO is capable of contributing—including its newest member, the Republic of North Macedonia.