“NATO is obsolete,” said the U.S. President Donald Trump in his statement soon after he took office. It came as a devastating shock to Georgian people, who consider the NATO membership fundamental to their existence and democracy.
Georgia, a country, which was part of the Soviet Union and struggled under the Russian occupation for centuries, has been making bold strives to become a part of the Euro-Atlantic family since it regained independence in 1991.
For more than two decades, Euro-Atlantic integration process has been the only impetus for rapid development, consolidation of democracy, and prospect of freedom for the society otherwise torn apart by civil war and two wars fought against the Russian Federation right after gaining its independence.
Georgia is a key strategic partner for NATO and the U.S. in the region in promoting democracy and fighting terrorism where and when needed. Georgian troops were in Afghanistan from the start of the ISAF deployment. Georgia has been the number one per capita troop contributor for many years—even though the nation had to endure heavy causalities.
But this never broke Georgia’s resolve to fight alongside allies and partners for a common cause. NATO played a fundamental role in transforming Georgia’s defence and security agenesis, resulting in the Georgian Armed Forces being recognized as one of the most interoperable forces among the partners at the NATO Wales Summit in 2014.
NATO's enlargement and open door policy has been a dream come true for the Eastern European and Caucasus countries fighting for their freedom, independence, and security, none of which would be possible without strong U.S. leadership. In 2008, at the Bucharest Summit, allies agreed that “Georgia will become member of NATO.” Since this historic moment, the country never stopped making advancements in the integration process, which is especially challenging taking into account Russian troops still occupy 20 percent of Georgian territory.
If you consider how the NATO-Georgia relationship has come a long way and the fact that the U.S. has always been the main driver of Georgia`s NATO membership endeavor, no wonder why both the political establishment and ordinary citizens of Georgia were in disbelief at the new U.S. administration.
In Georgia, uneasiness with President Trump and his policies began during his election campaign when he bluntly voiced his stance on NATO and relationship strategy with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Similar to many other countries, Georgian experts also erroneously attributed President Trump’s controversial views only to his campaign trail mode.
Concerns deepened following the first phone call between President Trump and President Putin. While Ukraine was discussed briefly during the conversation, Georgia and the fate of its territories occupied by the Russian Federation after the war in August 2008 never came up.
Many Georgians wonder whether President Trump understands how he fuels a pro-Russian narrative in the country with his statements. While the new administration struggles to define its policies toward the region, President Putin knows exactly what his agenda is, does not lose a moment to flex his muscles in Ukraine, and continues to spread anti-Western propaganda wherever in the world he deems necessary.
Georgia is not prone to such attacks. Although the vast majority of Georgians support the Euro-Atlantic integration cause and never question where the country belongs, Putin’s propaganda machine targeted Georgia. Huge resources are pumped into the media, anti-Western political parties, and NGOs to create fake news and promote pro-Russian sentiments.
While everybody knows what to expect from President Putin, it is most troubling to observe the level of ignorance President Trump displays while he publicly discusses institutions that preserved the very peace and security in Europe and Euro-Atlantic community.
All eyes are now turned to the next NATO Summit, which will take place in Brussels, Belgium in late May 2017. Although President Trump has already committed to participate, it is still not clear what will be the new administration’s stance on the future of NATO. During the first phone conversation between President Trump and the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the two leaders "reconfirmed the importance of the Alliance in troubled times," according to a statement from NATO.
It is too early to judge whether this seeming change in tone by the Trump Administration can be interpreted as a continuation of President Obama’s policy to reassure NATO allies who are concerned by more aggressive Russia.
But one must also be fair and admit that even during the Obama Administration, the U.S. role in championing NATO’s open door policy was significantly reduced. During the last eight years, the U.S. has maintained an unclear policy toward the region and its strategic partners, which left countries like Georgia in diplomatic limbo.
Meanwhile, the Government of Georgia has been heavily criticized domestically by opposition parties and civil society groups for not making strong enough efforts to put the Georgian case at the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Criticisms further skyrocketed since the new administration took office and after the revelation that Georgia would not be present at the upcoming NATO Summit.
To reassure the Georgian people, last month, Georgia’s Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze met with the new U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his two-day official visit to the U.S.
During the meeting, recent developments in the region and in Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were discussed. According to statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, “the Secretary of State reaffirmed the U.S.’s firm support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and expressed readiness to support the country in dealing with its current challenges.”
Whether the two leaders discussed the upcoming NATO Summit and Georgia’s membership path, which remains unclear. The biggest worry Georgians have now is whether its security interests will become hostage of yet another “reset” with Russia. If one considers the uncertainty of the new administration’s current stance on NATO, the future of Georgia`s NATO membership aspirations will likely be dim during the Trump era.
While President Trump and his administration is trying to figure out the obvious fact that the best way to make America great again is to continue strengthening relationships with allies and partners around the world, Georgia followed the recent trend and joined the long line-up of countries competing to become the second—the first is, of course, America.
Tamar Kekenadze is the Secretary General at the Free Democrats Political Party. Before joining the Party, she was a Civilian Representative of the Ministry of Defence of Georgia to NATO and the EU. Prior, she served as the Head of the Euro-Atlantic Integration Division at the Ministry of Defence of Georgia.