On February 6, 2019, the Republic of North Macedonia (Macedonia) officially joined NATO by signing an accession protocol, thereby becoming the thirtieth member of the Western military alliance.
North Macedonia is the fourth ex-Yugoslav country to join NATO following Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro. Looking closely at the map of Europe, NATO covers almost the entire coast spanning from the Baltics westward (except for the Russian extra-territorial enclave of Kaliningrad) and southward across the Mediterranean and Adriatic all the way eastward toward the Turkish border with Syria. Now that Macedonia has acceded to NATO, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo are the only former Yugoslav member states that have not joined the military alliance.
As for Kosovo, it has a pro-American government, fervent pro-American public sentiment and a sprawling U.S. military base. It is determined join NATO as soon as it fulfills pre-accession criteria. Serbia, on the other hand, has made it clear it has no intention of joining NATO and prefers siding with Russia, despite successfully carrying out dozens of military exercises with NATO.
That leaves Bosnia and Herzegovina. With its thirty kilometer stretch of coast, Bosnia and Herzegovina is the only non-NATO territory bordering the Adriatic Sea. This, in addition to several other reasons, makes Bosnia and Herzegovina’s incorporation both important for NATO, as well as Bosnia itself.
First, membership in NATO could help contain potential Russian aggression and malign influence in Bosnia Herzegovina. Recent history has shown that Moscow is willing to use not only political intimidation and economic coercion but even covert action to sow chaos in states that may accede to the alliance. As case in point, NATO foreign ministers made a mistake in 2014 by not inviting Montenegro to join the group, fearing such a decision would further provoke Moscow, which had just started a proxy war in Ukraine. This ambivalence gave Moscow the necessary leeway to act upon its interests in the country, including attempting to launch a coup in the country. On May 9 of this year, a Montenegro court sentenced fourteen people, including two Russian military intelligence officers, to up to fifteen years in prison after they were found guilty of attempting to overthrow the pro-NATO Montenegrin government in 2016.
Second, incorporating Bosnia and Herzegovina in NATO would increase transatlantic security. The Balkan wars of the 1990s largely demonstrated that American military prowess, transatlantic solidarity, and the inter-operability of NATO forces are critically important in ensuring stability and security across the Atlantic. As conflicts among NATO member states are unheard of, incorporating the Western Balkans into the alliance would help prevent future inter-state conflicts. It would also curb secessionist aspirations by Serb and Croat nationalists inside Bosnia and Herzegovina and check neighboring Serbian and Croatian irredentist aspirations towards the country. There has never been a case of a NATO member state breaking apart or a separatist region of one state seceding and joining a fellow member state. As a fellow member of NATO, Croatia would be unlikely to attempt capture of Bosnian territory. Relatedly, any aggressive overtures toward Bosnia by non-member states, like Serbia, would likely be met with the alliance’s political and military prowess.
Third, NATO could help foster a string of bilateral relationships that could become a powerful driver of economic growth and create a free-market corridor in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Economic statistics dating back to 2002 from NATO’s first three Central European members, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, strongly suggest that NATO membership confers not only security benefits but economic welfare as well. As those numbers show, new foreign investment in those three states has risen since their accession to the alliance. By joining NATO, Bosnia and Herzegovina will also become an indispensable member of an alliance based on democracy, civil liberties, and rule of law. This is because NATO promotes political, economic, military and judicial reforms within member states and strengthens core democratic values, such as human rights and civil liberties.
Despite these benefits, Bosnians themselves are divided on joining the alliance. According to a 2017 International Republican Institute (IRI) opinion poll, Bosniak Muslims were the most eager to join the alliance: 57% of Bosniaks and 53% of Bosnian-Croats strongly support NATO accession, compared to just 2% of Bosnian-Serbs. Generally, a pro-Western sentiment prevails among Bosniak Muslims. Bosniak Muslims are, for example, more eager to join the European Union compared to their Catholic and Orthodox Christian compatriots: 65% of Bosniaks strongly support EU accession, compared to 59% of Bosnian-Croats and just 18% of Bosnian-Serbs.
More than a quarter of a century has passed since the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s. While it would be naïve to expect NATO to solve all the region’s complex challenges, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ascension to the alliance would certainly serve as a foundation for a more stable region.