Explained | How does a nation secure NATO membership?

It was decided in 2008 Bucharest Summit that Georgia and Ukraine would become members of the organisation in future.

March 12, 2022 04:20 pm | Updated 04:42 pm IST

U.S. President Joe Biden at a news conference at the end of the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium on June 14, 2021

U.S. President Joe Biden at a news conference at the end of the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium on June 14, 2021 | Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far: News agency AFP reported on March 8 that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he would no longer press for his country’s membership at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Ukraine’s interest in securing membership of the organisation has been at the centre of its geopolitical tensions with Russia. Ukraine’s dialogue and cooperation with the NATO goes back to 1991 when the newly-carved-out country joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, and later, the Partnership for Peace Programme in 1994. In 2017, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted legislation reinstating membership in the organisation as its strategic foreign and security policy objective. A corresponding amendment to its Constitution was enforced in 2019.

In 2020, President Mr. Zelenskyy approved the National Security Strategy which provided for the development of a distinctive partnership with the organisation, and in turn, secure the membership.

At the 2008 Bucharest Summit, it was agreed that Georgia and Ukraine would become members of the alliance in future. The latest announcement, therefore, puts the entire process in doubt.  

What is the North Atlantic Treaty?  

North Atlantic Treaty, often referred to as the Washington Treaty, states the parties to the treaty seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area. The signatories affirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter and express their desire to live in peace with all people and governments, the treaty states.

“They are resolved to unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security,” the text of the treaty reads.

Article 10 of the treaty provides for entry of a new member to accede to the treaty by unanimous agreement of the existing members. 

What is the process for securing NATO membership?  

Once the member countries have established consensus about a country’s potential membership, it is called upon to initiate accession talks with the alliance.  

MAP: Following this, they may be invited to join the Membership Action Plan (MAP). Reaching this stage does not secure membership. It is a preparatory mechanism providing advice, assistance and practical support tailored to the specific needs of applicant countries. This process would conclude with the instituting of a formal timetable for the completion of prerequisite reforms. It may continue even after the applicant countries have become members.

The alliance draws a report annually providing feedback to the aspirant country about its progress in their annual national programmes, and identifying areas for further action. “The list of issues identified for discussion does not constitute criteria for membership and is intended to encompass those issues which the aspiring countries themselves have identified as matters which they wish to address,” NATO’s website states.  

Confirmation of intent: The process begins with NATO experts and representatives of the invited countries at the organisational headquarters in Brussels. The idea is to obtain formal confirmation of the invitee’s willingness and ability to meet the political, legal and military obligations and commitments of the NATO membership. They are also expected to implement measures to protect the organisation’s classified information and prepare their security and intelligence services to work with NATO Office of Security.

Issue of letter of intent: The second step of the process requires the applicant country to issue a formal letter of intent to NATO. This acts as a confirmation to the obligations and commitments of the organisation.

The amendments: It then moves to the necessary amendments to make the invitees party to the Washington Treaty followed by ratification of the applicant countries’ constitutional protocols for facilitating the membership.

Acceding to the Treaty: The Secretary General would then call the potential new members to accede to the North Atlantic Treaty. This is after all NATO members notify their acceptance to the government of the United States, the depository of the Washington Treaty, about the applicant.

Membership confirmed: Following the invitee depositing their instruments of accession with the U.S. State Dept, the applicant becomes a member of the NATO.

The MAP obligations

The five chapters of MAP identifies issues that might be taken up, also suggesting mechanism through which the preparations for “possible eventual membership” can be taken forward. They constitute issues relevant to politics and economics, defence/military, resources, security and legality.

Political and economic issues: Aspirants would have to demonstrate their ability to settle international disputes using peaceful means, commitment to rule of law and human rights, refrain from use of threat or force, contribute to development of peaceful and friendly international relations, unite efforts for collective defence and establish democratic and civilian control of armed forces, among other commitments.

Defence: Other than contributing militarily to collective defence and the alliance’s new missions, the aspirant countries are expected to improve their military capabilities and ensure complete participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace Programme (PfP). Additionally, they would be expected to participate in the alliance’ collective defence planning, NATO agencies and ensure standardisation and/or interoperability subject to circumstances.

Resources: Applicant countries would be expected to allocate sufficient budget resources to meet the commitments of the membership and NATO’s common-funded activities at agreed cost shares.

Security: Invitees would have to place adequate safeguards and procedures to ensure the security of sensitive information in adherence to the NATO security policy.

Legal Issues: The aspiring countries would be required to scrutinise domestic law to ensure compatibility with NATO rules and regulations. Domestic legislation, as much as possible, should be compatible with arrangements and stipulations governing NATO-wide cooperation.  

Current applicants and members  

Created in 1949 with 12 founding members Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom and the United States, it presently has 30 members.

The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland became members in 1999. Republic of North Macedonia was the latest entrant to the alliance; it joined in March 2020. Bosnia and Herzegovina were invited to commence MAP in April 2010.  

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