Albania's greatest political goal is membership of the European Union. The Government of Albania has an entire ministerial department exclusively dedicated to pursuing the process of integration. Equally important for the government is membership of NATO.
This week, three aspiring members of NATO from the Balkans - Albania, Croatia and Macedonia - met in Tirana for a conference aimed at co-ordinating their quest for membership. All three would like to be invited to join the Organisation at the NATO summit in Washington in 2008.
The conference follows a series of visits to the region by various worthies offering support for Albania's goal of membership. NATO's Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer visited Croatia and Albania in July and, while in Tirana addressed the Albanian parliament. The US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, was in Tirana in September, while US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, visited Croatia in May and met with the leaders of all three countries while there.
Yet for all the diplomatic activity, affirming speeches and ringing declarations, the question of what benefit Albania derives from membership of NATO is rarely discussed. Albania's Prime Minister, Sali Berisha, asserts that "Albania's accession in NATO...is...a guarantor of peace, security, economic and social stability of the country."
How precisely membership of NATO guarantees these obvious public goods is not clear though. It is not so much that the downside of membership outweighs any upside. It is more that NATO has become such a hollow entity that it is hard to identify either an upside or a downside in order to have a debate about the balance between them.
At least with the EU it is possible to have this conversation. There are clearly definable benefits to EU membership - the reform process required for membership has a significant impact on every aspect of society; actual membership brings free trade, free movement of goods and people, and a seat at the table where decisions that affect Albania - irrespective of whether it is a member of the EU - are taken. On the other hand membership entails the costs of compliance with wide-ranging and often pointless EU regulations, and the surrender of decision making powers in many areas of policy by national legislative bodies to EU institutions.
Whether the pros of membership outweigh the cons or vice-versa is up for debate. But at least it is possible to have that debate since there is something of substance to discuss. Membership of NATO on the other hand is much more difficult to debate precisely because the pros and cons are so much more elusive and ill-defined. While the Prime Minister can make the argument that NATO could be a guarantor of peace and security, it is difficult to see how it can be seen as a guarantor of economic and social stability. And since economic and social stability are probably an even greater guarantor of peace and security than NATO, it is hardly a convincing argument.
On a military level, Albania's armed forces are already undergoing reform and would do so irrespective of the prospect of NATO membership, and Albanian military personal are already serving across the world without needing to be part of NATO. They are in Iraq with the Coalition, in Afghanistan with NATO, in Bosnia with the EU, and now Mr Berisha is raising the possibility of sending more to serve with the UN in Lebanon.
Given all this, why the big push for membership? I think there are two real reasons. One comes back to Mr Berisha's emphasis on peace and security. Albania can look back over fifteen traumatic years in this region when the EU (or EC as it then was) and the UN failed to deal with the security crisis created by the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
In contrast, NATO appeared to be the only organisation able to enforce an end to conflict in both Bosnia and Kosovo. The reasons for, and the effectiveness of, NATO's involvement in the Balkans remain disputed, but clearly the perception is that NATO was the only institution capable of acting decisively. Membership of NATO means that in any future security crisis Albania is no longer dependent on a contingent decision by NATO to intervene, but is guaranteed intervention under the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty.
On the other hand, the conditions that prevailed in the 1990's no longer prevail. Indeed, all the former protagonists share the twin aims of membership of the EU and NATO, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Moreover, there is some reason to doubt the credibility of NATO's security guarantees. This is an organisation with a theoretical combined manpower numbering in the millions that cannot find 2,500 soldiers to make the difference in Afghanistan, and whose member states limit the effectiveness of the forces deployed by placing restrictions on how they may be used. Given this, NATO is probably more of a security blanket for Albania than an effective guarantor of security.
The second reason has to do with Albania's aspiration to be recognised and incorporated within the 'Euro-Atlantic community'. Membership of NATO is like being admitted to an exclusive club - albeit one that is slightly easier to get into than the EU. Once in, though, members know that they truly belong and in this regard membership is more about the symbolism of belonging, the affirmation of the aspiration, than it is about anything more substantial.
It's nice to have a security blanket and it's nice to be part of the club, so in that respect Albanian membership of NATO seems a reasonable goal. It would be a mistake, though, to try to see it as having any greater significance.