Georgia has now set its sights on the same target.
Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer told reporters after a meeting with Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli today that the country's eventual membership is assured. But he suggested it might be a matter of more than a few years.
"Needless to say that NATO's door is open," de Hoop Scheffer said. "Needless to say that NATO will support Georgia wherever it needs assistance in implementing those difficult, difficult reforms. We realize there is a long, long way to go, but NATO is ready to assist."
Officials say there is widespread support within NATO for Georgia's membership -- and that, most importantly, the United States appears to support the idea. However, they say, it is far too early to speak of timing.
This was reiterated by de Hoop Scheffer, who said there are "not dates or timelines" as yet, adding that everything depends on the speed of reforms in Georgia.
Noghaideli appeared content today with the broad support he received at the meeting with the 26 NATO ambassadors.
"It was a very important day for us we have presented our policies to NATO [North Atlantic] council," Noghaideli said. "The door to NATO is open for us, that's the most important thing. It has also been mentioned that no third country should be allowed to veto Georgia's NATO aspirations and that's another very important thing for us."
Officials at NATO headquarters have always made clear that the decision to offer membership to any country is a political one, taken by the allied governments -- and this is where Georgia, in this instance, must focus its lobbying effort.
The role of NATO headquarters in Brussels is to guide applicants in their reforms. De Hoop Scheffer today indicated that defense reforms in Georgia still face a "long and winding road."
Georgia's reform program is currently conducted within the framework of a so-called Individual Partnership Action Plan. The country is eager to proceed to the next level and become the beneficiary of a Membership Action Plan as early as next year.
However, the country's politicians acknowledge that apart from defense reforms, the unresolved conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia also present a formidable obstacle.
Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer repeated the alliance's long-term position -- that it has no plans to get involved in efforts to resolve either conflict.
"As you know NATO is not looking for a role in that process," de Hoop Scheffer said. "I, we, discuss South Ossetia, it is the OSCE, and I know that the prime minister has presented proposals to the permanent council of the OSCE in Vienna. NATO is following this, of course, with interest, but NATO is not seeking a direct role in the process."
De Hoop Scheffer repeatedly praised Georgia as an "exporter of security," referring to the country's participation in NATO-led operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo, as well as in Iraq. He also confirmed that Tbilisi has offered to make as yet officially unspecified contribution to NATO's naval operation Active Endeavor in the eastern Mediterranean.
Earlier this year, Russia and Ukraine also offered similar assistance.