If denizens of Washington wonder at the appeal of Donald Trump’s America First rhetoric, they need look no further than the concerted effort to bring Montenegro into NATO. A Senate vote is scheduled for this afternoon.
When the transatlantic alliance was formed, it had a serious purpose: prevent Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union from dominating Western as well as Eastern Europe. No longer.
There were no obvious alternatives then. Much of the continent had been ravaged by World War II. What the Red Army touched, the Soviets mostly turned into political satellites. Even if he did not have further conquest on his mind, Stalin could not be trusted to ignore any opportunity to expand his control.
At the same time, even Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against providing a permanent U.S. garrison for Europe. The continent needed a temporary shield behind which to recover economically and reunite politically, while rehabilitating Germany. There was no need to turn Europe into Washington’s permanent defense dependent.
Yet an American-dominated NATO did far more than survive during the Cold War after Europe restored economic growth and democratic process. NATO persisted as “North America and The Others” after the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Having pinched pennies when threatened by the Evil Empire, the Europeans quickly cut troop levels and outlays after its demise. After all, Uncle Sam remained on duty.
Washington didn’t seem to mind and pushed to expand the alliance. Central and eastern European activists lobbied to incorporate their ancestral homes. U.S. policymakers also figured that using NATO to draw former Soviet allies and republics westward would enhance American influence, in contrast to relying on the European Union, which, though more appropriate as a political and economic body, did not include the United States as a member.
Moreover, European governments treated the alliance as a highbrow gentlemen’s club, to which anyone who is anyone belonged. Whether it was worth going to war to protect new members, and, indeed, how practical it would be do so—the Baltics are particularly vulnerable in this regard—were questions left unasked. Until the Ukraine crisis, NATO expansion was viewed as an act of noblesse oblige, accepting slightly disreputable members from the other side of the railroad tracks, as it were.
Despite the shock resulting from the annexation of Crimea, few lessons appear to have been learned. There was much wailing about Moscow’s potential depredations, yet most European efforts went to convincing Washington to do more. Only in 2015 did the European members stop reducing their collective military outlays, though the turnaround has been modest and few believe pledges by cheap-riding members to hit NATO’s 2 percent standard. For instance, Germany would have to nearly double its military outlays by 2024, implausible even if Chancellor Angela Merkel is reelected later this year.
Moreover, the alliance continued to include new members, mostly security nullities in the Balkans, adding as many geopolitical liabilities as assets. Worse, partisans for Georgia and Ukraine continued to push for their membership, even though doing so would immediately create a military confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia over what the latter viewed as important if not vital interests.
Now Montenegro is set to become NATO’s twenty-ninth member. Why?
The plan brings to mind the 1955 satirical novel—later made into a movie starring Peter Sellers— The Mouse That Roared . The mythical Duchy of Grand Fenwick decided to attack America, in expectation of a quick defeat, followed by oodles of foreign aid for the former adversary. But the ill-equipped invading force landed in a nearly deserted New York City during a military drill, and by happenstance captured America’s new superweapon, unexpectedly winning the conflict. It would take a similar stroke of luck for Montenegro to make a difference in any conflict with Russia or anyone else.
At best, expanding to include Montenegro, the country most famous in America as the setting for the Bond movie Casino Royale , will pass largely unnoticed. Washington will waste additional aid money, though this time sent to improve a new member’s forces rather than to rebuild a former adversary. And U.S. policymakers will prove yet again that they are more interested in preening for an international audience than safeguarding Americans’ interests. That’s not much of a case for expansion.
However, the negatives are likely to be far greater. Including Montenegro in NATO is a bad idea for several reasons.
• Podgorica is of no military value. The postage-stamp country spent $69 million on the military last year, a rounding error for the Pentagon’s profligate budget. With fewer citizens than in a single congressional district, Montenegro has 1,950 men under arms. The army, backed by eight—count ’em, eight!—armored personnel carriers, has 875 men in uniform. The navy deploys 350 sailors and half a dozen boats. The air force of 225 men has a few nonfunctioning training aircraft and a baker’s dozen helicopters. However brave its people, and irrespective of Podgorica’s willingness to “contribute” to allied operations—adding small foreign detachments for show probably costs as much as it saves—bringing Montenegro into the alliance is not a military act. It’s a plot for another literary satire.