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.
• Montenegro faces no military threats. It split from Serbia in 2006, but the latter has no interest in forcible reunification. Surrounding states also were created when Yugoslavia fractured into smaller nations. The movie locale doesn’t border Russia: a revived Red Army would have to conquer Ukraine, Romania or Hungary, and then Serbia, before reaching Montenegro. That’s a lot of effort to grab such a small piece of real estate, even if picturesque. A seaborne invasion from the Adriatic is no more likely.
The Markovic government claims Moscow was behind a recent coup attempt, but the connection has not been proved and, even if true, it would have nothing to do with NATO. The supposed putsch was defeated without an allied mobilization, and alliance membership has not preserved liberal democracy in Turkey. Podgorica wants into the transatlantic organization for the same reason the fictional Duchy of Grand Fenwick went to war: money—as well as the extra status membership theoretically bestows.
• The microstate is not ready politically for membership. There are more badly governed nations—NATO member Turkey, for one—but at least the latter has a functioning military. Adding a semi-developed democracy without military strength makes no sense. For instance, Freedom House rates the long-time fiefdom of strongman Milo Dukanovic as only partly free, with middling ratings for political rights and civil liberties. The country has been on a downward path “due to restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly” and “harassment and discrimination against LGBT people,” explained the group.
Freedom House acknowledged “gradual steps toward transformation and democratization,” but added that “institutions are still too weak in practice to cope with widespread corruption, a fragile economy, and, above all, political pressure from authorities that have remained untouchable for a quarter century.” The organization’s most recent report noted that “corruption remains a widespread problem” and “law enforcement traditionally has not taken an active approach toward corruption investigations, particularly those involving top officials.”
Amnesty International warned that Podgorica has failed to “bring all those suspected of criminal responsibility for crimes under international law to justice.” Amnesty pointed to additional problems as well, such as failure to protect Roma and others displaced from Albania and threats against the press. Human Rights Watch also worried about “the country’s commitment to a free press.” Even the State Department, busy lobbying to induct Montenegro into the transatlantic club, noted problems of corruption , “impunity for war crimes,” prison abuse, “discrimination and societal violence against members of ethnic minorities,” inappropriate government influence on the media, and “violations of the right to peaceful assembly.”
Nothing is likely to change with NATO membership. Just last week, New Europe ’s Beata Stur wrote of “the detention and arrest of an opposition leader, Marko Milacic, who was ‘pre-emptively’ detained and summoned for questioning . . . as he joined a protest against welfare cuts on a motherhood allowance.”
• Other benefits ascribed to NATO membership, such as enabling out-of-area military cooperation, facilitating nonmilitary activities and promoting Western political integration, could all be achieved without issuing an Article Five military guarantee. Indeed, Montenegro is unimportant for America in the first two areas. The third is a legitimate interest, but best served by Podgorica concentrating on meeting the qualifications for European Union membership. Despite the EU’s ongoing travails, it is far better equipped than NATO to ease the economic and political integration of nations that emerged from the Soviet collapse.