By Charles V. Peña
Recently, President Trump expressed concern that those on the tiny country of Montenegro “are very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.” The truth is that Montenegro has very little military capability (about 2,000 active duty service members and not very well armed), so the idea of it being an aggressor—especially against Russia—is farfetched. Nonetheless, Trump raises an important question: Why has the U.S. now obligated itself to defend Montenegro? As Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked in his interview with Trump, “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?”
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military alliance originally intended to defend against the threat posed by the Soviet Union after World War II, “ One of the cornerstones for doing that was Article 5 that calls for collective defense if a NATO country is attacked—but does not require NATO members to support a country that is an aggressor. Collective defense ensured that the Soviet Union knew that if attacked Europe, it would have to confront the U.S. military and raised the stakes to include the possibility of nuclear war. But should the U.S. risk nuclear war over Montenegro?
The reality is that Montenegro is not critical to U.S. national security. Not that anyone is threatening Montenegro, but if the country were invaded by a foreign power—even Russia—it wouldn’t make the United States any less secure. So why should the United States risk war with a foreign power—especially nuclear superpower Russia—over a country that isn’t necessary for U.S. security?
Montenegro is hardly under threat. Its primary reason for joining NATO had more to do with wanting to be a member of the European Union (EU) than its need for greater security. Montenegro applied to join the EU in 2009 and has been in negotiations with the European Commission since 2012. Montenegro’s former prime minister (and former president) Milo Dukanović claimed that NATO membership was “one more important step towards Montenegro's full membership in the European Union.” But Montenegro’s candidacy for membership in the EU—which is about trade and economics—is not a compelling reason for the U.S. to be committed to defend a tiny country over 5,000 miles away.
Montenegro is emblematic of the problem of continued NATO expansion. Despite then Secretary of State James Baker’s assurance of “not one inch eastward” to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, NATO has done exactly that. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland were added in 1999. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia became NATO members in 2004. Albania and Croatia joined NATO in 2009. And most recently, Montenegro in 2017. There are 13 more countries that the U.S. is now obligated to defend—even though doing so comes at great cost and vanishingly small benefit to America’s security.
Moreover, NATO enlargement needlessly antagonizes Russia. To be sure, Russia is not a direct military threat to the United States or even to Europe. Its military is a pale shadow of the former Soviet Union’s, and—despite annexing Crimea and military intervening in Ukraine—Russia is not threatening to invade and overrun Europe as was the former “evil empire.” Indeed, Given that NATO’s European countries’ economies eclipse Russia’s by more than 10-to-1 (more than $18 trillion versus a little more than $1.5 trillion) and that NATO Europe outspends Russia ($250 billion versus $66 billion) by a margin of nearly 4-to-1 on defense, it is not clear how Russia constitutes a credible military threat to Europe. Why poke the Russian bear? After all, it is the one country in the world with long-range nuclear weapons in large numbers that pose an existential threat to the United States.
It is too late to do anything about Montenegro or the other 12 countries added to NATO since the fall of the Berlin Wall and demise of the Soviet Union. But we should be wary of the aspirations of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Ukraine. As is the case with Montenegro, none of these countries are essential to U.S. national security. An obligation to defend them becomes an additional, unnecessary liability. More important, adding Georgia and Ukraine add significant risk given Russian military intervention in the former in 2008 and in the latter in 2014.
If Trump is worried about the possibility of World War III, Montenegro is a very small—but still unnecessary—risk. But Georgia and Ukraine in NATO would be real cause for concern for direct military confrontation with Russia over real estate near Russia’s borders that isn’t vital to U.S. national security.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Times on July 27, 2018. Read more HERE.