Why Paul is right and McCain is wrong on NATO

By Daniel DePetris

This January, the Foreign Relations Committee recommended a vote to ratify Montenegro’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This week, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)  attempted to do just that, requesting unanimous consent that the Resolution of Ratification be approved by the full chamber without any more debate on the floor. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) objected to the request and then walked off the floor, leaving McCain so furious he openly declared the junior senator from Kentucky was in cahoots with Russian President Vladimir Putin to dismember NATO.  

“The only conclusion you can draw when he [Paul] walks away,” McCain remarked on the floor, “is he has no justification for his objection to having a small nation be part of NATO that is under assault from the Russians.” McCain’s rationale is simple-minded and ultimately misguided.

Fortunately, the bullying tactics aren’t cowing Sen. Paul into submission. There is a strong case to be made for why Montenegro becoming the 29th member of NATO isn’t a good idea. At the very least, the Senate should have a full debate on the matter, exercising its powers of ratification.

NATO is the most successful military alliance the world has seen in modern times. It’s cohesiveness during the Cold War prevented Soviet expansionism into Western Europe, provided the U.S. with a sizable and geostrategically important beachhead to combat Soviet influence, and afforded western democracies a security guarantee that any attack by Soviet forces would be responded to forthwith from every member of the alliance. Article 5—“an armed attack against one…shall be considered an attack against them all”—was and continues to be the bedrock of the entire NATO structure. Adversaries risk confrontation at their own peril.

Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1992, however, NATO has transformed from a security alliance that brought the U.S., Canada, and Europe together into a political club of “democracies” bounded by common governing principles. The liberal notion of spreading democracy has replaced the once clear-eyed security alliance with vital strategic objectives.

The expansion of NATO into Eastern and Southeastern Europe in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s wasn’t necessary for security. The Soviet Union collapsed years earlier; the Russian military was a shell of its former glory days; and the Russian state was so weak economically and riven by crime, corruption, and terrorism that Moscow couldn’t afford to play the geopolitical game.

The inclusion of Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Estonia, and Slovakia was about spreading the democratic project throughout Europe during a period dubbed “the end of history” rather than protecting these smaller countries from a foreign threat (let alone enhancing the strength of the alliance itself).

It’s John McCain who is a relic of the past. His views on NATO, like his views on the use of force and when to leverage American military power around the world, resemble a Cold War mentality that is ill suited for the 21st Century.  To be fair, McCain isn’t the only lawmaker to hold these views — the foreign policy establishment has become so reflexively anti-Russia over the last several years that any policy that second-guesses how NATO operates is labeled as dangerous and naïve.

Paul may be a minority in the Senate, but his view is much more practical and in line with the American people. For what exactly does Montenegro—a tiny country of less than 630,000 people, GDP of $3.9 billion, and an active military of approximately 2,000 troops—offer NATO that it doesn’t already have?

It’s difficult to see what the positives would be for Montenegro’s inclusion. The Montenegrin government spends 1.6 percent of its GDP on defense, short of the two percent threshold that NATO now uses as a guideline. As my colleague Charles Pena wrote last November, it would be unwise policy for the United States and the NATO alliance to take in yet another member that won’t contribute their fair share of the defense burden. Currently 23 of NATO’s 28 members contribute less than the two percent benchmark. Montenegro would add yet another dependent country to America’s coattails, while hardly making Americans safer.

And then there’s the Russia question. U.S.-Russia bilateral relations are perhaps their worst since the early 1980’s when Washington and Moscow were on the precipice of nuclear war. Russian officials have repeatedly argued that incorporating Montenegro into NATO would be a direct threat to their national interests—a not-so subtle hint that they would respond accordingly. If the Trump administration does indeed want to de-escalate with Moscow and attempt to establish a pragmatic relationship with the Russians on issues of common concern, it’s difficult to argue how accepting Montenegro makes that goal easier to achieve.

Sen. Paul could have articulated this on the Senate floor and explain this to Sen. McCain—but the truth is, this isn’t news to McCain. He understands these issues and discounts them because he cares more about looking tough and flaunting America’s military than actually enhancing American security.

NATO is a security alliance, not a get-to-know-you club where everybody is accepted regardless of the regional circumstances and despite how insignificant a candidate’s acceptance will be. 

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.   

This piece was originally published by The Hill on March 16, 2017. Read more HERE.