Why Does NATO Need Montenegro?

By Charles V. Peña 

James Bond may have put Montenegro on the map in 2006 as the location of the Hotel Splendid and the high stakes poker game with Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale,” and if all goes as planned, Montenegro will be on the map again as the newest member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  According to NATO Deputy Secretary-General Rose Gottemoeller, “The accession process is moving forward smoothly and I expect that, pending all those parliamentary processes being complete … you [Montenegro] would become a member in the spring of 2017.” But how does the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro contribute to NATO’s collective security and – by extension – U.S. security?  

The short answer is:  It doesn’t.

There are currently 28 countries in NATO. Outside of the United States and Canada, they are all European nations. If European defense is the raison d’être for NATO, it’s hard to see how Montenegro contributes to the alliance. The combined gross domestic product (GDP) of NATO’s European members – including the United Kingdom notwithstanding the Brexit vote to leave European Union – is over $17 trillion. Montenegro’s GDP is $4 billion so it’s economic capability to contribute to NATO is infinitesimal. Indeed, Montenegro’s GDP is about a third the size of Albania’s, NATO’s smallest economy.

Rather than adding a country with such a tiny economy, NATO would be better off getting all of its member nations to meet the 2 percent of GDP defense spending requirement. Right now, the only countries spending at least that much are the U.S., Greece, Poland, Estonia, and the United Kingdom. Germany – NATO’s largest European economy – spends only about 1 percent of it’s GDP on defense. The resulting shortfall of Germany and other countries not contributing their fair share to NATO is something like $100 billion. So adding Montenegro will do nothing to close the deficit. 

And with a military consisting of some 2,000 active duty service members, the Montenegrin Army, Navy, and Air Force – such as they are – are not going to add any significant military capability to NATO.

From a U.S. perspective, adding a country like Montenegro to NATO is a double-whammy negative prospect. First, Montenegro doesn’t add any real capability – economic or military – to the alliance. Second – because NATO’s Article 5 states that if a NATO member is attacked, each and every other member will consider it an attack against all members and come to the assistance of the attacked country – the United States could be obligated to defend a country that is irrelevant to U.S. national security. Not that anyone is threatening Montenegro, but if the country was invaded by a foreign power – even Russia – it wouldn’t make the U.S. any less secure. So why should the United States risk war with a foreign power – including Russia – over a country that doesn’t matter to U.S. security? Moreover, Montenegro would be yet another European country not spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense – meaning even more cheap riding at U.S. taxpayer expense.

If anything, adding Montenegro to NATO is potentially dangerous since Russia is not too keen about the prospect. Indeed, Russia has warned that Montenegro’s accession would result in unspecified “retaliatory actions.” But why poke the Russian bear? Certainly, if any Russian aggression was a direct threat to U.S. national security, we would resolutely confront Russia (or any other country) by any means necessary. However, Russia is not a direct military threat to the U.S. or even Europe. While Putin has annexed Ukraine, it’s not clear why Europe should feel threatened by Russia. It’s military is a pale shadow of the former Soviet Union and – despite annexing Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine – is no threat to invade and overrun Europe. Given that NATO’s European members’ GDP is more than 10 times Russia’s and they spend about 5 times more on defense, calling Russia a threat to Europe borders on hyperbole.

That said, Russia still has nuclear weapons and that last thing the U.S. needs to do is needlessly antagonize – and contribute to the paranoia that the U.S. and NATO are trying to encircle Russia (not an unreasonable assumption if the situation was reversed) – the one country in the world that poses a potential existential threat.

Ultimately, the accession of Montenegro is less about NATO and more about the European Union (EU). Montenegro applied to join the EU in 2009 and has been in negotiations with the European Commission since 2012. Montenegro’s prime minister (and former president), Milo Dukanović, claims that NATO membership is "one more important step towards Montenegro's full membership in the European Union." But Montenegro’s candidacy for membership in the EU – which is more about trade and economics – isn’t a compelling reason to make it the 29th member of NATO and is not vital component of either European or U.S. 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 Department of Defense and Department of 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 National Interest on November 29, 2016. Read more HERE.