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.
However, other prospective members, such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia/FYROM and Serbia, are equally useless from a security standpoint. And the first three raise even greater political problems than the Grand Fenwick lookalike.
Even worse would be to induct Georgia and Ukraine. Both would be security black holes—almost all risk and no gain. Although they are more substantial nations than Montenegro, Tbilisi’s military remains small, and its involvement in America’s misguided wars in Afghanistan and Iraq do not justify a security guarantee against Russia. Ukraine has a larger military, but an even bigger problem: an ongoing conflict with a nuclear-armed power.
Neither has ever had the slightest security relevance to America. However, they both were part of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union; incorporating them into the long-standing anti-Moscow alliance directly strikes at Russia’s interest in border security.
• Contrary to claims of those lobbying for Podgorica, there are no symbolic gains for America. For instance, the Heritage Foundation headlined a recent paper “Support for Montenegro’s Accession to NATO Would Send a Message of Strength.” Similarly, in the last administration Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael R. Carpenter testified to Congress that “Montenegro’s NATO membership will be a powerful rebuke to Russia’s malign influence in the Western Balkans.”
It’s hard to take such arguments seriously. Instead, adding Montenegro to NATO would prove that just as patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, symbolism is the last resort when no other argument justifies sacrificing American interests to benefit other nations. Vladimir Putin and his generals aren’t likely to go all wobbly at the prospect of Podgorica’s vast legions lining up against them. For no gain, reinforcing the paranoia of the aggressive nation supposedly threatening the European peace is foolish. Elevating today’s Duchy of Grand Fenwick to NATO status won’t help keep the peace.
Gen. Scaparrotti must have been preparing a comic monologue when he termed Montenegrin membership “absolutely crucial.” NATO still purports to be a military alliance. Indeed, what makes NATO unique is its role as a system of collective defense. Adding new members should increase U.S. security. There are plenty of other forums to achieve other ends.
In The Mouse That Roared, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick enjoyed its grand adventure. Montenegro would like to do the same. But Washington’s decision should be based on America’s security. The Defense Department should no longer be a source of international defense welfare for other nations.