13 August, 2018
By Irena Baboi – Junior Fellow
In a recent interview on Fox News, United States President Donald Trump questioned his country’s obligation to defend NATO allies such as Montenegro, calling the small Balkan country’s people ‘aggressive’ and suggesting that the defence organisation’s youngest member could trigger World War III. The comment came at the end of a European tour that saw Trump criticising NATO leaders and strengthening his friendship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. As a result, alarm bells rang among analysts over the United States’ future in the Trans-Atlantic organisation, and the future of the alliance itself. What needs to be kept in mind, however, is that some statements serve as a distraction rather than a warning signal – and that even when you are the leader of the free world, not all of your tweets come true.
President Trump used the 11 July NATO leaders’ summit in Brussels to reiterate his demand for higher military spending by allies, suggesting that a failure to meet the two percent of GDP goal set for 2024 – and, eventually, a four percent baseline – would be unacceptable to his country. Trump’s main target seemed to be Germany, which was criticised at length for the controversial Nord Stream 2 project – a planned gas pipeline between Germany and Russia via the Baltic Sea – and accused of financing it at the expense of meeting its defence spending target.
The following week, Trump’s comment on defending Montenegro in the case of an attack appeared to call into question the United States’ commitment to article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, according to which if one member state is under attack, the organisation’s other members are obligated to come to its aid. The article has been invoked only once in nearly 70 years, and that was by the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. Since then, NATO members have been contributing troops in aid of Washington’s war efforts abroad – and coincidentally, Montenegro currently has more troops per capita in Afghanistan than the United States does.
Article 5, moreover, excludes a scenario in which the member state eligible for air is the one attacking, which is what President Trump’s statement seems to suggest about Montenegro. Even if the defence organisation decided to make an exception, with its border dispute with Kosovo recently settled, the Podgorica government is possibly the least likely in the Balkans to provoke an armed conflict in the region, and it is certainly not delusional enough to attack Russia – a nation whose armed forces is larger than Montenegro’s population.
The only other possibility, then, would be if Russia attacked Montenegro, which makes almost as little logistical and geographical sense. While countries like Georgia and Ukraine are on the other side of its borders, Moscow’s military would need to cross between one and six other NATO members to reach Montenegro – and even Putin knows better than to test the military alliance to this extent.
In truth, President Trump’s outspoken antipathy towards NATO over the last few weeks does not exactly constitute a shift in his attitude towards it, as this is not the first time that the United States President has been negative both towards and regarding the defence organisation. In 2017, days before his inauguration, Trump called NATO ‘obsolete’ – a statement he then retracted in April of the same year. The pattern was repeated to some extent this time, with the United States President later declaring that a ‘tremendous amount of progress’ had been made during the summit, and re-iterating a ‘very strong’ commitment on the part of his country to the organisation.
Trump is also not the first United States official to stress the issue of burden-sharing, and argue that all NATO members should take their financial responsibilities towards the organisation more seriously. The contrast between his belligerent attitude in the morning of the summit and conciliatory one in the evening, moreover, is evidence of his strategy to appear ruthless and unforgiving without, in fact, going too far in practice. His rhetoric, attitude and behaviour during the NATO summit are typical of a populist president, and very much in line with the “America First” policy orientation that made him popular with voters in the first place. After all, it was his radical promises that gained him supporters – and it is his radical statements that provide him with the spotlight and controversy he craves.
Nevertheless, with the United States withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and, most recently, the United Nations Human Rights Council, fears were raised over the future of the United States in the North Atlantic organisation, and precautionary measures are now being taken. The United States Senate is currently debating legislation that, if passed, would force the President to acquire the Senate’s consent to withdraw from NATO. Furthermore, if an attempt were made without this consent, the Senate Legal Counsel would have the ability to take the administration to court.
Trump’s comments on Montenegro and NATO may have also been thought to serve as a useful distraction, particularly in a week when the United States President faced repeated questioning over conclusive evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 United States elections. When asked who he believes on the matter – his intelligence agencies or Putin – Trump attempted the middle-ground approach, refusing once again to properly address the damning conclusions of a meticulous investigation.
As such, Trump’s repeated attacks on the Trans-Atlantic Alliance may also be linked to the Helsinki summit, the meeting with Vladimir Putin which came days after his trip to Brussels. While there is still no written report on what was discussed between the two leaders, educated guesses can be made on the main topics – and while it was perhaps not Montenegro specifically that featured on the agenda, NATO and its eastern expansion most likely did.
Evidently, another attack on NATO on the part of the United States does not exactly hurt Russia’s interests – Moscow has been very vocal in its opposition to countries from its traditional sphere of influence becoming NATO members, and classifies the North Atlantic Alliance as one of its main security threats. NATO’s move to integrate the Western Balkan countries has been met with outrage in the Kremlin, and it would not be far-fetched to believe that Moscow has been taking steps to prevent it. An open investigation is currently looking into Russia’s role in the failed coup attempt of October 2016, which Montenegro’s government claims was intended to overthrow the government and derail NATO accession.
NATO’s 11 July invitation for Macedonia to join was yet another blow for Russia, who has also been accused of interfering in Skopje’s name dispute with Greece in order to delay the former’s European accession. Russian diplomats have been expelled from Athens for alleged involvement in rallies against the name deal, and Moscow’s ambassador to Skopje has warned Macedonia that it could become a legitimate target if relations between NATO and Russia further deteriorate.
For Europe, NATO has been a main pillar of stability, unity and peace for almost seventy years. For the Western Balkans, particularly with the European Union taking a step back, the Trans-Atlantic Alliance has become the main driver of progress in the region. So far at least, there has been no enlargement fatigue, no loss of interest on the part of prospective members, and no Brexit-style hints on the part of current ones – and the celebrations that followed Macedonia’s invitation to join show just how important the defence organisation has been and remains.
In the long-term, then, the issue is less that Trump is criticising NATO to please Putin – it is more that it remains unclear what he is getting in return. The economic sanctions imposed by the West have had little to no effect on the Kremlin, and Putin continues to act like he is Moscow’s eternal ruler. A ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ strategy may, therefore, produce good results for Trump, but at times the strategy seems more of the ‘alienate your friends and replace them with your enemies’ kind. With Putin keeping his cards close to his chest, Trump seems unsure of the best way to navigate this relationship – and it is his uncertainty and indecision that puts Moscow in a position of power.
President Trump’s NATO performance attracted the attention that was most likely desired, but intense scrutiny also came with it. His statements were both in line with the political behaviour he has opted for, and a betrayer of his failed attempt to adopt a middle-ground approach that cannot exist. In his efforts to make nice with Russia, Trump is forgetting that NATO is far more than a military organisation for Europe, and a move to discredit it for political gains will only make it worthier of being defended. He is also yet to realise that a risky investment has a better chance of success in business than in politics – and that the friends he has can always be lost if his focus is on gaining new ones.
Image: NATO leaders during the Belgium NATO summit (source: website of the President of Ukraine)