Why die for Montenegro?

The post-Helsinki question that shocked NATO and amused Moscow

Siniša Vuković

Government and governance, International relations, National security | The World

25 July 2018

Trump’s recent comments about Montenegro are music to the ears of those who would rather see an end to a rules-based system, Siniša Vuković writes.

“Why die for Danzig?” asked Marcel Déat, a French Neo-Socialist, as Nazi Germany issued an ultimatum to Poland to either surrender the control of the free city of Danzig or face an imminent German attack.

The rhetorical question soon became a symbol of the French and British ‘betrayal’ of Poland. Leaders in Paris and London were hesitant to uphold commitments stemming from a series of Franco-Polish and Anglo-Polish diplomatic, political and military agreements of mutual assistance.

Following the 2018 Helsinki Summit with Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump spoke with Tucker Carlson from Fox News about the future of NATO:

Carlson: “Membership in NATO obligates the members to defend any other member who has been attacked. So let’s say Montenegro, which joined last year, is attacked: Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack? Why is that?”

Trump: “I understand what you’re saying; I’ve asked the same question. You know, Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people… They are very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III. But that’s the way it was set up. Don’t forget, I just got here a little more than a year and a half ago.”

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If we leave out the overly suggestive tone that was present in Carlson’s question, which alluded that it would be unreasonable to deploy American sons (and I may add here, daughters) to defend the newest NATO member Montenegro if it gets attacked, the question itself was not overly problematic. It gives an opportunity to any leader of the NATO alliance to reaffirm the principle of collective defence, as stipulated by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which deems an attack on any NATO member an attack on the entire alliance.

There is nothing controversial in this principle, and promoting it has never been a political risk for anyone in NATO. In fact, in reaction to the Carlson-Trump interview, Angela Merkel used the opportunity to reiterate the mentioned principle of collective defence, claiming that it applies to all member states including Montenegro.

Therefore, Trump’s apparent dumbfoundedness after hearing the question was not only a message to Montenegro but the alliance as a whole. It was a signal that the US administration is becoming increasingly recalcitrant to uphold the spirit of Trans-Atlantic solidarity.

If we contextualise the entire interview, Trump’s vacillation was directly linked to the issue of NATO members’ defence spending. Despite the fact that a large part of the coalition does not meet the agreed 2 per cent, it did not deter him to pose an even higher expectation on the alliance, asking that the near future the new threshold for defence spending augments to 4 per cent.

In the context of his tug-of-war with NATO, the unfortunate allusion to Montenegro is best seen as yet another example of his intimidation tactics, which he believes will improve his bargaining position with the rest of NATO.

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There are at least three reasons why alluding to ‘aggressive’ Montenegrins, who might instigate World War III, was completely counterproductive for his goals. First, Article 5 is a defensive clause and does not stipulate support for aggressive actions of any NATO member state.

Second, Montenegro is a small Mediterranean country, with approximately 620,000 inhabitants and an army of 2000 active personnel, and as such, it can’t pose a serious threat to anyone.

Third, throughout the process of its accession to NATO, Montenegro has been the target of aggressive Russian rhetoric. In 2015 Moscow deemed Montenegrin membership as “an openly confrontational step, fraught with further destabilising consequences for the Euro-Atlantic security system”. In 2016 Russia warned it could be a prelude to “a new Cold War”, and in 2017 even threatened Montenegro with retaliation.

According to Montenegrin authorities, the aggression culminated around the 2016 Parliamentary elections. Russian nationalists who came from the ranks of its Military Intelligence GRU plotted a coup d’état to overthrow the pro-NATO government, and even planned to assassinate the then Prime Minister, now President of the country, Milo Djukanovic. The plan was foiled, most of the organisers are now under trial accused of terrorist activities, and Montenegro is now a NATO member state.

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The resemblance between Russian rhetoric throughout the process of Montenegrin accession to NATO, and recent remarks made by Trump, is stark and shocking. While Montenegrin smallness and limited military capabilities have often been used by NATO sceptics and pro-Russian pundits to mock the necessity of including it in the alliance, Trump’s remarks echoed those points with surprising assertion.

Despite all the pressure it faced throughout the process of acceding to NATO, Montenegro remained committed to its Euro-Atlantic foreign policy agenda. It has been contributing troops to US-led NATO activities in Afghanistan, provided humanitarian aid to the country and training to Afghan Security Forces, and even built schools for girls in the north of Afghanistan. Despite its modest capabilities, it provided military support to Iraq in its fight with ISIS, and offered humanitarian assistance to Pakistan, Sierra Leone, and Palestine. It joined EU imposed sanctions on Russia, even expelling a Russian diplomat after the Skripal incident.

Montenegro clearly remains determined on its pro-Western course. Trump’s decision to echo Russia’s position on Montenegro has left other NATO allies puzzled about the future of trans-Atlantic alliances. Trump’s actions are music to the ears of all those that want the end of a rules-based international system.

With a disinterested and noncompliant US that ignores its allies, others may see an opportunity to dismantle what is left of multilateralism and create a polycentric world in their own image. It will be a world void of universal norms, where assertive regional players, from Russia, to China, to Iran, may create a set of custom-made rules that solely apply to their neighbourhoods, with the ultimate aim to permanently push out the US from their zones of influence. It will be a world where the US may be a ‘great’ power, albeit a regional one.

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