Last week, Donald Trump said reckless things about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and silly things about Montenegro, the alliance’s newest member, specifically. He has complained about America’s Article 5 obligations under the treaty, though he seems to share the widespread misunderstanding that Article 5 obliges all member states to immediately engage in full-out war if any member state is attacked. This isn’t quite true: Congress would not have approved such a surrender of American sovereignty. In fact, Article 5 obliges each member nation to respond to aggression with “such action as it deems necessary.”
Trump’s statements have occasioned a flurry of defenses of NATO on the right, including from my colleagues David French, Jim Geraghty, Jonah Goldberg, and Rich Lowry. Unfortunately, they failed to persuade me.
French would have had Trump say: “If the last two centuries of American history teach us anything, it’s that allied military strength keeps the peace. Allied military weakness invites war.”
French says that allied military strength makes peace. But what do we mean by “strong”? Do we mean depth of felt commitment? Or do we mean strength in terms of armored divisions? Because, lately, NATO expansion has meant adding weak states. Estonia has lots of felt commitment toward the Western alliance, but not much in the way of tanks.
If the old cliché that one’s department — or squad — is “only as strong as its weakest member” applies to military alliances, it means NATO continues to get weaker. We were once as strong as the United Kingdom, France, and Turkey. Later we were as strong as Poland. Recently we were as strong as the Estonian militia. And now we will be as strong as Montenegro’s 1,950 active-duty military members.
In fact, that may be too generous. An extra 1,950 men under arms is something. But new members may offer problems as well. Do we know, for instance, what the election-security systems are like in the periphery nations of NATO? Or in Montenegro?
Compare Montenegro to Poland. Poland has a long and urgent history of wanting to resist Russian aggression. All but the tiniest fringes in Polish political life support NATO membership. Poland has consistently hit its commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on its military. It is anxious to host more U.S. defense materiel. Since it left the Soviet sphere, it has gone from being a very poor country in Europe, to nearly reaching parity with Western European economies. It is considered one of the most well-run European countries, with a low ratio of debt to GDP and outstanding transparency in government spending.
Meanwhile, Montenegro “remains deeply divided over joining NATO” according to all reports. If President Milo Djukanovic had not won reelection, his opponent, Mladen Bojanic, is likely to have canceled the nation’s bid to join NATO. There is also an issue of political culture. No one seems to know exactly how Djukanovic , an ex-Communist and longtime political operator in Montenegro, became so wealthy. A good portion of Montenegrins consider their leader a kind of dictator, since he served as prime minister from 1991 to 1998, then president until 2002, then prime minister again until 2006, and in several terms since.
French raises the stakes rather high:
Absent NATO, it’s likely we would have already fought a Third World War. Absent NATO, it’s even possible that the world would have faced a nuclear holocaust by now. NATO continues to serve the critically important function of preventing the reemergence of great-power politics that led up to earlier European conflicts.
To my eyes this is almost exactly inside-out. It is not NATO that keeps the peace and prevents nukes from being launched; it’s the stability provided by mutually assured destruction that has prevented a Third World War and a nuclear holocaust. Russia’s calculation has never been, “Oh no, now that the Americans have Latvia, we really better not ever get into war with NATO.” Instead, it’s the existing unpalatability of nuclear war between Russia and the United States that allows the Western alliance to take on marginal allies at seemingly little risk.
Sometimes, I wonder if NATO’s members even see it as a military alliance. Western policymakers have often treated the organization as a kind of primary school for states in need of remedial education. One is taken through the requirements to join, not because it adds significantly to the military strength of the alliance, but because NATO has a framework by which it can judge states, and membership has enough benefits to act as a motivator. If it passes muster with NATO, a state can go on to the next level of schooling, seeking matriculation into the more stringent European Union. Pass, that, and someday you can aspire to the euro zone.
Also, NATO lately makes decisions on military matters for non-military reasons. The U.S. State Department recently protested Poland’s recent law on Holocaust scholarship by threatening to redeploy NATO troops and resources outside of Poland. Why? Either the troops had a strategic reason to be stationed in Poland, or they did not. NATO is a either a military alliance to deter Russia, or it is a political project to deter Central European populists.
French concludes: “America pledges to fight for Montenegro and prepares to fight for Montenegro so it will never have to fight for Montenegro. Anything less places our sons at greater risk.” This does not describe a military strategy. It’s a rather straightforward description of a bluff. If we pretend that Montenegro is an ace long enough, our adversary will never force us to play out the hand.
There’s another more direct and much more effective way to ensure we never have to fight for Montenegro: choose not to guarantee its security in perpetuity. Choose not to say that a compromise of this tiny nation’s sovereignty has the capacity to destroy the credibility of the U.S. alliance with once-serious powers such as France and the U.K.
Montenegro now, and what next? Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, has promised that the member states are committed to helping Georgia also accede to the alliance. This is of course madness. Now we’re not just including nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, but members who have gotten into post-1990s wars with Russia? I’ve spoken with officials who were in the room when President George W. Bush put his hands on Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili and warned him not to “poke the Bear” — because we would not bail him out. Saakashvili did manage to get into a scrap with Russia, and Georgia was rudely put back in its place by Moscow.
Adding Montenegro does not strengthen the NATO alliance. It offers no significant military or intelligence capability to the alliance and its financial contributions will not be noticed. Its political culture is much more vulnerable to outside manipulation than the ever-lowering NATO average. Adding weak states makes it more tempting for Putin to test the Article 5 bluff. Instead of making an alliance that deters a conflict with Russia, we are making one that invites a credibility-shattering challenge.
Adding weak states makes it more tempting for Putin to test the Article 5 bluff.
My colleague Jonah Goldberg says that Trump is rehashing the pre-World War II appeasers’ cry, “Why die for Danzig?” I’m surprised when anyone brings up this famous essay. It doesn’t make the interventionist, pro-expansion point. The fact is that, much to the chagrin of Poland’s government and diplomats, Britain and France were not prepared to vindicate Polish territorial claims when they promised to do so, not when Hitler attacked from the West, nor when Stalin eventually claimed it for the Eastern bloc. Poles fought in the expectation of Western allies immediately opening up a second front or sending in air support. They fought and they died waiting. And many of their children died before Poland could be considered part of the West again.
Trump was wrong to so cavalierly increase doubts about America’s commitment to the periphery of the alliance. But he’s not the only one ruining the credibility of NATO. So too are the expansionists, who have turned NATO into something other than a military alliance. They have made it into a political summer camp for laggard European nations, have used it to try to punish democratically elected political parties that “Atlanticists” dislike within the West, and have made the U.S. security guarantee more questionable by adding nations we are not in position to protect at all.