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Tiny, Faraway Countries and Us

Flags of member nations fly during a ceremony at NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels in 2018. (Christian Hartmann / Reuters)

Montenegro is in the news, much to its discomfort. President Trump cast doubt on collective security, which is the crux of NATO: “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.”

What is certainly true is that Montenegro is a tiny country that is aggressed against. Here is an article from earlier this month: “Exclusive: Russian Military Spies Backed Attempt to Assassinate Leader of Montenegro, Report Says.” Vladimir Putin was very keen to stop Montenegro’s accession to NATO, which the United States supported and encouraged.

Trump described Montenegro as “a tiny country.” Some of us heard an echo of this: “a faraway country.” In September 1938, Prime Minister Chamberlain spoke of “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”

This seems to be a season for Chamberlain echoes. Last month, Trump tweeted, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” adding, “. . . sleep well tonight!” On his return from Munich, Chamberlain said, “I believe it is peace for our time. . . . Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”

When you speak of NATO, you could pick a bigger country: Britain or Poland, for example. But Montenegro is riper for mockery. The country, to some ears, is ridiculous-sounding (even as Czechoslovakia was).

On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump spoke of small countries “that nobody in this room’s ever heard of.” He was speaking to a rally in Jacksonville. He said the press had accused him of wanting to get rid of NATO. “I don’t want to get rid of NATO,” he told the crowd. “But you always have to be prepared to walk. It’s possible. Okay?”

He had had an interview with David E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, who questioned him about the Baltic states. In Jacksonville, Trump did a comical reenactment of the interview. “They said, ‘What happens if one of these countries’ — take a smaller one that nobody in this room’s ever heard of — ‘gets attacked by Russia? Are you saying you’re not gonna protect ’em?’ I say, ‘Well, let me ask you: Have they paid? Have they paid?’ Right? ‘Have they paid?’” The crowd laughed and cheered. “So, we’re gonna save a fortune. They’re gonna pay. And if they don’t — sorry.”

In 1939, a question rang out in France: “Why die for Danzig?” It was a damn good question — a question that certainly applies to today (and you can substitute Montenegro for Danzig). The question, which became a slogan, served as the title of an article by Marcel Déat, a socialist politician. He became an ardent collaborator with the Nazis.

Why die for Danzig? In a year, Frenchmen were dying for Paris. Radek Sikorski, once the defense minister and foreign minister of Poland — and, before that, a writer for National Review — made this point to me in a podcast last year.

He was talking about deterrence: the need to stop an aggressor as soon as possible, before he comes to your door, and doors elsewhere. After two world wars, the wise heads who founded NATO decided that collective security was the best defense — the best way of preventing further war. If anyone has a brighter idea today, he should speak up plainly and specifically.

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty says, in essence, An attack on one is an attack on all. It is been invoked only once — after the attacks on America on 9/11. That’s why Poles, for example, have fought and died in Afghanistan.

Article 3 is important too, of course, and too often overlooked by NATO members: “The Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”

In the autumn of 2016, I traveled to the Baltic states, to report on NATO, the Russian threat, etc. Newt Gingrich, then a Trump campaign surrogate, had said something astounding. He said, “Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg,” and “I’m not sure I would risk nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg.”

He further said that Trump “thinks there ought to be a very serious conversation about us being the people who defend people who won’t defend themselves.”

Estonians had fought and died in Afghanistan (a long way from Tallinn). Estonia was one of the five NATO countries already meeting the alliance’s goal on defense spending (2 percent of GDP by 2024). But look: Even if Estonia spent everything it had on defense, it would be hard pressed to fend off Russia, which has a million men under arms and another 2 million in reserve (plus nuclear weapons, as Gingrich suggested).

In my report from the Baltics, I said that we Americans were perfectly entitled to ask a question:

Why should we care about the Baltic people, except on a humanitarian level? What is the connection between our security and theirs? Why should we commit our forces to their protection? You might even say, Why die for Danzig? The immediate answer is, “Better to deter, and commit to that — so that no one is ever asked to die for Danzig, including the Danzigers.” But there are answers beyond that one.

The United States has trade interests. These are connected to our prosperity. We have an interest in stability, democracy, and the rule of law — in not getting dragged into another European or world war. We have shared values, with these liberal democracies. And we have a foreign policy at large to consider. If NATO crumbles, that will have big effects elsewhere. U.S. guarantees will be seen as worthless. Japan and South Korea will be resigned to China. And so on.

Advocates of NATO — of collective security — should not be complacent. They (we) should not assume that the arguments are self-evident. They need to be remade, over and over again, especially for the young, and especially as memories of past crises fade.

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