Trump expresses doubt on NATO expansion, foreign policy establishment loses it

By Will Racke

President Donald Trump exercised his penchant for infuriating the professional foreign policy commentariat on Tuesday, when he expressed doubts about the wisdom of committing U.S. forces to the defense NATO’s newest member.

In an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Trump seemed to question Washington’s war guarantee to Montenegro, the tiny Balkan nation of about 700,000 people that joined NATO in 2017 over strenuous objections from Russia.

“So let’s say Montenegro, which joined last year, is attacked. Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” Carlson asked.

“I’ve asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people,” Trump responded. “They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations you’re in World War III.”

Trump was referring U.S. commitments under Article 5 of the NATO charter, which requires all member nations to come to the defense of any which comes under attack. Because Montenegro is now a full NATO member, Washington has a treaty obligation to defend it from an attack by an outside power, Russia or otherwise.

Trump’s response to Carlson’s hypothetical was immediately condemned by prominent members of Washington’s foreign policy establishment. Many interpreted it as further evidence of Trump’s lack of commitment to the 69-year-old alliance, following a disputatious NATO summit earlier this month during which Trump publicly lambasted allies over their failure to honor defense spending pledges.

“The 7/17 @RealDonaldTrump interview w/@Tucker Carlson is extraordinary,” Richard Hass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote Wednesday on Twitter. “It is not just that the president throws Montenegro under the bus; he makes the US commitment to NATO conditional and makes clear his discomfort w Article 5 and collective security, the core of the alliance.”

Trump has expressed frustration with the NATO since taking office, calling out allies who have for years failed to spend at least two percent of GDP on defense, a target set during a 2006 meeting of NATO defense ministers. He has also tied NATO spending to trade with the European Union, which he says throws up barriers to U.S. exports while expecting Washington to foot the bill for its defense.

Foreign policy analysts say Trump’s public criticism, combined with his overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin, have undermined NATO and emboldened Moscow to become more interventionist. Trump’s response to Carlson amounted to using Trump used “Russian talking points” about the alliance, said Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a former NATO supreme commander during the Bill Clinton Administration.

“Trump’s comments weaken NATO, give Russia a license to cause trouble and thereby actually increase the risks of renewed conflict in the Balkans,” he wrote on Twitter.

National media figures also seized on Trump’s remarks, arguing that it was especially unfair to use Montenegro as an example of unnecessary NATO expansion because the country has contributed troops to the Afghanistan war. CNN anchor Jake Tapper pointed to Montenegro’s commitment in February to boost its troop presence in Afghanistan by 50 percent — from 18 to 28 — in response to a U.S. request for more assistance from NATO allies.

“One can debate treaties and the Western alliance, I suppose, but if folks are wondering why Americans should defend Montenegro, know that Montenegrins are fighting in the US war in Afghanistan because we were attacked on 9/11,” Tapper wrote on Twitter. “In other words — they’re already defending us.”

Other commentators suggested that Trump singled out Montenegro due to some kind of understanding he reached with Putin during their meeting in Helsinki on Monday. Russia had opposed Montenegro’s NATO membership bid and was accused of orchestrating a 2016 coup attempt against the Montenegrin government to prevent it.

“It’s weird that Donald Trump had a long private meeting with Vladimir Putin and suddenly emerged with a newfound interest in undermining U.S. security guarantees to Montenegro,” mused Vox editor Matt Yglesias.

It was Trump himself who signed off on Montenegro’s accession to NATO after the Senate approved it in a 97-2 vote in 2017. He has also reiterated his support for Washington’s Article 5 commitments, criticism of the alliance notwithstanding.

Outrage over Trump’s Montenegro comments aside, opposition to NATO expansion is a conventional position among a small minority of Washington foreign policy thinkers, particularly those who belong to the realist school. Arch-realist Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, argues that NATO expansion is a bad idea because it potentially commits Washington to war with Russia over disputes that have little to do with U.S. national security interests.

Even some of NATO’s founding fathers cautioned against the eastward expansion of NATO’s borders, arguing it would poison relations between Washington and Moscow for generations. George Kennan, the legendary diplomat and architect of U.S. containment policy toward the Soviet Union, called NATO enlargement in the post-Cold War era “a strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.”

Despite those concerns, NATO membership has more than doubled since the end of the Cold War, to include most of the former Warsaw Pact nations. Expansion advocates have also backed the future accession of Macedonia, Bosnia, Georgia and Ukraine.

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