BY: TAWNNI CASTAÑO DE LA CUESTA
It is no secret that President Trump has been skeptical towards NATO on multiple occasions. However, this skepticism reached new heights during a recent TV interview in which the U.S. President made alarming comments about NATO’s latest member: Montenegro. Not only did Trump openly question Montenegro’s value to NATO, he also expressed his reluctance to come to Montenegro’s aid in the future. Additionally, Trump stated that:
It is true that Montenegro is small in size and military strength, but Montenegro’s military capacity was not the reason for its NATO membership. Montenegro was invited to NATO because of the geopolitical advantage it would bring to the Balkans and hence in Russia’s backyard. NATO now has a presence in the Western Balkans, which limits the influence of Serbia and Russia in this area. Montenegro is, therefore, of real value to NATO, especially because Russia’s military intelligence has increasingly been targeting the Balkans. Russia has objected to Montenegro’s move to the “West”, not only because NATO is moving closer to its borders, but also because Russia has been a large investor in Montenegro. As such, it is not surprising that ever since NATO’s invitation, Russia has been exerting pressure on Montenegro. Most notably, Russia’s likely involvement in the coup d’état attempt that took place in Montenegro in 2016 was an attempt to prevent its accession to NATO. Montenegro continues to be an asset to NATO as it expands NATO’s influence to the Balkans whilst limiting Russia’s.
Furthermore, Trump’s comment about Montenegro starting World War III is farfetched, as the Montenegrins pride themselves in their relatively peaceful history and on being a source of stability during the Yugoslav War. Though Montenegro was at the time part of Serbia, it welcomed refugees from both Bosnia and Croatia. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the Montenegrins would start a war with a nuclear power such as Russia, seeing as it is a nation with less than 630,000 citizens, approximately 1,900 soldiers, and lack modern military equipment and weapons.
Even though Trump’s comments are inaccurate, they are nevertheless very harmful. His comments may have weakened NATO on several levels. As an organization, these comments demonstrate internal friction and suggest that not all member states are equally worth protecting. These comments threaten to weaken the very foundation of NATO, in particular with respect to NATO’s Article 5 on collective defense. The power of NATO and hence the deterrence of aggressors, such as Russia, hinges almost entirely on its dedication to Article 5. Trump’s comments are particularly harmful since he is the representative of the U.S., NATO’s largest contributor in both money and military strength. The strongest member of NATO openly questioning the foundation of NATO and expressing his unwillingness to aid its members, endangers NATO’s future. This is even more so because Trump threatened to leave NATO at the recent NATO Summit. He stated that unless the other member states spend more on defense, the U.S. would leave NATO, fortifying the image that NATO is fairing on very thin ice.
If the U.S. would indeed leave NATO or refuse to adhere to Article 5, it could very well be the end of NATO simiply because the remaining European member states indeed spend significantly less on defense and NATO contributions than the U.S. Currently, Germany, France, and the UK are responsible for 61 percent of the European member states’ spending in NATO. Other European member states contribute as little as 0.02 percent. Without the U.S., NATO may not be able to intercept Russian aggression and Russia will most likely feel less threatened, which makes Russia more likely to annex territories as it did with the Crimea.
Trump’s comments and attitude towards NATO have played straight into the hands of Putin, who is waiting for NATO’s influence to weaken. The future of NATO thus lies in Trump’s hands at this point. On the other hand, Trump will only be the U.S. President for a limited period. If NATO’s European member states can increase their spending on defense and appease Trump until the end of his term, the U.S. may remain within NATO, buying NATO more time. Ultimately, for NATO to survive in the long run, the European member states will indeed need to become less dependent on the U.S. and invest more into their own protection. In doing so, NATO will become less vulnerable and ultimately stronger then it is now. This is, however, easier said than done.
Tawnni Castaño de la Cuesta is an Assessment and Feedback Officer at the University of Birmingham. She has previously worked at the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security as well as the Human Rights Advocacy Center. Tawnni has a Bachelor’s degree in Global Justice from Leiden University College, The Hague and is currently pursuing a law degree at the University of Birmingham.
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