Wednesday, April 12, 2017

If Trump Was Serious About Putting America First, He Would Have Blocked Montenegro From Joining NATO

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump caused great consternation with his rhetoric regarding U.S. participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance. With only four of the other 27 member states meeting the minimum threshold of spending two percent of their GDP on defense, Trump leveled sharp criticism against European cheap riding. Such criticisms were a cause for cautious optimism among Americans in favor of a more restrained foreign policy that prioritizes America’s interests. However, as is often the case when it comes to politics, rhetoric has failed to result in action, evidenced by Trump’s failure to prevent Montenegro’s accession into NATO. If Trump was serious about an agenda of “America First,” the Montenegrin membership treaty would have been the perfect opportunity to demonstrate it.

First, Montenegro is worthless to the United States as an ally and actually slightly increases the odds for confrontation with Russia. Montenegro’s armed forces of merely 2,000 personnel would play a negligible role in any conflict the U.S. could find itself in. In fact, the NYPD is over 17 times larger than the Montenegrin armed forces, and its budget is nearly half the GDP of the entire country. How the addition of such an insignificant military (to an alliance that is already too costly) advances American interests is certainly a mystery. Trump has said that he desires better relations with the Russians, yet admitting Montenegro into NATO will do nothing but antagonize them and lend support to their accusation that NATO is seeking to surround them and their ally Serbia.  

Moreover, Montenegro’s accession to NATO serves European interests, not those of the American people. While Montenegro is useless to American security, its membership in NATO has great meaning to the people on both sides of the Atlantic who value NATO as a method of spreading liberal Western institutions. To them, adding Montenegro would hopefully demonstrate that NATO is not obsolete, and that it still has an open door to countries like Georgia and Ukraine (much to the chagrin of the security-minded Russians).

Montenegro’s membership created perfect leverage to incentivize European members to increase their defense expenditures. As president, Trump could have withdrawn the treaty from the Senate (where it has been awaiting approval since last summer) and said he will not submit it again until more Europeans have met their defense spending obligations. Likewise, such a move could also be used as leverage domestically against more hawkish members of Congress such as John McCain, who recently declared that Rand Paul was “working for Vladimir Putin” when Paul temporarily blocked the treaty in the Senate.   

But instead of doing any of that, Trump did nothing and simply let the Senate approve the treaty. Letting Montenegro into NATO without so much as a peep from Trump will only weaken his negotiating position and communicate to the Europeans that despite Trump’s protestations, they can continue to expect a free lunch from the U.S. per usual.

Trump has claimed innumerable times that he is great at making deals. His handling of the situation with Montenegro seems to indicate otherwise. Rhetoric is no substitute for action, especially when such action is easy and has very little cost. Trump dropped the ball on an easy win, and this doesn’t bode well for future success in more difficult circumstances.