Efforts to expand NATO have never lacked for controversy, and a recent debate in the U.S. Senate was particularly acrimonious with regard to Montenegro’s bid to join the alliance. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) spoke on the Senate floor in opposition to Montenegro’s accession. He was followed by a fellow Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain (AZ), who argued that “the senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.” Seeking to match his colleague’s hyperbole, Paul later said of his fellow senators who favored Montenegro’s membership, “they do not want to debate whether your sons and daughters go to war.” To borrow from William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” it was clear there was a “skirmish of wit between them.”
But why all this fuss about Montenegro?
The debate between Paul and McCain is a microcosm of a debate about NATO expansion more generally and its role in U.S. security after the Cold War. To Paul, like many critics of NATO expansion before him, Montenegro represents the addition of another costly defense commitment that will increase the likelihood of conflict with Russia.
Montenegro, however, is not the flashpoint for increased tensions with Russia as many commentators have argued. Adding the Balkan republic to the alliance does not meaningfully increase costs or risks to the United States. And while proponents of Montenegro’s accession overstate their case by suggesting Podgorica will be a bulwark against Russian aggression, critics of Montenegro’s NATO bid fail to recognize that not following through on a promise of alliance membership will harm future U.S. foreign policy in the region, and eliminate the small, but real benefits Montenegro’s membership provides to both NATO and Europe. NATO critics instead spent valuable political capital that should have been saved for future attempts to expand the alliance when the context will be far less benign.
The Case Against NATO Expansion
At the end of the Cold War critics argued that NATO had lost its reason to exist, with many predicting its collapse. Instead of the alliance dissolving with the downfall of the Soviet Union, it has expanded significantly — leading to confusion over whether the alliance is a security institution or a tool for greater European political integration. According to American critics, NATO expansion has added security liabilities for the United States that unnecessarily increase the U.S. defense budget without any added security benefit. At the same time, expanding the alliance has exacerbated Russian insecurity in ways that at least partially explain Moscow’s recent aggressive actions in its periphery.
Viewed solely from the perspective of U.S. security, NATO expansion has not necessarily provided benefits in the form of additive military capabilities to balance against a threat to the physical security or sovereignty of the United States. The disproportionate contribution American taxpayers make to NATO’s defense has not come with a direct increase in U.S. security, mostly due to America’s inherent security given its geographic isolation from major military threats and retaliatory nuclear capability. While NATO might provide other benefits, such as tamping down security competition on the continent or facilitating cooperation on non-military issues, it is easy to see why critics point to European free riding given the disparity in spending between the United States and its partners, as well as America’s inherent security without them.
If the lack of direct security benefits from NATO expansion and the costs of defending new alliance partners were not enough, these critics also point to two types of risk from NATO expansion. First, NATO critics argue, each new security liability provides a new opportunity for the United States to be dragged into a conflict. They suggest U.S. security guarantees may create a moral hazard in which allies, secure in the knowledge the U.S. military will come to its defense, may act recklessly in their relations with more powerful adversaries. The second risk NATO critics cite when arguing against expansion is that it has exacerbated Russian insecurity. These critics argue that the insecurity NATO’s expansion has caused — coupled with supposedly broken promises not to move the alliance “one inch eastward” after Germany’s reunification and potential inclusion of former Soviet republics such as Georgia and Ukraine — goes a long way to explaining Russia’s aggressive actions along its periphery in recent years.
The Case for Montenegro’s Accession
Here is the question, though: Do any of these arguments apply to Montenegro’s proposed accession to NATO? Not really. While it is true that integrating the Montenegrin military into NATO is not likely to increase U.S. security, it is not the security liability that critics claim.
First, expanding NATO to include Montenegro does not generate risk with regards to Russia. For Russia to invade Montenegro, it would have to pass through at least two other NATO countries or operate through the territorial waters of Greece, Croatia, and Albania — all NATO members. A Russian offensive against Montenegro would therefore trigger a NATO response before Russian forces even got there.
The most likely security threats to Montenegro involve, perhaps, a minor border dispute with Albania and Kosovo. The former is already a NATO member nation and the latter has a NATO military force still stationed there.
Next, some critics point to earlier public opinion polls showing Montenegro’s population is split on NATO accession. While the current pro-NATO government did win re-election, this view of a split Montenegrin population remains. Simply, this does not imply that Montenegro’s population is pro-Russian. Instead, much of the population of Montenegro remembers the 1999 NATO bombings in Serbia and Montenegro and some have a hard time reconciling the images of NATO striking their homes in their former capital with joining that alliance today. Interpreting caution and political legacies in Montenegro as axiomatically pro-Russian misreads Montenegrin caution.
Finally, Montenegro and the rest of the former Yugoslavia were neither part of the Soviet sphere nor a Soviet republic. Unlike Ukraine, the Baltics, or even Poland, admitting Montenegro to NATO does not encroach on a traditional Russian security interest, nor does it present Moscow with any new security concerns. To be fair, this also illustrates the misguided position of McCain and others who claim Montenegrin accession to NATO is a crucial bulwark against Russian influence. In short, the traditional concerns about expanding NATO’s commitments into Russia’s backyard do not hold for Montenegro. Thinking about Montenegro only in terms of Russia is a problematic premise that leads to faulty analysis.
While it is clear admitting Montenegro will not increase U.S. commitments to NATO in any meaningful way, because they will not increase Russian insecurity, refusing to admit Montenegro could have negative side effects on U.S. policy in the Balkans. Over the past decade or more, the United States and NATO have utilized conditionality throughout the Balkans to offer membership in the alliance if political reforms occur in the prospective member countries. At a time where the European Union has wavered and instability is rising in the region, NATO and the United States play an important role in managing relationships in the region by providing a stabilizing force for the rest of Southeastern Europe.
Failing to follow through on the U.S. commitment to accept Montenegro as a member, after promising membership years ago if reforms occurred, would also significantly undermine American credibility in the Balkans, sending a signal that the conditionality promises made by NATO are not credible. Removing the major foreign policy carrot offered to Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosovo for the past decade will only push this region away from American and European interests.
Finally, admitting Montenegro would offer some significant potential benefits for the alliance. Today, Montenegro and the other non-NATO states of southeastern Europe play a vital role in policing Islamic radicalization, including flows of foreign fighters to the Middle East. As the rest of non-NATO Southeastern Europe continues to be asked to host and contribute more and more to help with the refugee crisis in Europe, Montenegro can help coordinate an integrated NATO response in the region. Denying U.S. promises for accession will send a signal across the region and will make coordinating responses to radicalization and refugee flows more difficult across all of Europe.
The Future Battle over Expansion
The energy and political capital used by critics, such as Paul, to argue against Montenegro’s membership in NATO should instead have been saved for future potential fights over whether to offer potential NATO membership to Ukraine or Georgia. While neither former Soviet republic was offered a NATO Membership Action Plan, despite a strong push by the Bush administration at the alliance’s 2008 summit, there are those who still wish for them — and even Moldova — to one day become members. But these states are exemplars of the case against NATO expansion.
Unlike Montenegro, both Ukraine and Georgia are located directly adjacent to Russian territory. Both have been involved in conflicts with Russia in the past decade. Russia continues to intervene on behalf of separatists in both eastern Ukraine, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia — with Moscow exerting leverage by issuing Russian passports to citizens of those territories. Even if Russia were not already so deeply involved in both Ukraine and Georgia, adding them to NATO would add new — and costly — military requirements for existing NATO members. Given the disproportionate role of the United States in NATO’s military architecture, the need to deter even potential Russian aggression along its periphery would add to the United States’ defense requirements — as the inclusion of the Baltic states in NATO already has.
But, Montenegro is neither Georgia nor Ukraine. Its accession to NATO does not create liabilities remotely close to those of the former Soviet republics, nor does its defense entail similar costs. At the same time, Montenegro provides small, but real benefits for NATO as a security organization, and removing the promise of membership in the alliance after it undertook the required political reforms would damage U.S. foreign policy in a critically important region.
Despite Paul’s inflation of the stakes, the U.S. Senate approved Montenegro’s membership in the alliance. And despite repeatedly calling NATO obsolete on the campaign trail, President Trump signed off on it. The bitter debate over Montenegro was certainly instructive in demonstrating the levels of invective and hyperbole each side was willing to employ to make its case. But to quote Shakespeare once again, “in a false quarrel there is no true valor,” and in using misguided arguments against Montenegrin NATO accession, critics only harm their own solid case against future NATO expansion into Russia’s near abroad. NATO critics are better served by focusing on the day when Ukrainian and Georgian membership in the alliance is raised again. That issue is worth far more fuss than Montenegro ever was.
Benjamin Denison is a Ph.D. candidate in the political science department at the University of Notre Dame and a predoctoral fellow at the Notre Dame International Security Center. Matthew Fay is a defense and foreign policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, a political science Ph.D. student at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and a fellow with the school’s Center for Security Policy Studies.