When Fox News host Tucker Carlson recently asked President Donald Trump why the United States should defend Montenegro, Trump responded by saying that if Montenegrins decided to “get aggressive.… Congratulations, you’re in World War III.” The subsequent outcry was predictable; a New York Times editorial quickly attacked Trump’s comments as revealing “another facet of his ignorance of and disdain for America’s historic place in the world and its alliances.”
Yet Trump’s comments—inarticulately expressed as they were—were in fact in line with the thinking of past American presidents leery of getting the country involved in foreign problems with no bearing on US national interests. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, warned of “permanent” and “entangling” alliances, and John Quincy Adams advised against going abroad in search of monsters to slay.
In 1951, NATO’s first military commander (and later US president) Dwight Eisenhower expressed similar views when he claimed that, “If in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national-defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project [NATO] will have failed.” And, contra the Times’ claim that the debate about NATO expansion has been “answered in the affirmative,” the preeminent American diplomat George Kennan warned us that this would be “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”
It is hard to see how allowing Montenegro to join NATO increased the alliance’s defensive capabilities. NATO could only hope that Russian warships would hole up in the Bay of Kotor. In a time when serious military strategists worry about nuclear weapons, cyber warfare, and the militarization of space, arguments about denying the Russians a particular warm-water port seem quaintly 19th century. The Russians probably realize this themselves, which probably accounts for why, according to Montenegrin officials, Moscow has never pressed the matter.
Just as importantly, this controversy highlights how uninformed and disingenuous much of the debate about American foreign policy has become. Montenegro’s NATO accession in 2017, for instance, has frequently been justified by the claim that “the Russians” attacked that country’s “fledgling democracy” in October 2016.
But what if Montenegro is not really a democracy and Russia didn’t really attack it? After all, it’s certainly an odd democracy in which the ruling party has held uninterrupted power for 73 years and the ruling strongman, President Milo Djukanovic, has been at the helm for nearly three decades. Add to this the fact that in 2015 the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project named Djukanovic international “Man of the Year in Organized Crime” or that Montenegro’s rating in Reporters Sans Frontieres’ Press Freedom Index has precipitously declined (dropping from 58th place in 2007 to 103rd in 2018). If this state of affairs represents what Senator John McCain has called “the greatest European democracy project since the end of the Cold War,” then Washington’s democracy-promotion strategies need a serious rethink.