Little Montenegro! He lifted up the words and nodded at them — with his smile. The smile comprehended Montenegro’s troubled history and sympathized with the brave struggles of the Montenegrin people. It appreciated fully the chain of national circumstances which had elicited this tribute from Montenegro’s warm little heart. My incredulity was submerged in fascination now; it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines.
It’s at this moment in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s timeless The Great Gatsby that the title character assures our faithful narrator Nick that he’s been honest about his implausible silver spoon upbringing and wartime heroics. Every allied country had awarded him a decoration, he explains, “Even Montenegro, little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea.” Gatsby reaches into his pocket and produces an authentic-looking medal, reading, “Orderi di Danilo | Montenegro, Nicolas Rex.”
My guess is most of us first encountered Montenegro in our 10th-grade English class. Suffice to say, your average American couldn’t find the country on a map and would be reasonably excused for believing it’s a fictional realm like Guilder or Genovia. Its current political manifestation is only a decade old.
Consider that since the era of Gatsby’s dynastic honor, the state has existed as a Kingdom, an administrative oblast under the Vidovdan Constitution, a province (banovina) of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, an occupied territory of the Nazis, a “People’s Republic,” a “Socialist Republic,” and a plain old “Republic.” Having secured its independence from Serbia in 2006 by a razor thin referendum margin of 2,300 votes, it is now simply and formally known as “Montenegro.”
That said, most Americans would be astonished to learn that our lame-duck Congress is scrambling to conflate the security of this delicate, distant state with that of our domestic homeland.
Such are the assurances that come with NATO membership. The consent of the United States Senate is the only hurdle remaining before the latest Balkan appendage fastens itself to the planet’s best known security collective.
Collective self-defense remains the notional raisons d’être for the military alliance, hinging on the 1949 Washington Treaty’s pivotal Article 5: “an armed attack on one or more [members] shall be considered an attack on all.” The treaty partners’ response to the commencement of hostilities can scale up from a formal reprimand to a preemptive nuclear strike.
That’s all excellent news for Montenegro, which has no hope of defending itself in the event of an attack or invasion. This tiny country of 600,000 citizens fields a uniformed military of only 1,950 personnel. Its active service navy boasts two frigates, four motor boats, a pair of salvage tugs, two inflatables, a VIP yacht, one floating crane, and a sailing ship that was commissioned into the Yugoslav Royal Navy in 1933.
In fairness, Montenegro faces no immediate threats to its national security that could pull NATO into war. Its accession is a symbolic reaffirmation of the alliance’s Article 10 “open door” policy and a confirmation of sovereign independence. It’s also a blunt reminder to Russian operatives that they should stay the heck out of the Western Balkans. None of that is necessarily bad.
However, the scope of America’s security guarantees is a topic worthy of serious debate, and one that shouldn’t be rushed past a lame-duck Senate. Moreover, the case for accession isn’t entirely open and shut. As the Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow notes:
Montenegro is a postage stamp nation with the population of one congressional district. It is located in the unstable, brutal, and nationalistic Balkans, the fount of so much conflict and hardship throughout history.
Returning to Gatsby’s dewy-eyed nostalgics, while we might “[sympathize] with the brave struggles of the Montenegrin people” the Balkans weren’t dubbed the “Powder keg of Europe” for nothing. It’s been a rough neighborhood since the Bronze Age. The region is currently grappling with a growing migration crisis and a related spike in populist rancor.
All the more reason to extend membership supporters say! In an open letter published last June, prominent members of the national security community urged Congress to take “quick action on Montenegro’s entry into NATO” for precisely this reason. In their own words:
The progress made by Montenegro and its significance for the Western Balkans, a region that has been long held back by instability and conflict, demonstrates the clear transformative power of democratic Alliances and Euro-Atlantic integration. In times of regional and international volatility, supporting and strengthening Alliance structures that promote common, rules-based approaches and understanding is critical.
Fair enough. But if NATO membership salves old wounds, then how’s that working out for Greece and Turkey? Since both joined the alliance in 1952, we’ve witnessed the Istanbul pogrom, the invasion of Cyprus, and chronic disregard of both states’ air and sea borders — among many other provocations.
As with the extension of any military alliance, the first question our elected officials should ask is, “Does this obligation enhance or detract from American security?”
Consider the consequences. Montenegro is a young, corrupt, and fragile state. Having existed for only ten years, its solvency remains questionable. It can’t contribute to shared European defense and Russia has declared any further expansion of NATO a “provocation.”
So what do we gain from Montenegro? An “ally” isn’t the appropriate term to describe a free-riding security dependent of questionable state longevity. Bless its “warm little heart.”