re: Montenegro Accession to NATO

re: Montenegro Accession to NATO
  • Thank you both for joining us.

    There are many reasons for your positions on this issue, but to set the stage, could you each lay out what you believe is the primary reason to support, or to not support, Montenegro's accession to NATO?

  • Twenty years ago Montenegro broke away from the alliance with Milosevic's Serbia when the eternal PM Djukanovic recognized that Belgrade's Machiavellian use of ethnic nationalism and anti-Westernism had taken both countries on a self-destructive course. He shifted Montenegrin policy towards Euro-Atlantic integration and towards independence from Serbia.

    For Podgorica, NATO membership is part of that policy choice.
    For the EU and the US, NATO membership has been and remains part of this Euro-Atlantic integration as the only viable instrument at hand to support sustainable democratic and economic transformation in Montenegro, as in the rest of the Western Balkans. To put an end to almost three decades of regional instability that poses an imminent security threat to the EU and to wider Europe.

    With the recent intensification of Russian activities in the region, of which its alleged lead role in the failed October '16 Montenegro coup is just the most prominent example, keeping Russia out of the Western Balkans has become the second primary reason for the West to support NATO membership. Because Moscow's approach - exploiting Western weakness, playing the spoiler to enhance its own international influence - represents a destabilizing factor for the Western Balkans and for the EU.

  • In my piece for Quillette, I noted that Montenegro is the next country scheduled to join NATO, and did not recommend contesting its future membership per se; since his inauguration, President Trump has voiced support for NATO, and has not suggested abrogating existing expansion plans (although with so much in flux in his administration, who can be sure).  I do recommend taking Ukrainian and Georgian membership off the table, in return for Russian guarantees that the two countries be allowed to join whatever trade or economic blocs they choose, just as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski have proposed.  Ukraine in particular is a major flashpoint.  NATO's expansion is in fact the reason for the current tensions, not the answer to them.

    The larger issue is the extent to which the alliance is prepared to actually fight and risk catastrophic war over countries that have historically not figured in the consciousness of the publics of NATO member countries.  The Russian political scientist Andrey Piontkovsky, former executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow and a critic of Putin, put this succinctly in an essay for Echo Moskvy: in the event of a crisis between Russia and NATO in the Baltics, he envisioned crowds of protesters besieging the White House shouting "We don't want to die for f*cking Narva, Mr President!"  I believe he's right.  Admitting more countries to NATO will just contribute to the likelihood of such a scenario.  You can expect Russia to exploit these fears.  The unwillingness of Western Europeans to fight and die for countries in other parts of Europe has been attested to by polling.  

    So, what I'm suggesting is that the United States and Russia reassess their relationship, and conclude a detente that would help ease the tension NATO's expansion sparked from the very beginning, in the 1990s.  This would not mean, obviously, ejecting current member countries from the alliance.  But extending Membership Action Plans to new countries -- Ukraine and Georgia -- would be a grave error (if almost impossible to imagine given current realities).

  • Dear Jeffrey,

    I share your concerns that the West and Russia have been set on a dangerous collision course, already in Georgia, but much more so since the Russian annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s insurgent war in Eastern Ukraine. But I seriously doubt that any kind of detente approach aimed at striking a deal with Putin through US-Russian dialogue can be successful. Not because there is no need for dialogue with Russia – though such proposals seem often to pretend there had been no dialogue with Russia, which is simply not true. But the core question to me is what constitutes the basis for a dialogue, and what the aim. Here, it seems to be no coincidence that you refer to two key figures of US cold war policy – Kissinger and Brzezinski. In Germany, similar positions mostly come from Social Democrats who are nostalgic about the good old interwar times, who try to recycle the only original foreign and security policy Western Germany had during the cold war – the Ostpolitik. The problem is history doesn’t repeat itself. Russia isn’t the same as was the Soviet Union, nor the same as Soviet Russia, but a “regional power” - with nuclear arms. Nor is Russia’s near abroad the same any more. Neither is the West, are the US and the EU where they once were. In addition, such policy positions also seem to tend to take official Moscow ideology at face value.

    What to me makes the current conflict between Russia and the West so dangerous is that it’s a clash between two sides being in crisis. Putin’s Russia is in crisis as a result of the self-destructive nature of its economic model. And in the West, we have a double crisis on both ends of the Atlantic. Both the US and the EU since the Iraq invasion and the Euro crisis have lost policy orientation and self-assurance in their value system when it comes to the global role of the West. The current Trump administration in a way concludes this development that ran from the Bush to the Obama administration – in its empty talk of US strength, its inconclusive, contradictory policy fragments and its isolationist, Jacksonian undercurrent. Mirrored in the absence of any meaningful joint European foreign and security policy.

    This opens a vast space for all kinds of very dangerous political miscalculations and political sleepwalking as we have seen on both Russian and EU-US side in Ukraine. But neither a détente nor a containment approach to Russia will manage to de-conflict the relationship with Moscow under the existing circumstances. Any meaningful dialogue with Putin must be based on a position of strength. But for this, both the US and the EU need to (re-)define their global role based on re-assuring themselves in upholding the liberal democratic values on which they once built the international liberal order. But even under such a scenario, any arrangement on NATO perspective of Ukraine (and to a lesser extent Georgia) won’t solve the conflict. Because the real threat to Putin is not any hypothetical NATO membership of neighboring Ukraine. The real threat to him is that the majority of Ukrainian citizens in 2014 opted for democracy and European integration.

    Trying to appease Moscow from the current position of Western weakness won’t function and is dangerous for global peace and security. Because it would invite Russia to believe and act as if it’s more than a “regional power” with nuclear arms. That’s what one can learn from the Western Balkans, where Russia has no genuine interest and would have no real leverage had it not been for the EU’s constant policy weakness over the last decade. This weakness prevented the Union from consistently using its huge leverage in the region and get the unfinished post-Balkan wars business finished, instead creating new openings for Russian spoiling.
  • Hi, Bodo,

    Well, both the Nixon-Brezhnev and Reagan-Gorbachev détentes provoked cries (from Republicans) of appeasement and talk of needing to negotiate with Russia from a position of strength.  I suppose that won't change.

    I'm a bit surprised to hear you repeat Obama's words about Russia being a regional power.  His phrase is an insult to history, to say nothing of geography.  Russia extends across eleven time zones, from Europe almost to Alaska, which makes it a force to be reckoned with on two continents.  Its resources, dimensions, and military and scientific capabilities make it a force, like it or not, to be reckoned with -- and give it almost an unparalleled spoiler's power.  Things will never be entirely friendly between the West and Russia, but they can be less dangerous.  But the West has to find a way to deal with Russia as it is, and not hope for a more amenable partner. If history has taught us anything, it is that.

    No doubt multiple crises are afflicting the EU.  I'm pessimistic about their outcome, partly because two Nobel laureate economists, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, attribute the EU's endless economic crisis (which worsens all the other crises) to the adoption of the euro, and ditching the euro would bring on its own crisis.  In my outline of a detente between NATO and Russia my only concern is to address the tensions and possibility of accidental war, especially nuclear war.  The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists -- the world's standard for risk assessment in that regard -- recently reset its Doomsday Clock to the closest its been to midnight since the early 1950s, mostly because Russia and US forces are facing off on various fronts, and because Trump has spoken so recklessly about using nuclear weapons.  

    Partly the risk comes from the breakdown of military-to-military contacts and the suspension of the NATO-Russia Council, which followed the overthrow of Ukrainian President Yanukovych in 2014.  Which, as you know, came off the heels of his delaying signing of the EU Association Agreement.  One overlooked part of that interminably long document was a section containing requirements that Ukraine bring its defense and security policies into line with those of the EU -- which meant NATO membership, eventually, promised to Ukraine by the alliance in 2008.  No realistic observer could expect Russia to passively acquiesce to that, for reasons I explain in my article.  But all that aside, what happened after Yanukoych fell and a new government came to power in Kiev and revoked Ukraine's neutrality clause in the constitution, thereby paving the way to joining NATO?  EC President Jean-Claude Junker announced that it would take 20-25 years before Ukraine could join the EU! 

    The EU's abysmally clumsy handling of the Association Agreement with Ukraine and its aftermath defy reason and common sense.  Which gives me no grounds to expect that the EU will put its house in order; hence I see Europe in a weak position of crisis indefinitely.  Europe's security depends on NATO, which is US-run, in effect.  Hence it makes sense to put aside talk of a real rapprochement between the West and Russia and favor a détente between NATO (the US) and Russia.  A détente is not an alliance, just an easing of tensions.

    I don't know how to resolve the tensions between Russia and parts of the Balkans.  They predate the current Russian government, that's for sure, and have deep roots in history.  In any case, we don't yet live in a world where values rule, not, at least in the international arena, as between Europe/the US and Russia.  

  • In an attempt to bring back the conversation more directly to the topic of the day with the US Senate vote scheduled for Monday.

    I note, we could go nary a single question without a lengthy discussion on how this decision effects Russian relations? Is Montenegro then, in this instance, just a pawn in a larger game?

    Is there any room at all to parse the country out of the bigger picture where we can question, as US Senator Rand Paul suggests, what is the value Montenegro adds to the Alliance as a whole? Or is it like Sen. McCain declares, that anyone who does not support their accession is "working for Vladimir Putin?"
  • Senator Paul's question is a reasonable one.  It's tough to imagine a sane person agreeing with Senator McCain.  Clearly, Montenegro is insignificant on its own; its future membership in NATO won't matter all that much, but further expansion of the alliance will give continued life to existing tensions with Russia.

  • Well Jeffrey,

    Even sanity seems to be a subjective matter - I could not disagree more. The Montenegrin case is mostly the best illustration of the core geopolitical problem in the relationship between Russia and the West which I alluded to in my term "regional actor - with nuclear arms" which you completely misread. You missed the irony in it - a global actor is not regional when it possesses the nuclear arsenal Russia does. Russia is neither a superpower any more as Putin would like it to be, nor is it merely a regional actor as Obama would have loved to have it. But rather something in between - that's what makes this geopolitical situation in the 21st century both new and unique, and it's the reason why the clash of Russia and the West, both faced with their own crises, is so dangerous.

    Within the Western Balkans, in theory Russia would have no relevant leverage, were it not for the EU's weakness over the last decade to get the post-Balkan 1990s wars job done. This opened up space for Putin's appetite to exploit the vacuum left by the West in order to enhance his global influence by exclusively playing the spoiler, by adding to the destabilization in the region.

    That's why we need - and will get - Montenegro NATO membership: to close off geopolitical space for Russian meddling, contain Putin's imagination he can return Russia to global power, and thus reduce space for conflict between the West and Russia. In this sense it is McCain who is sane, not Rand Paul.

  • Well, I regard McCain's statement as pure McCarthyism -- and made to shut down debate.  He's not the only US politician of late to talk that way, but he comes off as the most unhinged.  

    Neither Obama nor people like McCain are taking into account legitimate security concerns Russia has about the expansion of the world's most powerful military alliance up to its borders.  Substantive dialogue between Russia and the US broke down several years ago; the NATO-Russia Council, the body that could have dealt with that, has been inoperative since 2014.  Given the tensions that have arisen over Ukraine in particular, this is a recipe for disaster, as the nonpartisan Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recognized when it moved the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight than it has been since the early 1950s.  If you disbelieve the Bulletin, you should state why.

    I'm afraid the Baltics and Montenegro's membership entered into this scenario too late to be terribly relevant to reducing this tension; I don't follow the EU's missteps there, though if it has erred in the region, I'm not surprised, given how abysmally it has handled so many other crises lately (including, of course, the débacle with Ukraine that ignited the current confrontation).  As I said above, I don't foresee anyone rescinding the offer of NATO membership.  Montenegro's membership status does not interest me; enacting the minimal détente I describe in my latest essay does.  Nowhere in that essay do I recommend rescinding membership offers or ejecting current NATO members.  But the United States needs to reestablish a working dialogue with Russia.  If not, the US needs to explain just how a non-engagement policy ends.  

    The "Russia problem" predates Putin, as you know.  Two policies of détente were enacted in Soviet days; détente does not equal alliance.  If you think it does, you're misreading me.  There is no reason why we can't pursue a détente now.

    I am not the only one who thinks this way.  Dr Robert David English, a professor of history at University of Southern California's School of International Relations, last month published an even more detailed overview of what a new détente would look like; you can find it here: 

  • Thank you both again for joining us, if I may pose one final question to each of you.

    Bodo, there is a notion that member countries must have domestic support and compatibility with NATO's stated goals. Yet, the latest polls out of Montenegro presenting mixed results from the general population, with roughly 40% polling each for vs. against.
    Isn't there a risk of lowering standards for membership?

    And to Jeffrey, you've written at length about your vision and strategy for detente - how leveraging Georgia & Ukraine present an opportunity to smooth over the rising tensions between Russia and the West. Those countries specifically are clearly the most at-risk of needing military assistance to protect their borders, and therefore couldn't the argument be made that they are actually more deserving, or in need, of NATO's backing?
  • Thank you for this final question, which somehow goes right to the core of our debate. Quite the opposite - majority public support by Montenegro's citizens for NATO membership formed even one of the conditions for NATO member states' decision to invite Montenegro into the club.

    I would explain the current drop in public support with the confusion on NATO's future created by the contradictory signals sent by the Trump administration and with the effects of the alleged failed October 2016 Montenegro coup, with strong indication of masterminding by Moscow.

    This seems to be the core of my dispute with Jeffrey - I do care about Montenegro's NATO membership! Because as a European, I care about the future  of Montenegro and the wider Western Balkan region. I agree, the West is lacking a workable Russia strategy for quite a long time. We need to find a functioning working relation between the West and Russia. Therefore, a new strategy is direly needed - in this, and only in this I agree with Jeffrey. What I reject is any idea of an accomodating deal with Putin, whether tabled as "detente" or "deterrance" or anything else, that would be based on two things:

    1. That accepts Moscow talk of "legitimate national interests" at face value.

    2. That is based on Russia and the West, or even worse, only Russia and the US making decision over the heads of Ukrainians, Georgians, Montenegrins on their fate.

    That's why Montenegrin NATO membership will be good for Montenegrins, Europeans, the US and even for Russia and its citizens:

    - Montenegrins by majority chose Euro-Atlantic integration, and NATO membership will help to stabilize that path;

    - membership with strenghten structural democratic reforms and the instable political system in the long run;

    - Putin will be stopped from pretending there are any Russian interests in Montenegro and their won't be any more destabilizing attempts like the October '16 coup attempt;

    - the West will have shown Russia the geographical limits of its influence at least on one end of Europe - and will thus close off at least one geopolitical vacuum that recently, unnecessarily opened space for miscalculations and unintended conflict.

    Thursday's overwhelming Senate vote ratifying Montenegro's NATO membership will thus be the most important positive decision taken at the Hill since the Trump administration came in. Given the fact that we speak about a nation of roughly half a million on the periphery of Europe, this tells you all about the current instability in the international order and the dire state of the West.

  • Re Georgia: the Bush administration had the chance to go to war with Russia in 2008 (when the brief Russia-Georgia war broke out) and obviously did not.  And with good reason, even apart from the existential risk of escalation.  For starters, there would have been no conceivable way to sell the American public on a war with Russia over a country most Americans couldn't locate on a map, and with which they had no historical ties.  Since NATO's Bucharest declaration of 2008, Georgia has been promised eventual membership in the Alliance (as has Ukraine), but that promise is essentially a dead letter.  As my Atlantic colleague Robert D. Kaplan put it at the time: Russia called NATO's bluff.  This may appear unjust to some, but it is a reality.

    I wrote about the Bush administration's role in bringing on the Russia-Georgia war at the time:

    Re Ukraine and NATO support: the question of whether to supply Kiev with lethal arms for use against Russia or the rebels in its eastern provinces has, despite Senator McCain's protestations, been resolved, and not as the senator would like.  After the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, the Obama administration decided against ramping up military aid to Ukraine, and Trump had language in favor of it removed from the Republican Party platform before the elections of 2016.

    NATO is, after all, a military alliance, and the recommendations of defense analysts outweigh those of politicians.  Defense analysts, at least one hopes, must plan for reality, and cannot afford to be as reckless or short-sighted as politicians.  The strategic reasons for not providing heavy weaponry to Ukraine are simple: Russia, with its long land border with Ukraine, will always be able to match and outdo military assistance brought in from outside the region.  The stakes are higher for Russia, so Russia would be inclined to risk much more than Western politicians, for whom support for Ukraine would be elective.  And, of course, no US president would be able to sell the American public on a war with Russia over Ukraine.