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Trump’s Montenegro Outburst Likely Originated with Putin

The President’s astonishing musings about Montenegro say less about the Balkans – and more about his worrying attempt to re-orientate US foreign policy away from its old allies towards Russia.

It did not take long for President Donald Trump to give the lie to his pledge of fealty to NATO at the conclusion of last week’s Brussels summit.

In an interview with Fox television after the Helsinki press conference fiasco, Trump asked himself why his son should go to defend Montenegro from attack and opined that the “very aggressive” Montenegrins might drag us all into World War III. So much for NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense commitment.

Since the President is not noted as a student of Balkan history, one doubts that, by “aggressive”, he was referring to Montenegro’s centuries-long resistance to the Ottoman Empire, to its valor in World War I, or to its legendary partisans in World War II.

More likely, his characterization concerned recent events that have infuriated Russian President Vladimir Putin – namely Montenegro’s stubborn refusal to grant Russia a base in the Adriatic seaport of Bar – and its thwarting of a 2016 Russian-instigated coup attempt whose plans included assassinating Milo Djukanović, Montenegro’s prime minister at the time, and the country’s accession to NATO last year.

One suspects that Trump’s “very aggressive people” turn of phrase originated with the Russian President in his two-hour private conversation with Trump in Helsinki.

In any event, Trump clearly regrets Montenegro’s NATO membership.

How fortunate, then, for Montenegro, that in March 2017 the US Senate voted by a 97-2 margin, far more than the two-thirds required to override a potential presidential veto, to admit the country to the alliance. Still, Trump refused to sign the legislation for several days until his advisors convinced him that he would be humiliated if he didn’t.

Aside from the fact that NATO’s Article 5 is limited to assisting an alliance member that is the victim of an attack, it is lunacy to think that a country of 640,000 inhabitants with fewer than 2,000 active-duty members in its armed forces would contemplate aggression against its neighbors.

More importantly, Montenegro has proved itself a loyal ally of the United States. It sent 45 troops and medical personnel to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan and continues to contribute to NATO’s mission there.

It is on course to spend 2 per cent of its GDP on defense ahead of the 2024 target date set by NATO at the Wales summit.

Trump’s latest outburst also affords yet another glimpse into his obsession with, and idiosyncratic definition of, strength.

By using his Fox News bully pulpit to cause a tiny country, bound to the United States by a treaty of alliance, to fear for its national existence, the President has certainly shown us his version of toughness.

Where does all this leave US foreign policy in general and toward the Balkans in particular? To put it mildly, the situation is chaotic.

On Thursday, the White House tweeted that President Trump would invite Putin to a second summit conference in the autumn, this time in Washington. The US President acted without soliciting the advice of some of his closest advisors – as the tragic-comic spectacle of Daniel Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, being informed of the Washington summit by a television interviewer painfully illustrated.

The White House has been forced to redefine daily what President Trump said, or allegedly meant to say, about an element of relations with the Kremlin: whether Trump thinks Russia meddled in the 2016 US election; whether or not he should accept Putin’s proposal in Helsinki to question 11 American citizens, including former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, in return for giving the US access to 12 GRU (Russian military intelligence) officers indicted on charges of attempting to sabotage the US elections.

In the latter case, the State Department called the mutual interrogation plan “absolutely absurd” at the same time that the White House was declaring it was still considering it. The next day, Trump, having originally labelled Putin’s cynical overture an “incredible offer,” bowed to widespread outrage and meekly “disagreed” with it.

In that context, Trump’s musings about Montenegro say less about the Balkans and more about catering to Russia in an erratic attempt to reorient US foreign policy away from its Western allies and friends.

Could America’s Balkan allies fall victim to such an upheaval? Are there people in Washington who could counsel against such a betrayal?

During the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Balkans were squarely on the radar screen because of Vice President Joseph Biden, whose familiarity with the region went back to meetings with President Tito in the late 1970s.

As Vice President, Biden made several trips to the Balkans, conferred with leaders and parliamentarians, and made sure that the area figured in US strategy.

There is no Balkan advocate of comparable stature in the Trump administration. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs A. Wess Mitchell is a talented scholar of Central Europe but is still learning the details of the Balkans.

In the White House, Deputy National Security Advisor Mira Ricardel knows Southeast Europe inside out.

But her hardline boss, National Security Advisor John Bolton, has been overruled by Trump on Russia policy. Increasingly, expertise does not seem to be an attribute highly prized by the President.

Even before Special Counsel Robert Muller III makes public the results of his investigation, it is the Congress that can best frustrate Trump’s evident pro-Russia course, as the previously mentioned vote on Montenegro and several rounds of anti-Russia sanctions demonstrate. Unflinching support for NATO has always been a core, bipartisan congressional principle, and is unlikely to change, despite Trump’s antics at the Brussels summit.

Friends of the US in the Balkans should realize that American democracy has entered unchartered territory. It is commendable that they restated their commitment to NATO, as Montenegro did the other day. Ultimately, however, the fate of the transatlantic alliance will be decided by the high-stakes events unfolding in Washington.

Michael Haltzel, former advisor to Joseph R. Biden, Jr., is Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University. He is the recipient of state decorations from seven countries of the European Union.

This article was originally published by The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, available here.

The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN or the Foreign Policy Institute.

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