Earlier this month, Senator John McCain spoke in support of a bill to advance Montenegro’s bid to join NATO. Sen. Rand Paul objected, exited the Senate chamber, and as the door closed behind him, Sen. McCain said to his colleagues, “The only conclusion you can draw when he walks away is he has no justification for his objection to having a small nation be part of NATO that is under assault from the Russians. So I repeat again, the senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.”
On Tuesday, the bill came to a vote and every senator but Sen. Paul and Sen. Mike Lee voted in its favor. Even though Sen. Paul’s objection was fruitless, it was justified: allowing Montenegro into NATO is counter to American interests.
Montenegro, a tiny Balkan nation boasting a GDP of $3.97 billion and a population of 622,388, has doggedly pursued membership in NATO since it declared its independence in 2006. Over the last year, the possibility of Montenegro’s accession to NATO has grown increasingly likely, as its bid has received ratification by one member state after another. Now that the United States has lent its support, Montenegro needs only Spain’s approval to succeed. This bodes well for Montenegro, but Americans are liable to suffer.
Montenegro is neither strategically necessary to the prevention of existential threats to American security, nor is it likely to meet the 2 percent of GDP defense spending benchmark set by NATO for member countries—it currently spends only 1.6 percent of its GDP ($63.52 million) on defense. Furthermore, Montenegrin accession to NATO could do substantial harm to U.S.-Russia relations.
If Montenegro joins NATO, the United States would be obligated under Article 5 of the NATO treaty to come to Montenegro’s aid if attacked. Since Montenegro is currently mired in an ongoing geopolitical feud with Russia — the latest antics of which include a failed coup orchestrated by Russian nationals —the Senate’s vote in favor of Montenegrin accession to NATO might have had the unintended effect of increasing the likelihood of a conflict between the U.S. and Russia.
A spokesperson for President Vladimir Putin told the BBC in 2015 that Montenegrin accession to NATO would result in “retaliatory actions.” The spokesperson, however, left the exact nature of these prospective actions to legislators’ imaginations.
It is entirely possible that talk of retaliation is nothing but a bluff intended to preserve Russia’s sphere of influence and reduce the potential consequences of increased Russian activity in Montenegrin affairs, yet the United States has no particularly compelling reasons to call Russia out on this bluff.
If Montenegro wins Spain’s support, Montenegro stands to gain access to American aid if Russian interest in Montenegrin affairs escalates, but America would have nothing to gain besides the likelihood of an even larger financial burden and the possibility of having to, one day, deploy American forces to protect the interests of a tiny, relatively new, country.
In that vein and in response to the remarks made by Sen. McCain after his exit, Sen. Paul jibed in an interview with MSNBC that Sen. McCain “makes a really strong case for term limits,” before adding in a more somber tone, “there is a bipartisan consensus that’s incorrect that we should have the whole world be in NATO. For example, if we had Ukraine and Georgia in NATO—and this is something McCain and the other neocons have advocated for—we would be at war now.”
Sen. Paul is right; tensions between the United States and Russia are higher now than they have ever been since the height of the Cold War and the Senate should be working to reduce these tensions and lay the groundwork for a relationship based on mutual interests instead of gambling with America’s national security.
Michael Shindler is an Advocate with Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter here.