Editor’s Note: Jonathan Cristol is a research fellow in the Levermore Global Scholars Program at Adelphi University and senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. Follow him on Twitter @jonathancristol. The views expressed are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On June 5, 2017, the small European country of Montenegro became the 29th member of NATO. And on Tuesday night, on Fox News, President Donald Trump implicitly questioned why Americans should die for Montenegrins, saying they were “very aggressive people” who may trigger World War III. It is no secret that Trump has a deep-seated antipathy to NATO, and Jonathan Chait recently reported that his antipathy dates back to 1987– oddly enough the same year he first visited the then-Soviet Union.
However, the specificity and context of his statements has provoked outrage among believers in the importance of NATO on both sides of the Atlantic. In response, Senator John McCain tweeted, “By attacking Montenegro & questioning our obligations under NATO, the President is playing right into Putin’s hands.”
Ranko Krivokapić, the former President of Montenegro and current leader of the opposition, told the BBC that Trump is “the strangest President in the history of the United States. … Foreign policy is not his big thing.” While Trump frequently denigrates NATO, and famously shoved aside the Montenegrin Prime Minister in a disgraceful display of faux-alpha male strength, the focus on Montenegro so soon after his meeting with Putin makes one wonder what the two world leaders said about the country.
But Trump’s statements are particularly troubling because they are rooted in a misunderstanding of the premise of the NATO alliance. Of course, nobody wants their kids to die for Montenegro. But – and this is where Trump gets it wrong – NATO makes the possibility of anyone dying for Montenegro less likely, not more likely.
And let’s not forget that NATO was largely designed to deter Russia, which has a particular affinity for invading non-NATO members. In the last ten years, Russia has invaded two independent, non-NATO countries – Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Russia has taken aggressive actions short of war against NATO as well. It mounted a major 2007 cyberattack against Estonia, kidnapped Estonian officials and even interfered in a major NATO country’s November 2016 elections.
In 2016, Russia is alleged to have backed an attempt to overthrow the government of Montenegro and assassinate its President. Russia was desperate to prevent Montenegro’s accession to NATO, and knew that the United States strongly supported Montenegro’s bid for membership. The Senate voted 97-2 in favor of NATO membership for Montenegro, and on April 11, 2017, Trump himself signed off on it and, “congratulate(d) the Montenegrin people for their resilience and their demonstrated commitment to NATO’s democratic values.”
If Vladimir Putin believes that there is even a small chance that America (and the two European nuclear powers – France and the United Kingdom) would go to war to defend Montenegro, he will not attack the small country. And if he does not attack Montenegro, there will be no World War III.
Trump implies that if Montenegro were not in NATO, then the United States could stay uninvolved in a war between Montenegro and Russia. This ignores both geography and history. There is no way for Russia to mount a land invasion of Montenegro without crossing through at least one member of NATO. Additionally, the idea that a major European war would not ultimately involve the United States betrays Trump’s ignorance. Georgia and Ukraine both border Russia and thus those conflicts remained limited. A multi-state war in Europe would be far less likely to stay contained. In both World Wars, America initially hoped to remain on the sidelines, but as the conflicts grew, that position became unrealistic and the United States entered.
Trump also ignores the defensive nature of NATO. The idea that Montenegro would start a war with Russia is itself laughable. Russia’s army is larger than Montenegro’s population and it has thousands of nuclear weapons. Montenegro has 1,950 soldiers and 13 helicopters. But even if President Milo Đukanović ordered his helicopters to travel hundreds of miles and attack Russia, NATO would not be obligated to assist Montenegro. “An attack on one is an attack on all” does not mean “if one attacks for no particular reason, we all attack.”
Nevertheless, NATO (and the United States) can push back against Russian aggression without triggering nuclear (or nonnuclear) war. The Russians are not automatons whose only reaction is nuclear war – they are smart and they value their own lives.
History shows us that conflict between nuclear powers does not lead to nuclear war. The United States managed to contain the Soviet Union for decades without going nuclear.
And history also shows that our choices are not limited to Trump’s shameful performance in Helsinki or Fox News.