- President Donald Trump’s whirlwind tour of Europe this month was marked by disputes with allies and meetings with foes.
- Days after the trip, he leveled more criticism at the alliance, singling out its newest member: Montenegro.
- On Thursday, Montenegro responded, underscoring its political past and commitment to NATO.
The government of Montenegro was inundated by so many requests for comment about President Donald Trump’s unexpected broadside this week that the Balkan country’s Cabinet released a statement defending its political history and membership in NATO.
In an interview just hours after Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and days after he met with NATO leaders, Fox News host Tucker Carlson mentioned NATO’s collective-defence clause, asking the US president, “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?”
“I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question,” Trump replied. “Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. … They’re very strong people. They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive and congratulations, you’re in World War III.”
“Now I understand that, but that’s the way it was set up,” Trump said. “Don’t forget, I just got here a little more than a year and a half ago.”
Trump’s comments prompted swift backlash from inside and outside of Montenegro. A number of former NATO officials criticised Trump for appearing to undercut NATO Article V, which commits members to defending other members when they are attack. Article V has only been invoked once, after the September 11 attacks in the US.
On Thursday, Montenegro’s government responded.
“Montenegro is proud of its history and tradition and peaceful politics that led to the position of a stabilising state in the region and the only state in which the war didn’t rage during disintegration of the former Yugoslavia,” it said.
“The country that was the first in Europe to resist the Fascism, and today as a new NATO member and a candidate for the EU membership it contributes to peace and stability not only on the European continent but worldwide, along with US soldiers in Afghanistan,” the statement added.
Montenegro was a republic of what was known as Yugoslavia after World War II. After Yugoslavia’s breakup in the early 1990s, Montenegro formed a union with Serbia before declaring its independence in 2006.
In 1999, Montenegro was bombed by NATO forces, including strikes that killed civilians, during the Kosovo War between early 1998 and mid-1999. The death of civilians during the NATO bombing campaign was cited by those opposed to Montenegro’s ascension to NATO, but the country joined the bloc in 2017, becoming the 29th member.
Montengro has contributed to the NATO mission in Afghanistan since 2010. The country of about 630,000 people has roughly 3,400 total military personnel, and the 20 troops it currently has deployed to Afghanistan are more per capita than any other country, based on official tallies.
“We build friendships, and we have not lost single one, and at the same time we are able to boldly and defensively protect and defend our own national interests,” the Montenegrin government’s statement says. “In today’s world, it does not matter how big or small you are, but to what extent you cherish the values of freedom, solidarity and democracy.”
“Therefore, the friendship and the alliance of Montenegro and the United States of America is strong and permanent,” it concludes.
Trump’s comments about Montenegro on Tuesday perplexed and frustrated many observers, even those who have been critical of NATO’s overall expansion and its addition of Montenegro.
“If one believes that NATO still serves any valid security purpose in Europe, then picking and choosing from among its members which ones we would choose to defend can only corrode the alliance and invite challenges that we would ultimately find problematical,” said Barry Posen, a political-science professor and director of the security-studies program at MIT.
“It is particularly harmful for the president to speculate about such things in TV interviews,” Posen added.
“This is the worst nightmare for the Montenegrins,” Wesley Clark, a retired US Army general and former NATO supreme allied commander, told CNN on Thursday.
“They thought they were safe. They got into NATO. They rely on NATO to give them the assurance to be able to build a democracy and move their economy forward,” said Clark, who was NATO commander during the 1999 bombing campaign and later ran for president as a Democrat in 2004.
Clark said on Twitter that Trump’s comments echoed Russian talking points. Moscow opposed Montenegro’s inclusion in NATO, and Trump’s remarks so soon after his meeting raised concerns that the small country had become a bargaining chip.
“It’s an open invitation to Putin and the United States must act to reassure this ally and our other allies that we really mean it with Article 5,” Clark told CNN.
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