Why has Trump tweaked Montenegro?

At 2017 NATO summit, President Donald Trump captured the attention of media for weeks through his famous videotape in which he was seen apparently pushing Montenegro’s Prime Minister, Duško Marković, out of the way immediately prior to a photo op involving all the NATO leaders. This footage, for obvious reasons, created negative vibes in Montenegro, and ignited a new debate about Donald Trump’s arrogant personality and his personal disdain for diplomatic etiquettes and discipline. Now, almost a year after that episode, Donald Trump, in his usual arrogant mood, again stirred a controversy by making some pricking remarks about Montenegro in an interview to Fox News recently. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, in his typical sarcastic style, asked Donald Trump, “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” “I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question. 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,” is how President Donald Trump responded in his usual casual demeanour to this impish query. Such harsh comments were obviously destined to invite severe reaction from inside and outside of Montenegro.

The question is what prompted President Donald Trump, who had already raised a lot of dust at 2018 NATO summit in Brussels in his verbal tirades with the NATO allies over their financial contributions, to keep questioning the very fundamental stipulations of this transatlantic alliance that has served as the main guarantor of the peace and stability in the region for several decades. Article 5 of the NATO treaty is perhaps the most pivotal stipulation that provides the main foundation for the very existence of NATO. This crucial article makes it obligatory upon all NATO members to defend if any of the fellow member states is attacked – so it actually binds all NATO members to think collectively whenever any single or more than one ally are under attack by any outsider. This is the most reassuring clause pertaining to “common defense” that has so far kept the alliance intact and expanding eastwards. It deems an attack on one member of NATO an attack on all countries in the alliance. Article 5, which is defensive in nature to be exact, aims to effectively deter potential adversaries from attacking NATO members. Just a week ago, Trump signed the NATO communique, which explicitly endorsed Article 5. Though Trump signed the communique and committed in 2017 to NATO’s principle of common defense, his latest comments have further aggravated the United States’ strained relationship with its allies who are already quite sceptical about Donald Trump’s continuous tweaks for the last one year.

There is little doubt that President Donald Trump is treading the same line which is being marketed by Vladimir Putin – advocating that NATO has lost its rationale after the breakup of the Soviet Union and does not serve any valid security purpose in Europe any more. Trump’s affinity for Putin is not secret. After the Helsinki summit in mid-July, where he had two hour-long one-on-one exclusive meeting with Putin, Donald Trump has again done indirect favour to Putin by using the shoulder of Montenegro to exhibit his scepticism about the validity of NATO in today’s global power structure. A cursory glance at the chronology of Montenegro’s journey to NATO membership will reveal that pro-Putin leanings of Donald Trump are at the very centre of his global outlook. Montenegro was a part of former Yugoslavia since World War II, after Yugoslavia’s breakup in the early 1990s, Montenegro was stitched together in a union with Serbia before declaring its independence in 2006. In 1999, NATO forces bombarded Montenegro, killing many civilians in air strikes, during the Kosovo War between early 1998 and mid-1999. However, after consistent efforts to break away from the Russian influence, and despite intense opposition from Putin, Montenegro officially joined NATO in 2017, becoming the 29th member. Since 2010, in its efforts to show its commitment to join NATO, Montenegro has contributed to the NATO mission in Afghanistan very diligently. Out of country’s 630,000 population, roughly 3,400 are serving as military personnel. At the moment, 20 troops from Montenegro are serving in NATO contingent in Afghanistan, more per capita than any other country. For many years, Montenegro has lived under the threat of being annexed like Crimea, therefore, in spite of intense opposition from Moscow - including an alleged plot to kill the country’s then prime minister in an attempt to thwart its intent to join the alliance - Montenegro kept on knocking at the door of NATO for membership so as to feel “safe” in the proximity of Russia.

Trump’s comments about Montenegro have certainly perplexed and frustrated many analysts, including those who have previously been opposed to NATO’s overall expansion and its addition of Montenegro. NATO is a treaty alliance, the addition of new members requires approval of the US Senate and Montenegro’s membership was approved by a huge majority, which voted 97 to 2 to allow the country to join. Trump also signed off on the country’s joining soon thereafter. Montenegro’s strategic location on the Adriatic coast has further added to the headache to Moscow because the entire coastline is now made-up exclusively of NATO members. That’s why Moscow has always been ardent opponent of its NATO membership. Against this backdrop, Trump’s remarks will have serious confidence-shattering impact on its NATO allies, who are quite nervous after continuous prodding about the justification of NATO as a viable security guarantor against the theoretical attack by Russia – a chronic dogma which is being discredited by Trump as a trash. Yes, Trump is famous for his U-turns in the media and he may soon issue a statement to “justify” his remarks on Montenegro as another media hoax. But the reality is that NATO members are quite shaky and still bracing for another punch from the bag of Donald Trump.


The writer is a freelance columnist.

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