Montenegro Tests U.S. Foreign Policy Independence

It is not often that the relationship with a country whose population is smaller than that of Washington, D.C. serves as a litmus test of American foreign policy. That, however, is exactly the case regarding the pending U.S. Senate approval of Montenegro's joining NATO.

In May 2016 after the little Balkan country had successfully fulfilled NATO's exacting military and political requirements, the alliance formally invited it to become its 29th member. The only remaining hurdle was approval of the Protocol on the Accession of Montenegro by all 28 current members in accordance with their domestic democratic processes. In this country since the Accession Protocol is an amendment to the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, according to Article II, section 2 of the Constitution, the approval by two-thirds of the U.S. Senators present is required.

That approval almost occurred by unanimous consent of the Senate during the lame duck session in December but foundered when Republican Senators Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Mike Lee (Utah) objected. Then on January 11 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted for the second time to send the Resolution of Ratification to the Senate floor, but unanimous consent was withheld again. Meanwhile, a required report on the cost of Montenegro's accession is being prepared by the Government Accountability Office.

If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is again unable to secure unanimous consent of the full Senate for approval of the Resolution of Ratification, he can follow normal procedure and schedule floor debate, followed by a roll call vote. In that case the measure would undoubtedly pass with overwhelming bipartisan support. Montenegro would then have to await the near certain ratification from the five member states that have not yet approved its candidacy. The final step would be for President Donald Trump officially to deposit the Protocol of Accession (the U.S. is the NATO Treaty's depository) and to notify the other alliance members of its deposit.

But this may not be the script the White House wants to follow. President Trump has disparaged NATO as "obsolete" and on numerous occasions has voiced his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and proclaimed his desire to work together with the Kremlin. Putin, who as late as 2001 publicly considered the possibility of Russia's someday joining NATO, now labels the Western alliance and its enlargement serious threats.

Montenegro's tiny armed forces have only 1,950 active duty members, yet it sent 45 troops and medical personnel to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan and continues to contribute to NATO's Resolute Support Mission there. It is on a pace to fulfill the 2% of GDP spending for defense ahead of the 2020 target date set at the Wales NATO Summit.

Although by any military standard Montenegro hardly menaces Moscow, the Kremlin's drive for greater influence in the Balkans coupled with its paranoia about NATO have caused problems for the little republic. In 2013, pro-NATO Prime Minister Milo Djukanović refused a request by the Russian Federation for permission to install a military base in its Adriatic port of Bar to provide logistical support to the Russian naval fleet in the Mediterranean. Then last fall Montenegro barely foiled a coup d'état in which pro-Russian Serb nationalists planned to assassinate Djukanović and seize control of the government in the capital Podgorica.

Three countries lie between Montenegro and the Russian border, but the Kremlin understands the larger geopolitical ramifications of Montenegro's joining the alliance. It would make the entire northern shore of the Mediterranean, from Spain to Turkey, NATO territory and would also be an encouragement to other potential members, from Macedonia in the Balkans to Sweden on the Baltic.

Would President Trump cater to Putin's evident desire for a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and tell Majority Leader McConnell that he doesn't want the Resolution of Ratification of Montenegro's accession to NATO even to be considered? There have, in fact, been instances where treaties have lain dormant in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for decades before eventually being withdrawn.

This scenario is highly unlikely. McConnell has always been a strong proponent of NATO. Moreover, the Majority Leader is a fierce defender of the Constitution's separation of powers, which Trump implicitly belittled in his inauguration address. There are no indications that he is considering shelving the Resolution of Ratification.

Even after Senate ratification the President could, in theory, throw a last-minute monkey wrench into the accession process, though this tactic also looks far-fetched. With twenty-two of the other twenty-seven countries in the alliance having already ratified Montenegro's membership, and the other five soon to follow, a U.S. veto would amount to an abdication of American leadership in NATO right after British Prime Minister Theresa May had implored President Trump to do just the opposite.

Domestically it would signal a serious confrontation of the President with a Congress controlled by his own party. Outside the beltway, many Americans, including the more than 20 million citizens of Central and East European origin - most of whom are residents of states that gave Trump his Electoral College victory - would be appalled at what looked like the first element of a "grand bargain" with Moscow at the expense of the lands of their ancestors.

Internationally the fall-out would be even greater, since scuttling Montenegro's NATO candidacy would herald a definitive U.S. turn away from NATO toward Russia and would signify Washington's acquiescence in Moscow's growing influence in the Balkans. It could presage a lifting of U.S. sanctions imposed after Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and active military involvement in eastern Ukraine.

Finally, it would mean the end of the alliance's "open door" to membership for qualified aspiring countries, which is enshrined in Article 10 of NATO's founding document. Allies like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland that regularly endure unsubtle threats and provocations from Moscow would assume that candidate Trump's questioning whether the U.S. would honor its NATO Article 5 collective defense commitment was now U.S. policy. It would be the beginning of the unravelling of the alliance.

Montenegro has earned the right to join NATO. Its accession would strengthen the alliance and restate the vitality of the "open door," one of its basic principles. The U.S. Senate should ratify Montenegro's membership as soon as possible, and President Trump should formalize it. For Trump to do otherwise would show the world that during his presidency the Kremlin will exercise unprecedented influence on U.S. foreign policy.

Michael Haltzel, European policy advisor to former U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. when he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.