Frida Ghitis is a columnist for World Politics Review and a regular CNN.com opinion contributor.
Among the many alarming statements Trump has made in recent days was his comment to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson about the Balkan nation Montenegro, NATO’s newest member. Carlson asked the president why, if Montenegro is attacked, his son should go to war to defend it. Under NATO’s Article 5, an attack on one member is an attack on all. The allies have invoked it only once, in defense of the United States after 9/11.
Trump’s response to Carlson was a stunner. “I’ve asked the same question,” he said, adding an offensive quip about how the minuscule Montenegro has “very aggressive people,” which he somehow linked with the idea that it could start World War III.
There are two possible explanations for this extraordinary exchange. One is that Trump doesn’t understand how NATO works. The second is that he understands all too well, and is setting out to destroy it.
The genius behind NATO’s mutual defense commitment is that anyone pondering attacking a member would think twice, knowing that it might unleash the fury of the world’s most powerful alliance. The deterrent does more to prevent war than almost anything tried before, not only safeguarding peace but also helping to cultivate conditions for the spread of democracy. NATO’s charter commits its members to protect democracy, individual freedoms and the rule of law. It has worked remarkably well. Why?
Quite simply because the alliance has unified Europe, Canada and the United States under that pledge of mutual support. This helps the security of the United States by allowing Europe to remain whole, free and at peace — something that is clearly in the United States’ interest — while guaranteeing the security of Europeans, who know that the United States will stand behind them. The alliance doesn’t differentiate among small members or big ones — an attack on one of them is an attack on all.
The credibility behind this pledge is precisely what enabled the West to fend off the Soviet threat during the Cold War. It is this credibility that Trump is now aiming to undermine. He is already weakening the alliance by casting doubt on America’s commitment to mutual defense. In that respect, he has already signaled to Putin that the United States will be reluctant to respond if it chooses to intervene. Arguably, the world is already less safe.
The prospect of new conflict in the Balkans is chilling. The region has been a geopolitical fault line for centuries. World War I started there, and other conflicts have raged there many times, most recently in the 1990s. Bringing as many of the region’s countries into the alliance would be an excellent way of preventing tensions, since candidates can only join if they resolve territorial claims and other disputes with their neighbors. (Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Albania and Croatia are already members.)
Small wonder that Russia is actively interfering in the Balkans, taking increasingly aggressive measures against the countries that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia and aiming to draw them away from the West. Russian agents have been indicted as the masterminds of a conspiracy to overthrow the government of Montenegro. The coup plotters, prosecutors say, planned to assassinate Montenegro’s prime minister in a last-ditch effort to keep the country out of NATO.
Separately, Macedonia, which was invited to join the alliance at last week’s NATO summit, has accused Moscow of illegally working to undermine an agreement to solve the dispute that was blocking its accession to NATO — a conflict with Greece over the country’s name. Both Macedonia and Greece say that Russian agents have been handing out cash to stoke protests and using social media and government propaganda to turn people against the agreement. Greece just expelled several Russian diplomats. Russia is also aggravating tensions in Bosnia. (Oddly enough, Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t seem to be worried at all that his openly destabilizing actions might trigger World War III.)
The timing of Trump’s suggestion that he would not extend support to a Balkan partner could not be more useful to Russia. Macedonians will be voting in a referendum this fall on their country’s name change; if they approve, they will be clear to join NATO. Trump essentially told them that the benefits of joining are not as advertised.
But Trump’s principal audience is at home. His complaints about the alleged unreliability of NATO members are resonating. A recent poll showed that nearly half of Americans now accept his argument that the United States should not defend its allies from attack unless they spend more on defense. That is a remarkable reversal. Polling in May 2017, just a few months after Trump’s inauguration, showed that Americans still welcomed the alliance. Trump’s anti-NATO propaganda is working.
Without the United States, NATO can hardly survive. An American withdrawal, which Trump is signaling, would constitute an extraordinary victory for Russia. It would, to a dramatic degree, reverse the outcome of the Cold War. Nothing would make Putin happier.