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Corker, possible Trump secretary of state, aims to expand NATO

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is on President-elect Donald Trump’s Secretary of State short list, and his committee voted Tuesday to advance legislation admitting Montenegro into NATO. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

President-elect Donald Trump may not be a big fan of NATO, but that didn’t keep a senator on his list for secretary of state from putting his stamp of approval on expanding it.

Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) presided over a unanimous vote Tuesday ratifying a treaty to accept Montenegro as the latest member of NATO. Backers want the Senate to take up the measure later this week, when two-thirds of senators would need to approve it in order for Montenegro to be on its way to becoming the 29th member of the alliance.

Corker said in a statement that members of the committee “welcome Montenegro as NATO’s newest member,” before noting that once in NATO, the small Balkan nation – like other members – should be prepared to pull its weight in the alliance.

“Given the many challenges facing the alliance, it is important that every state step up and meet the two percent of GDP target for spending on defense,” Corker said.

His comments echo some of Trump’s own statements about NATO. On the campaign trail, Trump called it “obsolete” and suggested the U.S. might not rush to defend NATO members from a potential Russian invasion if they hadn’t paid the two percent of GDP towards the alliance expected of them.

Corker is one of an apparently growing number of candidates that Trump is considering to be his chief ambassador to the world. They have recently included Corker, who supported Trump during the campaign; former archrival Mitt Romney; former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani;  former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, ex-U.N. ambassador John Bolton; Exxon head Rex Tillerson; and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Many of those candidates are likely to break with Trump, including Corker, in a number of key foreign policy areas especially concerning Russia.

Since winning the election, Trump has tempered his rhetoric on NATO, to the extent that even outgoing President Obama said he was confident Trump would maintain U.S. obligations to the alliance after meeting with the president-elect.

The admission of Montenegro is likely to anger Russia, which has sought to pull the state off its course toward closer alliance with the West. This fall, Montenegrin authorities accused Moscow of trying to plot a botched coup during the country’s parliamentary elections.

That might not sit well with Trump, who has advocated warmer relations with Moscow, despite protestations from many within his own party that he and his aides are too close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump has not specifically weighed in on the prospect of Montenegro joining NATO. After a years-long application process, Montenegro’s pending membership was approved by members’ foreign ministers in May, and the White House asked Congress to ratify the agreement in June.

When he started the ratification process, Obama told Congress that accepting Montenegro into NATO “will demonstrate to other countries in the Balkans and beyond that NATO’s door remains open” to nations ready to carry out needed reforms, “and is yet another milestone in advancing the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Balkans.”

That idea won’t sit well in Moscow, where Kremlin officials have long feared NATO encroachment, particularly in countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union or its sphere of influence during the Cold War. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Georgia are also formally pursuing NATO membership, though none of their bids to join are imminent.

By itself, Montenegro offers few marked assets to the NATO alliance: the tiny country of just over 600,000 has a GDP of barely $7.5 billion and a standing military of only about 2,000. But Montenegro’s main port, Bar, is strategically valuable as the only deep-sea port along Europe’s southern coast belonging to a non-member state.

Members of Congress also seem to care little about whether their move angers Russia.

“Strengthening and expanding NATO is critical at a time when terrorism and Russian aggression continue to threaten our European allies,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that handles Europe and regional security, and co-sponsored the legislation with ranking member Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

“Approving Montenegro’s accession will send the clear message that Congress will not bow to Russian threats and intimidation,” Shaheen said. “The United States must always stand on the side of freedom, security and democracy.”