The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s Montenegro comments make it abundantly clear he doesn’t understand NATO

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Before his controversial news conference Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump was causing controversy not for being obsequious but for being overly aggressive. Trump went to the NATO summit in Brussels, drove a wedge through a sensitive NATO subject and according to some reports seemed to threaten to pull out of the agreement. By the end of his trip, he credited himself with forcing NATO member countries to pony up more money for the alliance — even as it's not clear that he actually got anything.

But does the guy who claims to have saved NATO even understand it? It certainly doesn't seem so.

In a taped interview with Fox News's Tucker Carlson that aired Tuesday night, Carlson and Trump mused about how unfair it might be that NATO would require the United States to defend a tiny country like Montenegro that is party to the treaty. Article 5 of NATO, the agreement's signature provision, regards an attack on one NATO country as an attack on all of them.

Here's the exchange:

CARLSON: So, membership in NATO obligates the members to defend any other member that is attacked.
TRUMP: That's right.
CARLSON: So let's say Montenegro, which joined last year, is attacked, why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack? Why is that?
TRUMP: I understand what you're saying. I've asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people . . .

Even here, Trump's comments are questionable, as The Washington Post's John Wagner writes. Trump seems to question Article 5 despite affirming last year that the United States is committed to it.

President Trump on July 17 praised his role in the NATO summit the week before. (Video: The Washington Post)

But Trump may have just been spitballing and acknowledging that he wavered on that point — which he certainly did. Fine. But then came this:

CARLSON:  Yes, I'm not against [Montenegro] — or Albania . . .
TRUMP: No, by the way, they have very people — they have 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.

Except . . . that's not the way it was set up. Article 5 of NATO addresses only cases in which NATO allies are attacked — not cases in which they “get aggressive” and launch wars on their own.

Here's how it reads: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

About the best explanation for Trump's comments is that he was suggesting a country like Montenegro would get aggressive and invite an attack from a country, like Russia. But Article 1 of the charter states that member countries must “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.”

And Article 5 has only been invoked once — after 9/11 — even as NATO member countries including the United States have been involved in unilateral wars. So clearly NATO member countries aren't obliged to get involved in every conflict involving a member country.

Trump's musing about Montenegrins being “aggressive” and causing problems was weird on its own. (There is some recent history with Montenegro and Russia, which is probably why Carlson brought it up, but it involved pro-Russian interests allegedly trying to topple the government in Montenegro.) And the idea that the United States would be compelled to defend Montenegro if it were the aggressor simply isn't in the treaty.