Earlier this week, President Trump identified a seemingly unlikely threat to world security: Montenegro, a tiny Balkan country of just over 600,000 people.
Montenegrins are a “very aggressive people,” Trump told Fox News on Wednesday, arguing that their membership in NATO could spark a war. “They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III,” he said.
Trump was responding to a question from Fox host Tucker Carlson, who asked the president a hypothetical question: “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” Carlson was referring to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which requires NATO members to aid other member states if they are attacked. The article has been invoked only once, following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
But Montenegrin officials insist that Trump has nothing to worry about. “Aggressive is a word which can’t be applied in the case of Montenegro,” said Milica Pejanovic-Djurisic, the Montenegrin ambassador to the United Nations, in a phone interview with The Washington Post. Montenegro, she said, is pushing for “stability in the region and trying in these turbulent years to help others.”
In a statement released Thursday, the Montenegrin government called itself a “stabilizing state in the region” and pointedly noted that it has sent troops to Afghanistan. “We build friendships, and we have not lost [a] single one, and at the same time we are able to boldly and defensively protect and defend our own national interests,” the statement said. “In today's world, it does not matter how big or small you are, but to what extent you cherish the values of freedom, solidarity and democracy.”
The government also said “the friendship and alliance of Montenegro and the United States of America is strong and permanent.” The statement was published alongside a photo of Vice President Pence in Montenegro last year.
Montenegrin Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic told The Post that when Trump called Montenegro aggressive, he must have been referring to Montenegro's “centuries-long fight for freedom and against fascism in World War II, where we fought bravely on the side of the allies.”
“In that sense, we really aggressively fought for our freedom and history, but in modern times we are a peaceful nation,” he said.
He also said that Article 5 is “unconditional and rock solid.”
“It's almost unimaginable that a leading country of NATO, and the most powerful country of NATO, should abandon [it]," Darmanovic said.
Montenegro joined NATO in June 2017, making it the newest member of the alliance. The U.S. Senate voted 97 to 2 in favor of Montenegro's accession, but Russia publicly opposed Montenegro's efforts to join. Montenegrin officials have even accused Russian agents of conspiring to kill then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic in 2016, in an effort to undermine the country's NATO bid — a claim Russia has denied.
Rachel Rizzo, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security's Transatlantic Security Program, said Trump is “extremely skeptical” when it comes to NATO enlargement, which made Montenegro an easy target. “The fact is Montenegro is the opposite of aggressive,” Rizzo said.
This is not the first time controversy has arisen over Trump's behavior toward Montenegro. Last year, at the country's first summit as a NATO member, a video of Trump pushing past Prime Minister Dusko Markovic went viral. As The Post reported at the time, the clip was featured on some American late-night comedy shows and mentioned in a number of Montenegrin news outlets.
But Markovic took a diplomatic position toward that incident. “This was an inoffensive situation,” he told journalists. “I do not see it in any other way.”
Trump's comments may even have a silver lining. “President Trump made worldwide promotion for Montenegro, even though I don't think that was his intention,” former Montenegrin foreign minister Milan Rocen said in an email to The Post. “That cannot harm Montenegro.... If it's going to make harm for him — remains to be seen.”