During the Cold War, NATO actually meant something. The Soviet
Union was a totalitarian predator, the Western Europeans were
exhausted, and Washington did not want to face a Soviet-dominated
Today the transatlantic alliance has descended into farce.
Earlier this year, NATO invited the small Balkans country of
Macedonia to join its ranks. In what now passes for the historic
“Great Game” in Europe, officials anxiously awaited the
results of Macedonia’s referendum on a national name change.
Approval would allow the Western alliance to augment its collective
forces by an astounding 8,000 men and 31 tanks.
For a quarter century, the countries of Greece and Macedonia, a
small piece of what had been Yugoslavia, were deadlocked over the
latter’s use of what Greeks considered to be their birthrate
name. Officials in Athens insinuated that their small neighbor
harbored aggressive designs and hoped to revive the historic
Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great. With its vast legions,
the newly independent nation might go on a militarist rampage and
occupy Salonika, perhaps even Athens.
It’s the sort of nationalist nonsense that should cause
any normal human being to laugh himself silly.
Alliances should be based
on circumstances and treated as a means rather than an end, which
means they should be temporary, ending along with the exigencies
that led to their creation.
Instead the dispute quickly took on crisis proportions. As the
diplomatic conflict was joined, Greeks referred to their northern
neighbor as Skopje and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,
or FYROM. More important, Athens blocked The Country With the
Disputed Name from joining both the European Union and NATO. In
doing so, it inadvertently did America a favor, by preventing
another needless alliance expansion. Still, year after year
American and European diplomats busied themselves attempting to
resolve the dispute.
And then Athens and Skopje finally came to an agreement. After
years of angry argument and Western mediation, Macedonia is to be
called the Republic of Northern Macedonia. Apparently, the
ghosts of Alexander dissipate when you move further north. If
approved, the pact would lead to Skopje’s entry into NATO and
possible accession to the EU. However, any compromise was too much
for some nationalists, and the proposal has incited anger in both
On Sunday, Macedonians cast ballots, and things didn’t
work out as expected. Almost 92 percent voted yes, but turnout was
only 37 percent, well below the normal 50 percent threshold. Prime
Minister Zoran Zaev remained confident: “I am determined to
take Macedonia into the European Union and NATO.” However,
though the poll was not binding, some legislators may reject the
change, given its ambivalent public backing. Nationalists already
held enough seats to block the two-thirds majority necessary to
change the constitution.
Moreover, the dubious result gives the transatlantic alliance a
chance to rethink its invitation. NATO is about war. It is bad
enough to induct a military midget and security black hole
dependent on other members, most importantly America. It is even
worse to add a country divided—Macedonia suffered through a
brief civil war between the ethnic Slavic majority and Albanian
minority—and subject to international controversy (Russia is
intensely opposed to Macedonian accession).
Yet the State Department continues its role as NATO’s
cheerleader, treating membership as a form of charity. State
spokeswoman Heather Nauert observed: “As Macedonia’s
parliament now begins deliberation on constitutional changes, we
urge leaders to rise above partisan politics and seize this
historic opportunity to secure a brighter future for the country as
a full participant in Western institutions.” Defense
Secretary Jim Mattis had traveled to Skopje to urge a yes vote.
Does President Donald Trump have any idea what administration
officials are doing in his name? After all, NATO’s newest
member is Montenegro. And while the invitation was issued by the
Obama administration, the Senate did not approve Montenegro’s
membership until President Trump had taken over.
After last July’s NATO summit, Fox News commentator Tucker
Carlson asked why his son should be sent to defend Montenegro.
President Trump responded: “They are very aggressive people.
They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World
War III.” If the president believed that, why did he allow
Podgorica to join? He apparently does not comprehend his
administration’s role in admitting Montenegro.
Small, mountainous Montenegro is most notable for being the
movie set for James Bond’s Casino Royale. With a
military of just a couple thousand, it looks like a modern version
of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, the fictional protagonist in the
novel The Mouse that Roared. Unfortunately, despite the
extravagant claims made by NATO officials on Podgorica’s
behalf, the micro-state won’t be able to do much to protect
Western civilization from the barbarian hordes.
Although Montenegro isn’t likely to start a war by
invading Russia, as the president seemed to suggest, smaller states
can trigger wars. In 1888, Germany’s famed Iron Chancellor,
Otto von Bismarck, accurately prophesied, “One day the great
European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the
Balkans.” Serbia became the fuse for World War I.
Nevertheless, the usual Washington elites were horrified by
President Trump’s remarks. The late Senator John McCain, who
after Lebanon never found a war he didn’t want the U.S. to
fight, complained: “By attacking Montenegro and questioning
our obligations under NATO, the president is playing right into
Putin’s hands.” Former NATO supreme commander and
presidential candidate Wesley Clark argued, “Trump’s
comments weaken NATO, give Russia a license to cause trouble and
thereby actually increase the risks of renewed conflict in the
The U.S. should enter into alliances only to enhance its
security. That means forming defense relationships with countries
that can contribute to that security or that otherwise warrant
protecting. Alliances should be based on circumstances and treated
as a means rather than an end, which means they should be
temporary, ending along with the exigencies that led to their
creation. Or they should be turned into looser cooperative
relationships directed at common but less vital interests.
After World War II ended, NATO was established to shield Western
Europe from the menace of the Red Army, which was well advanced
into Central Europe. Even then, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the
alliance’s first commander and later president, warned about
the debilitating impact of permanent troop deployments on the
continent. After their recovery, European states continued to
underspend on their militaries and rely on America. With the
collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the
alliance’s raison d’etre also ended.
But never mind. The incentives identified by Public Choice
economics kicked in, as desperate NATO officials debated new duties
for the old military alliance, ranging from the ludicrous to the
sublime, including proposals to promote student exchanges and fight
the illicit drug trade. Eventually the alliance got engaged in
“out of area” activities well beyond Europe, as members
dragged each other into bizarre conflicts with little or no
relevance to their common defense: intervening in multiple phases
of Yugoslavia’s and then Serbia’s civil war, social
engineering in the Balkans, undertaking 17 years of nation-building
in Afghanistan, replacing Libya’s long-ruling dictator with
murder and mayhem.
The record went from bad to worse. Today, members of NATO fight
wars to justify the alliance rather than preserve it to prevent
wars. And then they celebrate when it inducts the latest military
midget enveloped in discord and conflict. With Montenegro and
Macedonia in, can Monaco be far behind?
No doubt this would have been the strategy had Hillary Clinton
won the 2016 election. But why does President Trump continue with
policies that he so sharply criticized not only as a candidate but
His administration admitted Montenegro. His administration
invited Macedonia to join. His administration steadily increased
financial and military commitments to Europe. He responded
favorably to Poland’s request for a permanent U.S. base.
Every one of these steps undercut his demand that Europeans spend
and do more. They are watching what Washington does, not listening
to what it says.
The Macedonian people have shown more sense than NATO officials,
exhibiting little enthusiasm for a meaningless expansion of
alliance commitments. That creates an opportunity for President
Trump to assert control over his administration’s policy.
Only he can say no to NATO as a fake alliance, with a Duchy of
Grand Fenwick lookalike as the latest honored new member.
a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant
to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies:
America’s New Global Empire.