NATO Enlargement: Getting to “Yes” on Montenegro

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NATO Enlargement: Getting to “Yes” on Montenegro
By: Lisa Samp

The NATO Alliance will grow from 28 to 29 members with the addition of Montenegro in the next year or two. The enlargement process formally commenced at a December 1–2 meeting in Brussels where NATO foreign ministers unanimously agreed to invite the small Balkan country of fewer than 650,000 people to begin accession talks with the alliance. Reaching consensus on Montenegro’s invitation was not without challenges. Indeed, the issue remained unresolved heading into the last weeks and days before the ministerial. Skeptics were hesitant to risk Russia’s ire over a country whose case, in the view of some, is not particularly compelling. Montenegro’s military does not bridge any known NATO capability gaps and numbers only 2,000 soldiers, making it the third-smallest force in the alliance after Luxemburg and Iceland, which has no military. It spends only 1.6 percent of GDP on defense, more than 20 other allies but still below the NATO target of 2 percent, with a large amount dedicated to pensions rather than procurement. It has remaining work to do on intelligence and anticorruption reforms and does not yet have the support of at least 50 percent of its population, which still remembers the alliance’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999. Early naysayers also resisted enlargement on principle, believing that NATO has overextended its security guarantees beyond what is reasonably defendable.

Though it may not be a superstar aspirant, Montenegro is also not the worst in any of the security categories used to compare NATO members, nor does it introduce any significant new security burdens into the alliance. Its invitation also sends important signals to other Balkan countries with membership aspirations or growing relationships with NATO: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, and Kosovo. In the end, allies were able to agree that little Montenegro has made laudable progress in its reforms and was not only deserving of an invitation based on its merits, but that enlargement would ultimately be in the interest of all. Importantly, the decision reaffirms NATO’s open-door policy; demonstrates that Russia does not have veto power over NATO decisions without being overly provocative; plugs small but important holes in the NATO map along the Adriatic Sea; adds some additional capability and forces; and furthers the project of Balkan integration with the West.

In the intervening period between invitation and accession, Russia will be busy attempting to undermine Montenegro’s push toward the finish line. Montenegro’s parliamentary elections next fall will likely serve as a de facto referendum on NATO membership, and Russia is already engaged in an active fear campaign designed to dissuade the Montenegrin public from supporting pro-NATO parties. Montenegrin officials have expressed confidence that popular support, currently at 48 percent, will only grow over the next year and expect that Montenegro will soon become a NATO ally, although growing populism, fueled by the migration crisis, may provide fertile ground for Russia’s threats. The alliance, having agreed on Montenegro, will now have to turn its attention to the somewhat more vexing problem of how to recognize and encourage Georgia, the aspirant simultaneously considered the most worthy of NATO membership and the least likely to get it anytime soon given political realities vis-à-vis Russia.

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