Is Montenegro Worth Fighting For? Yep.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Fresh off his characteristically counterproductive trip to Europe last week, Donald Trump returned to one of his favorite pastimes: Publicly questioning why the U.S. should uphold its defense commitment to its NATO allies. This time, the unlucky target was Montenegro, a small Balkan country that is also NATO’s newest member.

In response to prompting from Fox News's Tucker Carlson, Trump made clear that he saw no reason to risk American lives and treasure in defense of Montenegro, and he argued that U.S. security would be more imperiled than improved by honoring commitments to faraway allies. The Montenegrins were “very aggressive,” he commented, and their behavior threatened to drag America into “World War III.” 

As usual, Trump’s trash-talking of a NATO ally was roundly condemned by the foreign policy establishment. But one suspects that the average American — and certainly the average Trump supporter — was less disturbed. The question of why the U.S. should be willing to shed its soldiers’ blood on behalf of Montenegro, Estonia, Iceland or any other seemingly insignificant country probably strikes many voters as an entirely reasonable one — especially given what Trump characterizes as their failure to bear their fair share on defense spending. 

There is, in fact, a persuasive answer to this question, but understanding it requires a historical sensibility and a geopolitical imagination that many Americans — especially the president — seem to lack.

Perhaps unintentionally, Trump’s comments about Montenegro highlighted the truly remarkable nature of U.S. statecraft since World War II. Most countries are not committed to anything beyond their own defense. Over a period of generations, however, the U.S. has made security commitments to dozens of countries, nearly all of which are thousands of miles away, and many of which could probably not be located on a map by a majority of Americans.

Some of those countries — Germany, Japan, the U.K. — are major powers in their own right. Others — Latvia, Luxembourg, Montenegro — are tiny states whose relevance to American security is not immediately obvious. No other great power in history has defined its interests and responsibilities so broadly.

The rationale for this approach drew heavily on the lessons of what had come before. The seemingly incontrovertible takeaway from the catastrophic global wars of the early 20th century was that the countries of Europe and East Asia could not maintain the peace if left to their own devices. Either they would stumble into war and tear each other to pieces — as happened in World War I — or they would fail to muster the strength and cooperation to defeat a dangerous aggressor on their own — as happened in World War II.

The resulting conflagrations would not stay contained; they would eventually burn the U.S. as well. The only solution to this problem was for America to keep the peace in these critical theaters. Washington would provide security against external threats such as the Soviet Union during the Cold War or Russia today; it would stifle conflict between historical enemies such as France and Germany. By doing so, it would foster a climate of security and prosperity that would benefit everyone, Americans included.

This argument was complemented by a related idea about the indivisibility of global security. Aggression was contagious, the World War II generation believed: If revisionist powers were allowed to upset the status quo somewhere, they would surely repeat the performance elsewhere. To allow unchecked aggression in any important region of the world, then, was to allow the very fabric of international peace to be torn.

No less, it would raise the question of whether the U.S. — having stood aside in the face of seemingly small challenges to global stability — could really be counted on to answer the bigger ones. As Harry Truman put it in 1947, “The world is not static, and the status quo is not sacred.” Yet he added that to permit changes in the status quo “by such methods as coercion, or by such subterfuges as political infiltration,” would be to relegate international society to darkness and anarchy.

Today, there are narrow reasons why the U.S. has an interest in making Montenegro an ally, such as the need to choke off avenues for Russian influence in the Balkans. But the basic answer to the question of why Montenegro — or any other ally — matters comes back to the fundamental logic that has underpinned U.S. policy for decades.

Contrary to the common lore, however, the U.S. commitment to NATO has never been quite as sacrosanct as it is sometimes portrayed. Like Trump, many Americans have long wondered whether it really makes sense to fight for countries half a world away. That questioning, moreover, has usually been strongest at times of broader skepticism regarding the U.S. role in the world.

In the wake of the Vietnam War, for instance, only 36 percent of Americans believed “it was important for the United States to make and keep commitments to other nations.” The ambivalence that Trump is displaying toward America’s security commitments is as old as the commitments themselves.

What is different this time, however, is that the president is the one stoking this ambivalence. For most of the Cold War, U.S. leaders understood that they were asking a lot in calling on Americans to support the defense of faraway countries. But they believed it was their responsibility to make the case for that policy, and to reassure the Europeans that Washington really would come to their aid in a crisis.

Trump, however, is doing exactly the opposite. He is thereby reinforcing doubts in the U.S. about whether Washington should honor its NATO mutual-defense commitments and in Europe about whether Washington would honor those commitments.

There is also a second reason why this time is different: Because Trump is asking these questions at a time when many Americans have lost the historical sensibility and geopolitical imagination needed to answer them.

It was one thing to argue that global security was indivisible, and that the front line of America’s defense should be along the periphery of Eurasia, in the 1940s, when nearly all Americans could remember the run-up to World War II. It is another entirely to make that argument 80 years after World War II broke out, and when even the Cold War is a faint or fading memory for most of the population.

If Trump’s skepticism regarding U.S. allies resonates with his voters, it may well be because they can no longer visualize how nasty the global scene can get when America isn’t manning the ramparts.

Trump has thus exposed a fundamental difficulty of making the case for American internationalism: That it rests on counterfactual, and thus unprovable, claims about what awful things will happen if the U.S. pulls back, as well as arguments about the good things that happen when it remains engaged.

Yet the further away America gets from the last breakdown of international security, the less persuasive those claims about what lurks on the other side of U.S. retrenchment seem to ordinary people — and the wider the door opens for people like Trump, who wish to abandon not just Montenegro but the intellectual foundations of America’s global role.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His newest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump." 

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