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Take That, Vladimir!

It’s a bold move to invite tiny Montenegro to join the NATO alliance — and a rebuke to Russian aggression.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L) meets with Montenegro's Foreign Minister Igor Luksic during the NATO ministerial meetings at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on December 2, 2015
NATO foreign ministers on Wednesday invited Montenegro to join the US-led military alliance, a move Russia has repeatedly warned against as a threat to stability in the western Balkans. / AFP / POOL / JONATHAN ERNST        (Photo credit should read JONATHAN ERNST/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L) meets with Montenegro's Foreign Minister Igor Luksic during the NATO ministerial meetings at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on December 2, 2015 NATO foreign ministers on Wednesday invited Montenegro to join the US-led military alliance, a move Russia has repeatedly warned against as a threat to stability in the western Balkans. / AFP / POOL / JONATHAN ERNST (Photo credit should read JONATHAN ERNST/AFP/Getty Images)

Moscow is asserting itself as a resurgent and aggressive geopolitical player, destabilizing neighboring countries, stealing territory, claiming a sweeping “right” to defend the interest of Russian-speaking people wherever they choose to live, serially violating arms control agreements, engaging in military provocations against Western countries, and capitalizing on the hesitance of Western countries to position itself as the determiner of outcomes in the Middle East.

In this foreboding environment, NATO’s 28 governments just elected to invite the democratizing Balkan country of Montenegro to join an alliance committed to mutual defense. Three cheers for the West!

The military of Montenegro adds just 2,000 troops to the NATO arsenal of 3,508,000 and just $5 billion to the NATO pool of $892 billion. Its navy comprises five patrol boats and five landing craft. While Moscow might not be quivering with fear, NATO’s offer is a clear rebuke — proof that our decadent, disorganized, argumentative, and hesitant West can actually take a stand in defense of its values and security. It shows the importance of international institutions in creating norms and facilitating cooperation.

There will be those — knowledgeable and serious-minded — that oppose expanding the alliance. I was among them in 1999, believing Europe was best made whole and free by building a cooperative relationship with Moscow, and worried about defending countries exposed to Russia when that obligation would fall principally to the United States.

But there are three weaknesses to that approach. First, it punishes those countries that want and, by their internal reforms and stabilizing foreign policies, have earned inclusion in our defense alliance. They are not to blame for Russia’s insecurity. The Membership Action Plans that NATO develops for countries aspiring to join it require transparency in the functioning of government and commitment to democratic values. The fact that some member states fall short of these goals — authoritarian crackdown in Turkey; insidious corruption in Bulgaria, Romania, and Albania; Hungary’s creeping illiberalism — does not make it fair to punish other aspiring countries for these failures and in any event has led to even more rigorous standards.

Second, it diminishes our leverage on countries in transition to reform their societies and their foreign policies in ways that both they and we will benefit from. The magnetism of belonging to the West is one of NATO and the European Union’s strong cards to shape Europe’s “neighborhood.” We are ultimately more secure when countries become liberal in their politics and economics, and their desire to gain our protection has been a significant factor in strengthening forces of reform within countries. This is soft power: the attractiveness of norms and the use of leverage to engender positive change.

Third, it rewards Moscow for destabilizing its neighbors. A cooperative relationship with Russia proved impossible because of Russia, not because of NATO. Vladimir Putin is responsible for the West’s wariness. NATO allies have not been eager to prove the door remains open to future members: For example, Georgia’s bid has been effectively stalled by Russian aggression, despite strong advocacy from George W. Bush’s administration before 2008. Russia’s reprehensible behavior in Ukraine has changed the dynamic, however, revealing the Kremlin’s willingness to infiltrate countries and stoke violence to sustain governments as corrupt as their own. Secretary of State John Kerry made the NATO case simply and best: “It’s a defensive alliance. It is meant to simply provide security.” For Russia to object to NATO expansion is to support instability.

The Russian establishment ought to ask itself why Montenegro so desperately wants to join NATO. The NATO alliance fought Montenegro as recently as 1999, when it came to the defense of Kosovo. Moscow has long tried to paint that war as NATO aggression, but the very governments the alliance was fighting against understand it differently. Montenegro has chosen to align itself with the values of the West, the governmental practices of the West, and the defense arrangements of the West.

Not that we should expect Moscow to be happy about all of this. Russia has tried to forestall any NATO expansion, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying in September it would be “a mistake, even a provocation.” And Putin’s spokesman announced there would be “retaliatory actions.” The Russian government announced the cessation of cooperative security programs as a first measure. The thing is, Russia will before much longer run out of countries to cut itself off from. Which, sadly, may be Putin’s actual objective: the complete isolation of Russia from democratizing influences.

Photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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