On Wednesday evening, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson made the case that President Trump’s aversion to NATO was well-founded, arguing that American troops should never be put in harm’s way to prevent the invasion of a small country like Montenegro.
It’s a relatively poor place. It has no critical natural resources and limited strategic significance. From an American perspective, Montenegro is not an important country. Yet suddenly, because of an act of our Congress, Montenegro has great significance to every American. Since last year, the country has been a member of the NATO alliance. That means that if Montenegro ever finds itself in a war, our military is pledged to defend it. That is called the defense guarantee. Defense guarantees don’t sound like a big deal until suddenly they are. That’s how the First World War started. 37 million casualties later, the world began to rethink the wisdom of treaties like that. … The U.S. has to defend Montenegro? What? Why is that? Is there a good reason? Let’s hear it. … Do we really plan to defend Montenegro or many of the other NATO members? How about Estonia? How about Slovakia? Are you ready to have your kids die in those countries?
Now, this is a fine isolationist argument, so far as it goes. But what criteria would make a country worthy of American defense? How about Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938? How about Czechoslovakia in 1939? How about Poland in 1939?
Now, it’s easy to say in retrospect that of course America should have intervened — we know now that Hitler was one of history’s greatest monsters, responsible for the systematic murder of millions. But Vladimir Putin, dictator of Russia, is a mass murderer as well, a man who essentially admits to murdering his political opponents, an admirer of the Soviet Union and a thug who has invaded two separate sovereign countries (Georgia and Ukraine) and turned a third into a sphere of influence (Syria).
What was so special about the Sudetenland, which was largely German? What was so special about Czechoslovakia, which was about a quarter German? What was so special about Poland or France or Britain for that matter?
Now, perhaps Tucker would argue that defense of France and Britain would have amounted to us staving off threats to American borders. But the U.S. didn’t join the war until after it was directly attacked by Japan and Germany declared war on us. Is that the model Tucker espouses?
As far as Tucker’s point about World War I, it’s misguided in two ways. First, the interlocking series of defense treaties actually destabilized the security arrangement in Europe because there was no hegemon. Instead, those treaties created a feeling of parity, and the foolish thought that one alliance could defeat the other. It’s important to remember that the United States was party to no mutual defense treaty before World War I. If the U.S. had been party to a mutual defense treaty with France, for example, it’s highly unlikely that Germany would have gone to war with Russia, since that would have brought the overwhelming might of the U.S. directly into the war.
Since World War II, NATO has prevented the outbreak of any cross-border European war in an area of the world that was war-torn for centuries. That’s because enemies of the United States know that if they attack a NATO member, they face down our scorn. So this isn’t about defending “little Montenegro.” This is about drawing lines in Europe so that the Russians won’t cross them. Very few countries would be worth spilling American blood on their own. But the pledge to take a hard stand prevents us from being drawn into wars as conflicts escalate — which is exactly what happened during World Wars I, II, Korea, and Vietnam.