Largely ignored amidst the theatrics of President Trump’s NATO summit performance was the announcement of the alliance’s potential next member: the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. July has fed the world plenty of sound and fury: Germans were condemned, royal protocol flouted, and Russian dictators flattered. Macedonian accession to NATO, though, tells us more about the alliance and its value to America than any of the other headlines from Europe.
In order to join NATO, Macedonia will rebrand itself as “the Republic of North Macedonia” to avoid antagonizing the neighboring Greeks, a move that must be approved in a national referendum in September or October. Nonetheless, government-organized concerts and parties raged across the countryon July 14. The odds seem low that Macedonia will fail to become NATO’s 30th member.
NATO enlargement, like most of the foreign policy orthodoxy that has afflicted America, is a bipartisan faith. The U.S. Senate’s non-binding resolution in support of NATO expansion passed by a vote of 97-2 -- only Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee had the wisdom and independence to vote against it. Despite his constant and often justified attacks on NATO, President Trump gave his approval to adding both Montenegro last summer and Macedonia now. There is no mainstream opposition in the United States to the self-propelling policy of endless NATO expansion.
With 8,000 troops in its entire military, the addition of Macedonia to NATO is only slightly less farcical than that of nearby Montenegro was. Macedonia spent $119.6 million on defense in 2017. At the latest bargain price, that’s enough money to afford not quite 1.5 American F-35A fighter jets. Then again, Macedonia has no combat jets at all. The Army of the Republic of Macedonia has a few dozen tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, mostly old Russian models. The army has made small deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Balkan peacekeeping missions -- never more than an infantry company, and usually only a handful of men. At 1.1 percent of GDP, Macedonia’s paltry defense spending puts it in the company of some of NATO’s worst free-riders.
Alliances may not be purely transactional arrangements, but they also cannot be devoid of strategic logic. Macedonia clearly cannot offer more than a symbolic contribution to NATO’s collective defense. In return, this small, landlocked country can potentially call on the military might of the United States and most of Europe through NATO’s Article 5.
Adding Macedonia to NATO, or for that matter adding any militarily and geographically irrelevant nations, contravenes two of the most basic lessons of defensive alliances.
First, weak allies often bring potential liabilities and conflicts with them. Though the historical debate rages on, for a century many historians have made the case that the cataclysm of World War I began because Germany was dragged into war by her weak ally Austria-Hungary. More recently, in 2011 we saw the United States pulled into the strategic idiocy of the Libyan intervention by our weak European allies, Britain and France.
The Balkans have been a proverbial powder keg for centuries. One of the greatest statesmen in history, Otto von Bismarck, correctly predicted that the next major European war would start over “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” More recently, British General Sir Michael Jackson refused a U.S. order to confront Russian troops in Kosovo in 1999, telling General Wesley Clark, “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.”
While Macedonia does not have any issues as dangerous as the real and frozen conflicts of Ukraine and Georgia, it remains a nation with plenty of its own troubles. Last month, Macedonia’s Prime Minister accused Greek businessmen allied with Russia of meddling in his country to undermine the referendum. Barely a year ago, Macedonia seemed to be on the verge of war with its large Albanian minority. It has also been described as “the fake news factory to the world.” There is reason to fear that Macedonia could drag NATO into another nasty little Balkan war.
Second, weak and distant allies undermine deterrence. Deterrence, not token European contributions to U.S. interventions, is NATO’s chief value now. Yet expanding the alliance with more peripheral members calls NATO’s credibility into question. Does anyone seriously believe that we would send American soldiers to die for Macedonia, particularly if the conflict had even a shred of ambiguity via “little green men” or other aggression short of full-blown conventional war?
This weakening of deterrence is already clear to even a casual observer. On July 17, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson asked President Trump bluntly: “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” The president’s reply? “I’ve asked the same question.” Of course, any lack of clarity about America’s commitment to NATO’s collective defense under Article 5 makes Russian provocations or even attacks more likely. When this uncertainty is combined with the continued failure of our wealthy European allies to meaningfully contribute to collective defense as required by NATO’s Article 3, we have an alliance that is becoming hard to take seriously.
While the commitments exist, America can and must defend its allies, for reasons of both honor and self-interest. But adding another weak partner to an alliance that is already full of them is the last thing in America’s -- and NATO’s -- best interest.
Gil Barndollar is Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest. A former U.S. Marine infantry officer, he has deployed to Afghanistan, the Republic of Georgia, Guantanamo Bay, and the Persian Gulf. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Cambridge. The views expressed are the author's own.