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Trump doesn’t need North Macedonia in NATO

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North Macedonia signed up this week to become the 30th member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This latest addition to the defense pact, more than any previous one, raises the question of what membership of the alliance really means.
Fox News’s Tucker Carlson has argued that is makes no sense for Americans to die for Montenegro or the Baltic States, even though Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty requires the U.S. to come to the two countries’ aid if they are ever attacked. Asked by Carlson about Montenegro, President Donald Trump expressed a worry that its “strong, aggressive people” could get the U.S. into trouble.

But Carlson’s position is too extreme: the previous waves of NATO expansion in the Baltic states, and then the Balkans, made strategic sense for the U.S. – as long as it viewed Russia as a long-term adversary.
The first round of new members dramatically constrained Russia’s ability to threaten Western Europe militarily. Even if Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania can’t defend themselves, they increase the cost of attacking for Russia.
Now that the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is dead, NATO’s eastern European members will be especially important: In the event of a major escalation with Russia, missiles capable of hitting any city in the west of Russia within seconds could be placed there.

In the Balkans, the logic is different. Yugoslavia was where NATO fought its first war, and it makes sense to consolidate its presence there to prevent a resurgence of fighting. If Serbia, with Russian help, ever made another bid for dominance in the region, Croatia’s membership would be a powerful counterbalance. Montenegro was worth taking in for the same reason – even if its membership was more likely dictated by fears of a Russian takeover of the small Balkan state following what the authorities described as a failed Kremlin-backed coup in 2016.
I’m being generous here. Russia’s influence in the Balkans is exaggerated and is more a matter of tradition, wishful thinking and opportunism than any strategy with specific long-term goals.
In the case of North Macedonia, no reasonable degree of Russian alarmism would justify NATO expansion.

Russia has objected to the country’s membership and tried to encourage nationalists to hinder it. But there are no political forces in North Macedonia that favor an alliance with Russia. Even the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, which has flirted with Putin at times, has long backed membership of NATO and the European Union. Unlike Montenegro, the country has only a small Russian diaspora and enjoys little Russian investment. The influence of Turkey – still a NATO ally – is much stronger. 
It’s hard, if not impossible, to make any kind of geo-strategic case for North Macedonia’s NATO membership. The country didn’t play a major role in the Balkans conflict. It is tiny, landlocked and resource-poor. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government hasn’t even tried to make the case. It’s interested in a NATO membership less as a security guarantee than as a de facto prerequisite for EU membership. All the former-communist EU members joined NATO before the bloc. 

There’s no formal requirement to join NATO before the EU, and Serbia, at least for now, is keen on being part of the EU but not NATO. But it remains the bloc’s effective security pillar despite all the recent talk of an EU military. North Macedonia has no interest in challenging this convention: Its economic future depends on moving fast along the European path.
For the U.S., which provides the security umbrella for NATO countries, North Macedonia looks to be just another freeloader. Its military spending will amount to 1.19 percent of gross domestic product this year – roughly the same level as in Germany, which Trump has repeatedly upbraided for its pacifism. In absolute terms, it’s a pittance, some $153 million in 2019 for a military with about 8,000 active personnel. NATO gains nothing by taking it in and stretching the umbrella a little more.

The alliance isn’t losing much, either. Once can hardly see Russia, or anyone else, attacking Montenegro or North Macedonia. But the U.S. does need to consider what it gets out of an alliance with an increasing number of small members primarily interested using it as a step on the way to EU accession. It doesn’t necessarily make sense for the alliance to welcome new members simply because Russia doesn’t want them to join: The Kremlin is, on principle, against any kind of NATO expansion.
If the U.S. really wants to get its European partners to spend 2 percent or more of their GDP on defense, that goal won’t ever be accomplished by accepting more countries that don’t.
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