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SMALL COUNTRY, BIG STORY: MONTENEGRO EDITION

SMALL COUNTRY, BIG STORY: MONTENEGRO EDITION

The tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro just can’t catch a break from President Trump. At last year’s NATO summit, Forty-Five famously shoved the country’s prime minister aside to billow his way into a photo op. But earlier this week, the US president took a more ominous swipe at Montenegro, which has been a NATO ally since last summer.


In an interview with Fox – his and his supporters’ favorite TV network –  he cast doubt on whether the US would, or even should, come to Montenegro’s defense under NATO treaty obligations. To defend those “very aggressive people” could provoke “World War III” he said.

For background, Montenegro is a country of 650,000 people that was part of the former Yugoslavia and was conjoined with Serbia until gaining full independence in 2006. Since the late 1980s, it has been run more or less by one person, the wily Milo Djukanovic, a one-time ally of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who turned towards the West in the late 1990s, and guided the country towards joining NATO last year. That move inflamed nationalists at home as well as in Russia, which views any eastward expansion of NATO as a challenge to its sphere of influence. The Montenegrin government has even accused Russia of backing a bizarre, failed coup attempt in 2016 meant to stop its push to join NATO.

Aside from piquing Montenegro, whose government responded in a decidedly non-aggressive way, Trump’s comments raise a critical question about his views on NATO itself. It’s one thing if he simply sees NATO as a ripoff, in which case accelerated defense spending by other members can keep him reluctantly on board. It’s quite another if he is opposed to alliances of this kind at all, under any circumstances – which is what his comments on Montenegro suggest. After all, an alliance is only as good as its commitment to its weakest members.

The challenge of finding and funding a coherent new purpose for NATO in the 21st century is a real one, as we wrote here. But the search would be moot if its most powerful member sees no point.

A word from the polls: Trump’s not alone on this. Almost half of Americans – two thirds of Republicans and four in ten Democrats – say the US shouldn’t come to NATO countries’ defense unless they are meeting the defense spending target of 2% of GDP. Montenegro currently clocks in at about 1.6%.

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

With the transition of power formally beginning now, what can we expect between now and inauguration day?

Well, there's a couple of important deadlines between now and Inauguration Day. The first is the December 14th meeting of the Electoral College, which will make the state certifications official and will make Joe Biden officially president-elect in the eyes of the US government. Another really important date is going to be January 5th, which is when Georgia has its runoff for the two Senate seats that will determine majority control in the Senate. If the Republicans win one of those seats, they'll maintain their majority, although very slim. If the Democrats win both of the seats, they'll have a 50/50 Senate with Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote and slightly more ability to enact Joe Biden's agenda next year. Also, between now and Inauguration Day, we're going to see Joe Biden announce his cabinet and senior staff. Most of whom will probably get confirmed fairly easily early, earlier ... Excuse me, later in January or early in February. And of course, we're going to see what President Trump is going to do next. I think that it's still a little bit up in the air what his post-presidency plans are. He has yet to concede the election. So, anything is possible from him, including a lot of new executive orders that could try to box Biden in and limit his options when it comes to economic policy, foreign policy, and social policy.

What can we expect out of the Biden administration's first 100 days?

Well, the biggest priority of the Biden administration first is going to be to confirm all of their cabinet appointees, and that should be pretty easy at the cabinet head level for the most part, even with a Republican controlled Senate. It's going to be a little more difficult once you get below the cabinet head, because then you're going to start to see some more ideological tests and some more policy concerns be flushed out by Republicans in the Senate. The second thing you're going to see is Biden start to undo as much of the Trump legacy as he can, and his primary vehicle for doing this is going to be executive orders, which is a lot of what president Trump used in order to enact policy. Expect Biden to reenter the Paris Climate Accord on day one and expect him to start undoing things like Trump's immigration orders and perhaps reversing some of his decisions on trade. Yet to be determined is if Congress is going to have fully funded the government for the entire year in December in the lame-duck session, and if they haven't, Biden's going to have to work out a deal probably in March or so to do that.

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