KEEPING THE POWDER KEG DRY: Let’s Celebrate Montenegro’s One-Year NATO Accession Anniversary

Montenegro Shutterstock/Tjasa Razinger

Ari Mittleman and C. Darren Evans Observers of the Balkans
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This week marks the one-year anniversary of the raising of Montenegro’s flag at NATO Headquarters as the 29th member of the Alliance. The occasion, after Montenegro’s formal accession on June 5, demonstrated a renewed collective security effort in the face of contemporary asymmetrical and unconventional threats to American values.

Montenegro, a country with a population smaller than that of the District of Columbia, has been a steadfast contributor to collective security for the past nine years. The numbers are small but the troop percentages and messaging from the smallest Western Balkan country cannot be ignored. From Mali to Afghanistan, Montenegro has aligned its policies to support counterterrorism, anti-pirating, peacekeeping, and stability in the Western Balkans.

The Western Balkans should not be overlooked. The countries of the former Yugoslavia deserve Washington’s full attention. The region includes young countries, but ancient rivalries.

We were honored to be in Montenegro during the historic trip of Vice President Pence last August. He stated eloquently, “The Western Balkans show the diversity of Western civilization — a beautiful mosaic of free countries and peoples — each with their own unique histories, cultures, languages and traditions and all of which deserve to be cherished, celebrated, and protected.”

One year after NATO enlargement, American values — transparency, equal justice, freedom of the press and rule of law — must constantly be fostered in what has been often called the “powder keg of Europe.”

In the lead up to NATO enlargement, the relationship between the United States and the region received significant attention across not only Washington, but also world capitals of friends and foes alike.

The accession of Montenegro to NATO was a clarion call across the Western Balkans that NATO’s entryway remains open. Resounding bipartisan support from Capitol Hill demonstrated that European allies which share American values and are ready to contribute to the common defense, are welcome in the most successful defense alliance in history.

Outside influence in the Western Balkans should be celebrated, but only when political and business entreaties do not further division based on the past and further indebt these new democracies dreaming of what is possible in a shared future.

Fortunately, Congress has devoted hearing time to analyze stakeholders maneuvering in the lead-up to planned October elections in Bosnia. Indeed, in December 2014 the United States sanctioned the Night Wolves motorcycle club — often called “Putin’s Angels” — for their activity in Ukraine. In March, they were in Bosnia. Last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proclaimed to a crowd of over 12,000 in Bosnia, “today we saw true friendship and brotherhood.” Both instances attracted minimal attention in the United States.

Defense Secretary James Mattis makes clear on the first page of the National Defense Strategy, “China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics.” This year China has firmly planted its flag in the EU. Beating Austrian and Italian private firms, state owned China Road and Bridge Corporation will construct the Peljesac Bridge along the rapidly growing Adriatic coastline.

Croatia is the newest member of the European Union and European cohesion funds are being used to pay the Chinese to construct the bridge. In Slovenia, the first EU member of the former Yugoslav states, China State Construction Engineering has signed a nearly-$770 million airport upgrade.

There is an expression in Montenegro, “In good times, it’s easy to be good, but in adversity, heroes are recognized.” Now is the time for American “heroes” to take a whole of government approach to renewing our focus on the region.

Last July, President Trump stated clearly during his trip to Poland: “A strong Europe is a blessing to the West and to the world.” The strength of Europe will be determined by its youngest countries. The democracies of the Western Balkans — each less than 25 years old — have their best years ahead.

In the months ahead, it is imperative for Washington to focus on creative ways to “mentor” and engage with government, nonprofit and private sector leaders in each country of the Western Balkans.

Ari Mittleman is the publisher of www.BalkanInsider.com. He has worked, lived and traveled extensively across the Western Balkans. C. Darren Evans is a retired Special Forces lieutenant colonel and diplomat who served as the U.S. Senior Defense Official to Montenegro in the run-up to Montenegro’s NATO invite.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.