Montenegro and the “Manchurian Candidate”

The manchurian candidate 1962 poster | CC BY 2.0

At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Hollywood released a suspense thriller, “The Manchurian Candidate,” that centered on a Korean War veteran who had been captured and brainwashed by his North Korean captors.  Following his release and discharge from the U.S. Army, the veteran becomes an unwitting assassin, a sleeper agent, involved in an international communist conspiracy to subvert and take over the U.S. government.

President Donald Trump is not a “Manchurian candidate,” but in an interview with Fox News immediately after his summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he used language that could have been drafted in the Kremlin.  Responding to a question on NATO and Montenegro, President Trump harshly criticized the wisdom of any mutual defense arrangement with Montenegro, a reference to NATO’s Article 5, the mutual defense commitment for the alliance’s 29 members. The exchange is one more indication that Trump’s obsequious behavior toward Putin is a result of being compromised in some fashion, either due to money laundering or even salacious behavior in Moscow.

Using language that Putin may have used in his secret talks with Trump in Helsinki, the U.S. president warned that Montenegro and its “very aggressive people” could trigger World War III.  In response to the interviewer’s question, “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack,” Trump stated that he has “asked the same question.”  After all, Trump said, Montenegro Is a “tiny country with very strong people…. They are very aggressive people.  They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.”

Trump then tried to dissociate himself from any defense commitment to Montenegro by claiming that “I just got here a little more than a year and a half ago.”  In fact, Montenegro joined NATO in June 2017, Trump’s first year in the White House, and immediately deployed 40 soldiers to NATO’s military mission in Afghanistan. Montenegro and its population of 640,000 can have no real military role in NATO, but the political impact on Moscow of even a small Slavic nation in NATO is enormous.

For two decades, Putin has been a strong opponent of NATO’s expansion, which was in fact a betrayal of the assurances of President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker to then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze that the United States would not take advantage of the reunification of Germany by “leap-frogging” over Germany to seek influence in East Europe.  The expansion of NATO by President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made no strategic sense from the outset, drawing the lines of the Cold War closer to Russia in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union.  Putin noted recently, moreover, that Bush’s abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 marked the start of a renewed Cold War.

Trump’s willingness to support Putin’s foreign policies is striking.  At the summit itself, he allowed Putin to claim equal standing for Russia with the United States in a relationship with “special responsibility for maintaining international security.” Putin’s efforts to divide Europe by weakening NATO and the European Union were bolstered by Trump’s bizarre behavior over the past several weeks, which included the branding of key members of the European Union as “foes” of the United States.  His attacks on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May were particularly outrageous as he intensified the chaos he had created at the earlier G-7 meetings.

From the start of his presidency, Trump has take numerous steps that have isolated the United States, and provided openings for both Russia and China to take more prominent roles in dealing with regional security issues and multilateral diplomacy.  The withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership were counter-productive, and even Putin used the Helsinki summit to criticize Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Trump’s trade war with our most important trade partners, particularly Mexico and Canada, have created opportunities for our economic competitors. The leaders of the European Union recently held important talks on trade in China and Japan, signing the largest free-trade agreement in history in Tokyo.  France and Germany have commissioned study groups on creating leverage against the United States on trade issues.

Trump’s egregious actions, which include the Muslim travel ban; the immigration nightmare; the condemnation of Third World countries; and the unleashing of xenophobic advisors such as Steven Bannon and Stephen Miller, have further diminished the standing of the United States in the international community.  Meanwhile, Trump has thoroughly dismissed the greatest threat to U.S. governance by failing to convene a cabinet-level meeting or to chair a National Security Council gathering on Russia’s intervention in the 2016 presidential election.

The management of foreign policy requires an astute national security team as well as diplomatic skill and attentiveness.  The first 18 months of the Trump presidency, particularly the Helsinki summit, provide strong evidence that the Trump administration has none of the required tools.  Furthermore, the trashing of America’s justice and intelligence communities has created an unprecedented threat to our credibility in the international arena.  The major beneficiaries of U.S. saber-rattling are Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for