NATO officials on Wednesday scrambled to reassert the alliance's collective defense clause — commonly referred to as Article 5 — after US President Donald Trump appeared to suggest NATO's newest member Montenegro could instigate World War III.
A NATO official told Germany's DPA news agency that Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty was "unconditional and iron-clad," reaffirming that "an attack on one is an attack on all."
In a television interview Tuesday night, Trump appeared to cast doubt over the US' commitment to defending NATO partner Montenegro in the event of an attack. Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked Trump "why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack," to which the president responded "I've asked the same question."
Trump went on to describe Montenegrins as a "very strong" and "very aggressive people."
"They may get aggressive and congratulations, you're in World War III," he added. "It's very unfair because they aren't even paying and we are protecting them."
Montenegro is NATO's 29th and newest member, having joined in June 2017. According to official figures, its defense spending amounts to €66 million ($76 million), or around 1.66 percent of GDP. It says it will meet the 2 percent defense spending target by 2024, as agreed by other NATO members.
With a population of just over 620,000, the tiny Balkan country also contributes more troops per capita to the war in Afghanistan than the US.
Montenegro's opposition party reacts
Responding to Trump's chiding comments, the liberal opposition United Reform Action (URA) party said there was nothing to suggest "Montenegrin citizens could participate, or cause any kind of incident that could lead to war conflicts."
"We call on President Trump not to worry about the non-existent war ambitions of Montenegro, but to try to understand our democratic system," the party said in a statement, before blaming the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists and Prime Minister Dusko Markovic for damaging Podgorica's image abroad.
Caught between NATO and Russia
Trump's comments came on the back of last week's NATO summit in Brussels, in which the US president initially appeared to cast doubt over Washington's defense commitments due to shortcomings in spending.
The president has long contended that smaller NATO member states take the US' defense commitment for granted without wanting to share the financial burden.
The president's criticism of Montenegro also follows Monday's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland. Moscow has long opposed further NATO enlargement and vocally denounced Podgorica's accession to the alliance last year. The country is also among the frontrunners in the Balkans for accession to the European Union.
Read more: Montenegro 'entered the West' through NATO
According to reports in Montenegro, Russia even attempted to organize a coup in a bid to derail Montenegrin accession. Fourteen people are on trial for attempting to assassinate then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovicduring the 2016 election.
Trump also has history with the small Balkan state. At last year's NATO summit, the president pushed aside Markovic as the leaders prepared for a group photo, almost elbowing him in the face.