How important is NATO for U.S. national security? American conservatives have long debated this question.
In early 1951, General Dwight Eisenhower met with Senator Robert Taft (R., Ohio), his rival for the Republican presidential nomination. Eisenhower offered Taft a simple deal: If the senator, who had voted against the formation of NATO two years earlier, would commit to supporting the Western alliance, Ike would end his candidacy and Taft would have a clear shot at the White House. Taft declined his offer. Eisenhower eventually resolved to win the election and, in so doing, he preserved America’s burgeoning alliance system in Europe. As he told Congress that February, “in a world in which the power of military might is still too much respected, we are going to build for ourselves a secure wall of peace, of security.”
Eisenhower went on to preside over eight years of relative peace and prosperity, in part through a sensible commitment to international policies of peace through strength. Ike’s commitment to U.S. alliances and collective defense was part of this package, and it became a baseline for successful Republican foreign-policy presidencies after his, including Ronald Reagan’s.
Today, we again see questions of whether and why conservatives should support NATO, this time from the perspective that the Soviet Union collapsed long ago.
President Trump has emphasized the need for America’s European allies to spend more on their own defenses and to wean themselves off Russian natural gas. He is right to do so, and recent NATO commitments to increase defense spending by $100 billion suggest that such criticism may be having a positive effect. Over the years, Trump has also more than once raised the question of whether NATO is still an asset or has become a liability instead. For American citizens to ask this question is not outrageous. The question deserves an answer.
The conservative case for NATO is not that it strengthens liberal world order. Rather, the conservative case for NATO is that it bolsters American national interests. In an age of great-power competition, as identified by the Trump administration, America’s Western alliance provides the U.S. with some dramatic comparative advantages. The United States, Canada, and their European allies have a number of common interests and common challenges with regard to Beijing, Moscow, terrorism, cyberattacks, migration, nuclear weapons, and military readiness. NATO is the one formal alliance that allows for cooperation on these matters. It is also the only alliance that embodies America’s civilizational ties with Europe — a point forcefully made by President Trump when he visited Poland in 2017. Properly understood, NATO helps keeps America’s strategic competitors at bay, pushing back on Russian and Chinese influence. In all of these ways, the U.S. alliance system in Europe is a bit like oxygen. You may take it for granted, but you’ll miss it when it’s gone.
Now consider the alternative. American withdrawal from NATO would be a grave error. Not only would it surrender the above advantages and undo existing progress in Europe. It would also have negative long-term implications globally pertaining to America’s foremost long-term strategic challenge: namely, the People’s Republic of China. As Beijing extends its influence worldwide, U.S. disengagement from NATO would send the signal that the United States is an unreliable friend. America’s allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific would have to rethink the integrated security architecture we have painstakingly built since Eisenhower’s day. This is not to mention the obvious and immediate tactical and operational military advantages that would accrue to Russia in Europe, shifting the balance of power against the United States.
The irony is that the Trump administration actually has a success story to tell about its policies toward NATO and Russia, particularly in Europe. Under this administration, the U.S. has provided lethal aid to Ukraine to fight off Russian-backed insurgents. It has made no concessions to Moscow regarding that conflict. It has increased sanctions against Russia and boosted America’s military presence in Eastern Europe. It has increased funding to the European Defense Initiative, bolstered U.S. defense spending, held Russia accountable for its breach of the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) Treaty, and explored the place of low-yield nuclear weapons as a necessary component of the American arsenal to deter Russian aggression. At the same time, the president’s calls for increased European defense spending have had some useful effects. Virtually all NATO allies have increased their levels of defense spending over the past two years. As president, Mr. Trump has regularly reiterated his support for NATO. The concomitant emphasis on allied burden-sharing is not unreasonable, as Eisenhower regularly insisted.
In keeping with its treaty powers under the U.S. Constitution, Congress should not be passive on this issue. Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill to express continuing congressional support for the NATO alliance. The bill passed by a vote of 357 to 22 in the House of Representatives. The Senate is working on similar legislation.
Public-opinion polls taken over the last three years show that a solid majority of Trump supporters, conservatives, Republicans, and Americans continue to back the NATO alliance. Conservative voters in heartland states such as Wisconsin certainly expect Europeans to do their fair share in defending themselves. But they do not oppose NATO. On the contrary, they support it.
An overarching support for America’s Western alliance has been a key component in the conservative foreign-policy approach since Eisenhower’s time. It remains relevant to this day. As conservative Republicans and other Americans consider the costs and benefits of the U.S. alliance system, recall Ike’s wise recommendation: “Now boys, let’s not make our mistakes in a hurry.”
Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.) represents Wisconsin’s eighth district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Colin Dueck is a professor in the Schar School at George Mason University and a Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.