Who Cares About NATO?

NATO countries

Trump’s administration is hostile to international agreements such as the Paris Climate Accords, NAFTA, NATO and The Trans-Pacific Partnership. America first, he insists.


On a recent European trip, the president did not explicitly commit to NATO’s Article V, its mutual aid clause, an affirmation that other NATO members were hoping for in light of his criticisms on the campaign trail. He did jab allies for “chronic underpayments.”


Should the US have binding agreements with other countries? It’s a debate we’ve seen before.


We love you guys, but. . .


After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson dreamed of a just and lasting peace. Britain and France, on the other hand, dreamed of gutting Germany for good. When the Versailles Treaty ended the war, Wilson conceded the punitive parts because he had another agenda.


His dream was the League of Nations, a quixotic quest that may soon be dramatized in a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio based on a new biography by A. Scott Berg. (Wilson’s rise from history professor at Princeton University to NJ governor and the presidency were also depicted in an eponymous 1944 film, Wilson.)


Wilson called World War I, “the war to end all wars.” He made it his mission to prevent another massive global bloodletting. But Wilson’s League faced an adamantly opposed Senate.


The sticking point? Article X of the League Covenant, which required all League members to come to the defense of any League member under attack. To Wilson, this was the backbone of the whole thing: no aggressor would dare attack any member knowing he would be up against the entire League. (A similar provision required League members to share weapons systems and intelligence, another blow to national sovereignty.)


Unconstitutional, protested many senators.


They correctly noted that Constitution assigns to Congress, not to some world council, the sole power to declare war. It would be a blow to American sovereignty to surrender its war making powers. If Bora Bora attacked Tahiti, the US would be legally obligated to join the fight. The League would chronically embroil the US in global conflicts. Isolationist Senator William Borah led the “Hell no caucus.” 


Some senators proposed a compromise: that Wilson remove just Article X, but Wilson, ever the purist, refused. Republicans wouldn’t relent and the treaty failed to get two-thirds of the Senate. The US never joined the League.


woodrow wilson

President Woodrow Wilson


Now there’s. . .NATO


A similar drama unfolds now. Article V of the NATO treaty assigns the same responsibility, mutual defense, to all its members.


NATO was established after World War II between the US and 12, now 28, countries across North America and Europe. It was palatable to Americans because of its limited membership. The threat of Soviet tanks rolling into western Europe scared America into supporting NATO.


Ironically, the US was the first to invoke Article V, to get help with invading Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.


Trump’s refusal to endorse mutual defense has shaken allies. After the Trump visit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany would not rely on “others” anymore. More recently Merkel spoke against isolationism and protectionism and invoked the Marshall Plan, in which the US helped rebuild Europe after WWII and lessened trade barriers.


To NATO or not


The 2016 election echoes the issues of a century ago; America has a clear choice in its direction.


America is lucky enough to have wide oceans on two sides, and friendly North American neighbors. Why not stay out of anything that doesn’t threaten its own soil directly? Yet it was easier to be isolationist in the 1800s, when President James Monroe’s Monroe Doctrine separated us from the Europeans. Now we have planes, bombers, drones and cyberwarfare. It’s not as simple.


It may be tempting to return to isolationism, but it’s not possible. Already the Trump administration has bombed Syria, angering some of his supporters.


In 1940, as the Nazi beast swarmed through Europe, Winston Churchill  implored FDR for American aid against Germany, but Roosevelt held out as long as possible because of isolationist sentiment at home. Then came Pearl Harbor, and the rest is history.


Now that the NATO house has been built, it’s a difficult property to abandon. Woodrow Wilson would be heartened.



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