NATO Brass Due In D.C. Amid Tensions

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

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This should be fun. It turns out that on April 4, there is going to be a gathering in Washington to mark the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty. There’s no telling what will happen. Only last month, when many of the allies gathered for an annual security conference at Munich, there was so much grumbling about the Trump administration that it was lucky a war didn’t start all over again.

Well, not quite. Vice-President Pence, though, failed to offer an endorsement of NATO as essential to America’s defense policy. The Europeans offered neither a united front nor a vision for their defense future; President Macron shrank from even showing up. In an unprecedented abasement, our former vice president, Joseph Biden, said his own country has become an “embarrassment.”

So downbeat was the mood that some reckon it may yet come to mark the end of NATO as we have known it in the postwar era, with blame inevitably being cast on President Trump. He’s described the leading European powers as economic rivals, who do not pay their fair — what an annoying word — share of the West’s security. He unilaterally pulled America out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Not to mention his announcement of troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan and his intent to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. The House of Representatives was so aroused that, with bipartisan Republican support, it passed in January the NATO Support Act. It attempts to tie the President’s hands by denying any funds necessary to withdraw from the alliance.

Mr. Trump, as he has done with many sacred cows, is asking a fundamental question: Is NATO, which obligates us to go to war to defend any one of 28 other members, still worth the cost? Is it the best vehicle to assure America’s own security? What exactly are the threats it is designed to counter? It turns out that 70 years ago, there were those in Washington asking similar questions.

Genesis of the North Atlantic Treaty came in 1947. That was the year President Truman declared his doctrine of opposing communism in Greece and Turkey. And the year the Marshall Plan was proposed. Discussions for a collective security pact began with our and Western Europe’s diplomats. Urgency was added in 1948 by the Soviet backed coup in Czechoslovakia in February and the Berlin blockade in June.

Secretary of State George Marshall and his camarilla, as Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas have noted, were initially hesitant at yet another set of multilateral commitments; Marshall had been dubious of the open-ended character of the Truman Doctrine. Truman, facing a Republican Congress elected in 1946, was preoccupied with shrinking the defense footprint, balancing the budget, and winning re-election.

Two Republicans, Assistant Secretary Robert Lovett and Senator Arthur Vandenberg, recognized the Soviet threat, and drafted the June 11, 1948 Vandenberg Resolution, an extraordinary document cleverly positioned as a codicil to the UN Charter. It committed America to the defense of Western Europe. In an election year, it passed the Republican-controlled Senate by a vote of 82 to 13.

The bipartisan nature of this commitment remains remarkable, and all the more so following Truman’s upset election victory. Dean Acheson became Secretary of State. He was firmly anti-Soviet and leveraged the Vandenberg Resolution as the basis of the North Atlantic Treaty. On July 21, 1949, it was ratified in the Senate, becoming part of what the Constitution calls the Supreme law of the land.

Yet the treaty had important opponents. George Kennan, the State Department planner and father of containment, was concerned his analysis of Soviet conduct was being hijacked by a growing defense establishment. As an alternative to NATO, Kennan proposed a unified, neutral and demilitarized Germany as the key to ending the East-West standoff.

Kennan argued that neutralizing Germany would inspire a significant draw-down of Soviet and American forces in Europe, permit our policy to focus on European economic reconstruction, and blunt the forces intent on pushing the country into unlimited overseas military commitments. Robert Taft, Republican leader in the Senate, had a libertarian streak and saw foreign affairs differently from Vandenberg.

An opponent of government overreach of the New Deal, Taft was similarly opposed to the overextension of American military and economic power abroad. He fought Senate ratification of the Treaty, and opposed subsequent military aid to the European signatories. Like Henry Cabot Lodge in 1919, he opposed appeals to bipartisanship that might abrogate the role of the Senate in making foreign policy.

Both Kennan and Taft believed Acheson and his circle were exaggerating the global Communist threat to justify the major military buildup even Truman had continued to resist. NATO initially served more as a political alliance than a military pact and prospects for significant funding were uncertain — until a tide of events changed the country’s view of the global Communist threat.

The Soviet development of atomic weapons, the loss of Free China to Mao’s forces, and North Korea’s invasion of Free Korea in the south were all consequential: between 1947 and 1953, American defense spending a percent of our national output had tripled, and the Cold War was well underway. It formed the context in which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Atlanticist structures were built.

President Trump’s call for America First echoes arguments of Kennan and Taft 30 years ago. NATO and America may have won the Cold War, but that does not mean America is foreordained to be the permanent leader of the global order. While Mr. Trump recently had a change of heart, as recently as December he actually asked Defense Department to consider a cut of between 3% and 5% in its 2020 budget.

Brookings’ Michael O’Halloran has argued that Mr. Trump does not view China or Russia as existential threats. He sees them as competitors whose challenges can be solved by negotiations that ultimately find a middle ground. His willingness to walk away from the Hanoi summit with Kim Jong-un adds credibility to that bilateral posture, showing he won’t make deals for deals’ sake.

Mr. Trump may not want America to give up being NATO’s locomotive. He is, though, is clearly our European allies to play a stronger role in maintaining their own defense, and contributing politically and financially to a program for containing Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. We’ll see early next month how the Trump-Kennan-Taft worldview resonates with the rest of the Alliance.


Mr. Atkinson, a contributing editor of the Sun, covers 20th century history. IMAGE: Signature of Secretary of State Acheson on the North Atlantic Treaty. United States Diplomacy Center via Wikipedia.

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