The Senate's Dereliction of Duty on NATO Expansion

Image: “Polish soldiers, assigned to the 34th Armor Cavalry Brigade, conduct a Vehicle Identification exercise on their Polish Leopard tank, as part of the Strong Europe Tank Challenge (SETC), at the 7th Army Joint Multinational Training Command’s Grafenwoehr Training Area, Grafenwoehr, Germany, May 10, 2016. The SETC is co-hosted by U.S. Army Europe and the German Bundeswehr, May 10-13, 2016. The competition is designed to foster military partnership while promoting NATO interoperability. Seven platoons fr

They failed to ask tough questions—and now we must live with the consequences.

Jim Webb, writing in these pages several years ago, castigated the U.S. Congress for its unwillingness to take up its Constitutionally-mandated responsibilities to conduct vigorous oversight of American foreign policy. Future historians are likely to add to his bill of particulars the Senate providing a rubber stamp to the several rounds of enlargement of the North Atlantic alliance, without weighing the costs and obligations of willy-nilly extending U.S. security guarantees.

When the Washington Treaty creating the NATO alliance was presented to the Senate in 1949 for ratification, there was a vigorous debate over its utility. As C. L. Sulzberger chronicled in his contemporaneous reporting for the New York Times, Senate approval of the pact was neither foreordained nor automatic. In the end, many Senators reluctantly cast votes in favor in order to send a clear signal to Josef Stalin that the United States would actively resist Soviet aggression, but the arguments marshalled by Senator Robert Taft nonetheless fell on sympathetic ears in the chamber (and convinced twelve others to join him in voting against the treaty).

Taft had argued that the U.S. should have extended unilateral security guarantees only, rather than sign a treaty of alliance, because “We could judge whether perhaps one of the countries had given cause for the attack. Only Congress could declare a war in pursuance of the doctrine.” Taft enunciated concerns that the new alliance might shift from defensive purposes to a more active encirclement of the Soviet Union, and so provoke the war it sought to prevent. He also raised a more prosaic concern: that of free-riding on the part of allies who might grow dependent on U.S. largesse rather than take more steps to secure their own defense.

Because of the extended debate in the Senate, the members of the upper house heard, weighed, and assessed Taft’s objections, and most rejected them, taking the position that the security of the United States would be better protected by investing in the alliance and accepting the obligations of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty that an attack on one would be considered an attack on all. This helped to create an enduring bipartisan consensus even when control of the White House and of the Congress shifted back and forth between the parties. Most importantly, the Washington foreign-policy community made clear, compelling and persuasive arguments to “Main Street” that protecting allies in Europe was directly and intimately connected to the security and prosperity of the average American.

For most Americans, the perceived utility of the NATO alliance declined with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Anxious for a peace dividend, the general public was susceptible to the siren call for America to “come home.” The strategy of “democratic enlargement” was meant to replace containment of the Soviet Union as the principal justification for continued American engagement around the world, not by focusing on an existential threat to the homeland, but about the increased benefits that would accrue to Americans—a growing number of partners who would assume more of the burdens previously shouldered by the United States while expanding markets for American goods and services.

Yet it was not immediately obvious after the collapse of the USSR that a strategy of democratic enlargement would require the expansion of the NATO alliance to encompass new members from the states of the former Soviet bloc. Certainly no one headed the scattered calls for dissolving the alliance at the end of the Cold War, because the organization remained a pillar of Western European security and an important part of the U.S. national-security toolbox. But the initial proposals to reassure the democratizing states of central and eastern Europe that had just escaped from the Soviet bloc focused on security cooperation efforts and sets of guarantees. It seemed that the argument Taft lost in 1949 might prevail in the 1990s: the United States would offer its own defensive commitments, but in a manner that would give Washington a great deal of freedom of assessment and action. This would prevent it from being drawn into situations that enhanced neither U.S. interests nor U.S. security, or that risked a possible clash with a post-Soviet Russia by locking the United States into automatically taking the side of Russia's neighbors in the event of any dispute (over borders, the status and treatment of minority groups, and so on).