Seventy years ago next week, President Harry Truman led the United States and 11 other nations in establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a defensive alliance to protect Western Europe against Soviet aggression. Since 1949, NATO has grown to include 29 member countries, becoming the world’s largest peacetime military alliance — and history’s most successful, preserving peace in Europe and deterring conflict. For decades, support for NATO has been among the most bipartisan of issues, a unifying force at home and abroad.
But today the alliance faces worrisome challenges.
Earlier this year, I attended the annual Munich Security Conference as part of a bipartisan delegation from the U.S. Congress. Although I have attended many such conferences, this year’s was different. There was palpable concern among key European leaders over two issues facing NATO: the decline of liberal democracy in some European countries and our president, Donald Trump.
The first trend predates Trump’s election. Over the past five years, there has been troubling backsliding among some of the younger democracies in the NATO alliance. Hungary is now ruled by the populist autocrat Viktor Orban, who has built increasingly close ties to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Poland, too, has taken a concerning turn toward authoritarianism. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed ever more expansive powers for himself, while taking the previously unimaginable step of purchasing Russian missile defense systems, which could endanger American pilots.
The combined military might of its members, though formidable, does not alone account for NATO’s enduring success. The heart of the alliance — known as Article 5 — is the readiness to come to the aid of any member state if it is attacked. The credibility of that deterrent is only as strong as our mutual ties. Shared democratic values — what Truman described as a “common heritage of democracy, individual liberty, and rule of law” — have bound NATO allies together since the group’s founding. But with the spread of autocracy, there is a danger those ties will wither.
The rise of authoritarianism in Europe is exacerbated by the views and actions of President Trump, who seems to cheer democratic backsliding by strong-man leaders, while savagely criticizing our staunchest European allies and the NATO alliance as a whole.
For decades, NATO support has been a unifying force across political lines. But as a candidate and now as president, Trump has reserved some of his most bitter rhetoric for the alliance, calling it “obsolete” and “ridiculously unfair” to the U.S., and demanding that “delinquent” member countries “pay up.”
The president’s attacks on NATO have been resisted by both parties in Congress, and even within his own administration. Last December, Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis wrote in his resignation letter that our country’s strength is “inextricably linked” to the strength of our “unique and comprehensive system of alliances.” The late Republican Sen, John McCain said that by “questioning our obligations under NATO, the president is playing right into Putin’s hand.”
Yet the president’s views on NATO seem unchanged. President Trump is considering demanding that countries pay “cost plus 50%” for hosting U.S. forces, treating our allies as if they were delinquent borrowers. These attacks take a collective toll. Increasingly, our European allies are concerned there could come a time when the support of the United States could not be assured in the face of an emboldened Russia.
NATO serves as a crucial counterweight to Russia, which in recent years has invaded Crimea and Ukraine and worked to destabilize Western democracies. Trump’s searing attacks on the alliance serve Putin’s strategic interests, since Russia benefits from any division between the U.S. and Europe, real or perceived. His comments undermine our collective security and strengthen our adversaries.
Absent presidential leadership, Congress is working hard to shore up the most successful alliance in history. In January, the House of Representatives passed the bipartisan NATO Support Act to bar the president from withdrawing the United States from NATO. I was proud to join a recent delegation to NATO and the European Union to reaffirm support for our allies. And perhaps most importantly, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invited NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, to address a joint session of Congress in honor of NATO’s 70th anniversary..
If President Trump does not yet understand that NATO is the most successful security alliance in history, Congress does, and we will not allow the president to jeopardize our national security and abandon our democratic allies.
As McCain said, “Americans, and their Congress, still believe in the transatlantic alliance, and it is clear that our allies still believe in us as well." The United States, together with our NATO allies, must carry the torch of democracy and human rights at a time when both are increasingly at risk.