At the forthcoming NATO summit, President Donald Trump should tell the other 28 other members what Congressman John Randolph of Virginia told Greek proponents of American military assistance during their war of independence against the Ottoman Empire: “Let us say to those seven millions of Greeks, ‘We defended ourselves, when we were but three millions against a Power, in comparison to which the Turk is a lamb. Go and do thou likewise.’”
In short, President Trump should tell the other NATO nations that the United States will no longer defend them from external aggression unless Congress declares war as is constitutionally required by the Declare War Clause of Article I, section 8, clause 11.
Then Trump should announce a Make America Great Again (MAGA) doctrine of “Invincible Self-Defense.” That means he will engage the armed forces only in self-defense against actual or imminent aggressors towards the United States, and only if Congress declares war or directs the offensive use of the military. He should explain that the Constitution prohibits the president from initiating war based on treaties or executive agreements, and that while he wishes for freedom and liberty everywhere, he will fight only to defend that which is ours.
If Mr. Trump refrains from doing this, he will be acting, as presidents before him, as though he is the elected president of the world rather than president of the United States alone.
Article V of the NATO treaty, which requires signatories to treat an attack on one as an attack on all, cannot override the Constitution. Treaties are ratified by two-thirds majorities in the Senate, but the House has no voice as is required for a declaration of war. James Wilson, delegate to the Constitutional Convention and later a Supreme Court justice, explained Article V to the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention:
This system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress, for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large; this declaration must be made with the concurrence of the House of Representatives; from this circumstance we may draw a certain conclusion, that nothing but our national interest can draw us into a war.
The Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty because it would have unconstitutionally pledged the United States to defend every border in the world without a congressional declaration of war. To avoid a similar debacle, Article 43 of the United Nations Treaty requires a congressional declaration before the United States Armed Forces can be deployed in combat under United Nations Security Council auspices. That understanding is fortified by Section 6 of the United Nations Participation Act. Article 11 of the NATO treaty similarly requires a congressional declaration to defend NATO members from aggression under Article 5. And the United States Supreme Court confirmed in Reid v. Covert (1957) that a treaty cannot override the Constitution.
Mr. Trump has commendably chastised America’s NATO partners for their skimpy financial contributions to the joint enterprise. No other president has displayed such moxie. But the NATO flaw is deeper, and President Trump needs to go further. The MAGA doctrine of Invincible Self-Defense should echo President George Washington’s Farewell Address:
[N]othing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated…. It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.
British foreign minister Lord Palmerston expressed similar views: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow….”
Self-interest dictates the foreign policy of all nations. The stigma of Judas Iscariot is no deterrent, for foreign policy betrayals are commonplace. The United States is no exception. We urged a Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union in 1956, but refused to lift a finger against the wicked Soviet retaliation. We organized a Kurdish insurrection against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 1972, but abandoned them to his cruel whims in 1975 after Iranian and Iraqi leaders settled their border dispute. We urged a Shiite uprising in Iraq in 1991 against Saddam, but stood idly by while the Sunni dictator massacred his own people.
Contrary to what the critics might say, the MAGA doctrine of Invincible Self-Defense would not give birth to existential threats caused by Chinese or Russian aggression.
First of all, it is doubtful that our defense commitments to foreign nations are necessary to deter these powers. President Jimmy Carter revoked the Taiwan Defense Treaty effective in 1980, and China refrained from aggression against Taiwan for 37 years. The Philippines expelled the United States from Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base 1991 and 1992 respectively, yet the Chinese have not attacked (though China has recently asserted maritime claims opposed by the Philippines). China also didn’t enter the Korean War until we threatened its sovereignty with troops along the Yalu River.
China did attack unified Vietnam in 1979 after we pulled out, but it was smartly defeated. Today, as with the Philippines, China is disputing maritime waters with Vietnam. But neither dispute threatens the sovereignty of the United States. And Japan’s “Self-Defense Forces” would deter Chinese aggression without the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty.
Even if China did initiate wars of aggression against its neighbors, they would diminish rather than strengthen any threats to United States sovereignty. China would spend huge military and financial resources on suppressing insurgencies that would deter potential confrontations with United States (akin to the constant upheavals in Central and Eastern European Soviet satellites before the beginning of the end of the USSR in 1989).
At present, Russia’s annual military spending approximates $60 billion, a tiny fraction of United States defense expenditures. Even assuming the MAGA doctrine of Invincible Self-Defense causes Russia to employ military force to recreate the Soviet Empire or beyond, the expansion would be unsustainable for the same reasons the Soviet Empire collapsed: the staggering military and financial costs of suppressing hostile populations.
In defending the MAGA doctrine of Invincible Self-Defense, President Trump should summon the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln as the United States gazed abroad at multiple empires destined for extinction in 1837:
Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a (Bonaparte) for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years [against our unsurpassed armed forces].
Trump needs to remember these words as he steps the ocean on his own trip this week.
Bruce Fein was associate deputy attorney general and general counsel of the Federal Communications Commission under President Reagan and counsel to the Joint Congressional Committee on Covert Arms Sales to Iran. He is a partner in the law firm of Fein & DelValle PLLC.