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‘Dormant NATO’ Is the Best Hard Choice

That won’t stop those who believe in priorities from being dubbed “unpatriotic conservatives” anew.

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Longtime readers of The American Conservative are no stranger to making common cause with people on the left when necessary. The effort to forestall decades of disaster in Iraq may have failed, but it was not TAC alone in that defeat; the magazine’s editors were dubbed “unpatriotic conservatives” not only because they were antiwar and David Frum loved the war, but explicitly because in seeking to avert a debacle they had made “common cause with the left-wing…movements.” So doing, it was suggested, and is still suggested, violated a friend–enemy distinction that placed them outside the political bounds of, if not the country, at least the conservative movement. The war party dismissed appeals to prudence and constraints, conflating resistance to the war with terrorist sympathies. 

Today, you can be a patriotic conservative and agree with Democrats, apparently, but only if it is about Trump—not about liberal overreach. The war party still resists the prudential recognition of limited resources, and its right wing will find such recognition all the more difficult when it entails agreement with members of the traditional left. But the national political distinction that matters in our moment is between those who put the interests of American citizens and their posterity first and those who don’t, often hiding behind gestures toward an abstract idea of America. This is a distinction that cuts across conventional affiliations, leaving both parties in upheaval, as the Democrats become the party most comfortable with liberal internationalism and the global financial elite. Everyone should be prepared, going forward, to find perhaps temporary allies of convenience to both his right and left. 

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For those who seek to put America first, NATO reform presents a new risk of being associated with people neoconservatives will dismiss as leftists. So be it. A recent essay in Foreign Affairs by Max Bergmann, currently of the Center for Strategic and International Studies but formerly of the Center for American Progress, argues for a “more European NATO.” His call pairs nicely with what Sumantra Maitra, my colleague both here at TAC and at the Center for Renewing America, calls a “dormant NATO” strategy for the United States, something Bergmann acknowledges negatively, framing his case as a matter of insurance against such policies. 

Nevertheless, the two perspectives are harmonious. In a time of limited resources, and thus ruthless prioritization, American policymakers must focus on managing our relationship with China and responding to China’s relationship with the rest of the world. If, as Bergmann suggests and Maitra has proposed, Europe can fulfill the core purposes of NATO without America as principal, then embracing that reality gives U.S. policymakers one less distraction. The benefits are not one-sided in the long term. Bergmann writes that the main problem facing Europe collectively “lies with NATO’s overdependence on the United States.” 

In a world where even President Biden’s Democrat administration is preoccupied with the situation in the West Pacific, this is an obvious vulnerability for martially atrophied European member states. The traditional major threat to U.S. grand strategy is the emergence of a hegemonic power that dominates the Eurasian landmass and thus, surpassing the United States in material and cultural resources, can afford to strike North America across the oceans. The reality now of the global political and economic situation is such that this threat slouches not toward Europe, as it did in the 20th century’s conflicts with Germany and Russia, but instead moves its slow thighs in Asia. American focus is turning, if still in starts and stops.

Thus NATO should be, or will be by events, demoted from a critical global institution to a vital regional one. As Bergmann writes, “After decades of drift, the alliance has found new purpose in deterring Russian aggression, its original raison d’etre,” and the European members of the alliance are capable of such deterrence largely without the United States. Bergmann acknowledges that “when Americans travel to Europe, they see sophisticated infrastructure and citizens who enjoy high standards of living and robust social safety nets.” 

Being one of those rare professional liberals with enough imagination to model a normal person’s thoughts, he adds, “They cannot understand why their tax dollars and soldiers are needed to defend a well-off continent whose total population far outstrips that of the United States.” 

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This highlights, however, a peculiar pretense in discussions of NATO’s future. What Bergmann passes over as “decades of drift” have also been decades of enthusiastic enumeration of new responsibilities for the alliance, as it transformed itself from a straightforward defensive arrangement into a full-suite security organization executing military interventions far outside the European theater, let alone the North Atlantic. For decades, NATO has been looking for things to do, and finding some. So when officials outraged by the dormant NATO proposal claim there is nothing to scale down, nothing for America to decline to participate in, that the alliance is just what it has always been, there should be some outrage in return. 

In fact, the alliance has evolved, so it can evolve further. Defenders of a smaller role for the United States will have to be prepared, however, just like defenders of the status quo, to set aside compunctions about agreeing with members of “the other team.” As NATO has become so much more than for keeping Russia out, it has not ceased from also being, in Lord Ismay’s famous words, for keeping “the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Conservative interventionists will resist a European-led or dormant NATO with invocations of future war on the continent; reliance on American firepower, they say, is the only thing keeping member states off each other’s throats. In making this argument, they will probably have the support of both small states concerned at the prospect of further dependence on France and Germany and a European left happy to keep the defense burden squarely on American shoulders. 

Meanwhile, a coalition for making American troops the backstop of last resort, rather than the backbone of forward defense, will be no less offensive to American prejudices. France may be our oldest ally, but after two World Wars, bickering with Charles De Gaulle, and observation of the country’s creative riot and vacation schedule, her reputation with American conservatives is the stuff of jokes. That reflects the shortness of U.S. memories far more than France’s civilizational status, and will need to be overcome. France has always wanted to play a larger role in NATO, repeatedly snubbed by the Anglo-American special relationship. A French-German-British triumvirate backing up the alliance’s Eastern border states would work as well at preserving peace for the foreseeable future as the current imbalanced consulship. 

Foreign policy does not fit tidily within domestic partisan divides, because it deals with delimiting that domestic area. It is too large. Like immigration policy, it conditions these other debates, creating what I have described before as a political order of operations. At the beginning of this column, I defined our new disruptive national political distinction in domestic terms, but I conclude now with the distinction that divides foreign policy, because it is the distinction that bounds other debates. The defining division in American foreign policy today is over the status of unipolarity. 

No one denies that, after 1989, the U.S. experienced a period of hyperpower; the question is whether three decades of bipartisan liberal hubris at the end of history undermined that hegemony beyond repair. Committed liberal internationalists believe unipolarity can be salvaged, that America needs only assert herself on the battlefield and further entrench in the multilateral institutions of the last century. They still think in the Cold War terms of “hawks” and “doves,” and accuse those who have come to terms with reality—an increasingly bipolar global order and a multipolar future—of inviting and even ushering in these conditions. (Never mind who has been at the controls for the last 30 years). The advocates of making the best hard choices can be sure they will still be called “unpatriotic conservatives.”   

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