Multi-Lateralism for Multi-Lateralism’s Sake

While I am in material agreement with the core point of Stephen Wertheim’s New York Times op-ed—that President Biden is putting too much unconditional support behind NATO:

Even before today’s NATO summit, President Biden settled the most important question: He affirmed America’s commitment to defend the alliance’s 30 members by force. And despite divisions on many other foreign policy issues, his party stands in lock step behind him. To most Democrats, alliances symbolize international cooperation. Proof positive is that Donald Trump supposedly sought to tear them down.

Yet current progressive enthusiasm for NATO is anomalous. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, depriving NATO of its original reason for being, skeptics of the alliance included liberals as much as conservatives. In 1998, 10 Democratic Senators joined nine Republicans in opposing the first, fateful round of NATO enlargement, which would soon extend the alliance to Russia’s border.

Among the dissenters was Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. In between voting against the first Iraq war in 1991 and the second after Sept. 11, Mr. Wellstone warned that expanding NATO would jeopardize Europe’s hard-won gains. “There is peace between states in Europe, between nations in Europe, for the first time in centuries,” he said. “We do not have a divided Europe, and I worry about a NATO expansion which could redivide Europe and again poison relations with Russia.”

Events have proved him wiser than his party seems to think. The left has ceded criticism of NATO to the right, mistaking armed alliances for friendly partnerships and fixating on Mr. Trump’s rhetoric instead of his actions.

I don’t think he goes quite far enough. A good place to start would be with Lord Ismay’s famous wisecrack about NATO’s purpose: “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. I would have little problem with that mission statement but it has largely been abandoned or, at least, there is no consensus about it among present NATO members. Germany, in particular, seems to want the Russians in and the Americans out. It’s not entirely clear to me why the Biden Administration’s support for NATO is as full-throated as it is other than

  1. It’s the opposite of Trump’s rhetoric (although consistent with his actions)
  2. NATO makes a handy body to approve intervention the United Nations Security Council won’t approve and
  3. Support for multi-lateralism for it own sake.

If I recall correctly then-Sen. Biden was a strong, vocal supporter of the second round of NATO expansion which, as far as I can tell, served no purpose other than to “poison relations with Russia”. It certainly didn’t strengthen the alliance.

But this statement by Mr. Wertheim took me aback a little:

For progressives who seek to end endless wars and prevent new ones, the matter of Europe can no longer be skirted. The United States can trust Europeans to defend Europe.

Other than a few backbenchers, who are these progressives “who seek to end endless wars”? President Biden? I remain unconvinced that he’s a progressive. And I’ll believe we’ve left Afghanistan after it happens and not before. As far as I can tell both political parties are dominated by interventionists.

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