A quarter-century ago, the U.S. Senate was faced with a major question: whether to ratify expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to include Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, which would bring the alliance closer to Russia’s border. The public generally supported NATO expansion, as did both President Bill Clinton and his 1996 GOP opponent, Bob Dole. Still, one foreign policy expert at the time said the ratification would require a “feat of magic”: Support for NATO expansion was shallow, and senators had hugely varied priorities.
Complicating matters, a Republican-controlled Senate had never joined with a Democratic president to expand NATO. Indeed, that partisan dynamic resulted in the defeat of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
In the end, though, Republicans provided the bulk of the votes to make it happen. The ratification passed in “strikingly bipartisan” fashion, as The Washington Post recounted at the time. It reached the required two-thirds threshold with plenty of votes to spare; 45 of the 80 “yes” votes came from Republicans.
Times have certainly changed.
On Tuesday, 63 House Republicans voted against a symbolic resolution reaffirming support for NATO and its principles, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The “no” votes comprised more than 30 percent of the party’s conference.
As with any such symbolic resolution, it’s worth parsing exactly what it contains. Oftentimes, these resolutions are crafted to force the other party into a politically difficult vote by including smaller provisions or loaded language they might object to, then accusing them of opposing the overall (and often popular) thrust of the bill.
But even accounting for those details, this vote marks the latest shift away from what was once a bipartisan, consensus view in Congress — supporting NATO and its importance in keeping Russia in check. And the shift continues apace.
Few Republicans have commented on their reasons for opposing the resolution, but writer Will Saletan previewed the vote Tuesday by noting a number of ways in which the party has drifted in a more Russia-ambivalent and even NATO-skeptical direction. Among the emerging views he isolated: that NATO was at fault for provoking Vladimir Putin, that we should focus instead on our own Southern border, and that the United States has no business defending European allies, whether in NATO or otherwise.
Why did so many House Republicans vote against the NATO resolution?— Will Saletan (@saletan) April 6, 2022
Here's a dismaying report on what some of them have argued:
1) NATO provoked Putin's invasion
2) America has no responsibilities in the world
3) Russia is no worse than Canada or the US. https://t.co/h7keSqfA9r
Among the few Republicans to comment on their vote was one of the party’s most anti-NATO voices, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.). He called NATO “a relic of the Cold War” and asked, “Why should Americans pay for Europe’s defense?”
But while that view exists in some corners of the party, it’s one of the most extreme expressions of the party’s posture toward NATO. Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), another of the 63 “no” votes, articulated a more nuanced position on Wednesday morning.
Davidson noted that, apart from the bill’s main provision — reaffirming “unequivocal support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as an alliance founded on democratic principles” — the bill contains two other provisions. It calls on President Biden to:
- “Adopt a new Strategic Concept for NATO that is clear about its support for shared democratic values and committed to enhancing NATO’s capacity to strengthen democratic institutions within NATO member, partner, and aspirant countries.”
- “Use the voice and vote of the United States to establish a Center for Democratic Resilience within NATO headquarters.”
3. Unequivocal support should not mean unconditional support. I'm encouraged that NATO countries, especially Germany, are finally taking their treaty obligations seriously. President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo made the case, but apparently, Putin finally convinced them->— Warren Davidson (@WarrenDavidson) April 6, 2022
Of these provisions, Davidson said, “America’s sovereignty is nonnegotiable. I suspect other countries feel the same. … We should be strengthening the alliance, not reimagining it as a tool to interfere in one another’s domestic politics.”
Some have gone so far as to suggest the provisions will provoke Hungary, where recently reelected Prime Minister Viktor Orban has taken the country in an increasingly undemocratic direction. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) made that case Tuesday, also referencing Poland, which has been accused of democratic backsliding in recent years.
But Davidson also made clear he didn’t like even the main provision of the bill. He suggested affirming our “unequivocal support” was tantamount to lending our support unconditionally. That is highly debatable, but it reinforces that today’s NATO debate is not just over the finer details — people are also calling into question just how far our support for NATO and its core principles goes. And it’s not just Massie walking down that road.
But the road is being walked down, and that has continued after a presidency in which Donald Trump called our NATO commitments into question and Republicans, for the most part, kept him in check. During his presidency, Trump reportedly sought to leave the alliance entirely — but back then, Congress repeatedly responded with a united voice.
The Senate in 2018 passed a bill reaffirming support for NATO 97-2 — a pretty direct rebuke to Trump given that he was, at that precise time, traveling to a NATO summit in Brussels (and would later go to Helsinki, the site of his infamous news conference with Putin). Weeks later, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would have prevented Trump from withdrawing from NATO. By 2019, the House passed a bill dubbed the “NATO Support Act,” which would have prevented using any funds “to take any action to withdraw the United States from the North Atlantic Treaty.” Again, the vote was overwhelmingly bipartisan; just 22 Republicans opposed it — a who’s who of the most extreme members of the party. (The bill was not taken up by the Senate.)
GOP opposition to the latest resolution in support of NATO is significantly higher. And that’s despite the new measure being entirely symbolic and its predecessor having been seen, very logically, as a rebuke to Trump. The 2019 measure had also called for supporting “robust United States funding for the European Deterrence Initiative, which increases the ability of the United States and its allies to deter and defend against Russian aggression.”
One wonders how those same House Republicans would vote on such a measure today. Regardless, all of it suggests the party is still evolving on this issue — and certainly not in a pro-NATO direction.