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Inside the Republican drift away from supporting the NATO alliance

The isolationist posture of some Republicans is in line with the ‘America First’ ethos of Trump, the GOP’s de facto leader who has long railed against NATO

Banners displaying the NATO logo are placed at the entrance of the new NATO headquarters during the move to the building in Brussels on April 19, 2018. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
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In early 2019, several months after President Donald Trump threatened to upend the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during a trip to Brussels for the alliance’s annual summit, House lawmakers passed the NATO Support Act amid overwhelming bipartisan support, with only 22 Republicans voting against the measure.

But this month, when a similar bill in support of NATO during the Russian invasion of Ukraine again faced a vote in the House, the support was far more polarized, with 63 Republicans — 30 percent of the party’s conference — voting against it.

The vote underscores the Republican Party’s remarkable drift away from NATO in recent years, as positions once considered part of a libertarian fringe have become doctrine for a growing portion of the party.

The isolationist posture of some Republicans is in line with the “America First” ethos of Trump, the GOP’s de facto leader, who has long railed against NATO. Last week, speaking at a Heritage Foundation event in Florida, Trump implied that as president he had threatened not to defend NATO allies from Russian attacks as a negotiating tactic to pressure them to contribute more money toward the organization’s shared defense.

The vote also comes against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has catapulted NATO to its most prominent role in decades. And it comes as some hawkish Republicans seek to cast themselves as stronger opponents of Russia than Democrats.

Metin Hakverdi, a German lawmaker who chairs the North America working group within the ruling Social Democratic Party, said the question that preoccupies him is, “Was Donald Trump the exception, or will Joe Biden be the exception?”

Some two dozen House GOP lawmakers who voted for the 2019 NATO Support Act voted against the similar resolution this month, which reaffirmed support for the alliance and its principles. But in interviews, several of those House Republicans said they still support the organization and simply objected to what they viewed as problematic provisions that Democrats had added to the bill for perceived political purposes.

Several who switched their votes since 2019 objected to measures they said did not specifically address strengthening NATO to help Ukraine. Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) found it particularly problematic that the resolution instructed NATO to be involved when a country has “internal threats from proponents on illiberalism,” which he says could be interpreted as conservatism.

“I am a huge supporter of NATO — I served in the Air Force during the Cold War, worked with NATO during that time period,” he said. “These issues should be left to those individual nations.”

Loudermilk argued that Democrats had inserted “poison pills” into the symbolic resolution, which could be used against Republicans in the 2022 midterms. “It was the Democrats trying to politicize something and add things in there that we have no business working on,” he said, explaining his vote against the bill.

Donald Trump's effort to rewrite history on his support of NATO and Ukraine

Similarly, from Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.): “I am wholeheartedly, unequivocally, without reservation, supportive on NATO.”

But Aderholt said he worried that the resolution “had some language in that I thought went on the political side. And I don’t want to see NATO go political. I want to see NATO stand up for, you know, what’s going on in Ukraine — stand up for Ukraine against Russia.”

The two bills are not exactly the same. The legislation in 2019 reaffirmed that federal money should not be used to remove the United States from NATO — which Trump was threatening at the time — while the bill from this month called on the government to “uphold the founding democratic principles of NATO,” as well for NATO “to continue to provide unwavering support to the people of Ukraine as they fight for their sovereignty, territorial integrity, and a democratic future.”

Another sign of the party’s isolationist wing emerged Thursday, as the House passed an update to a World War II-era military bill creating a lend-lease program intended to make it easier for the United States to supply Ukraine with military aid. Only 10 lawmakers — all Republicans — voted against the measure.

In an exchange earlier in the week between Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was testifying before Congress, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Paul pushed back on Blinken’s assertion that over the years Russia has shown a willingness to attack countries like Georgia that are not part of NATO, while giving wider berth to countries that are members of the alliance.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on April 26 said while there was no “justification” for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there were “reasons” for the invasion. (Video: Reuters)

“You could also argue the countries they’ve attacked were part of Russia, or were part of the Soviet Union,” said Paul, who was one of just two senators who voted against a 2018 bill reaffirming support for a NATO, in what was at the time a pointed rebuke of Trump.

“Yes, and I firmly disagree with that proposition,” Blinken responded.

For some foreign policy experts and international allies, the mere fact that nearly one-third of the Republican conference voted against a bill that fundamentally seeks to support both NATO and Ukraine highlights a marked foreign policy evolution in the Republican Party.

“We now are really seeing the true impact of deep, deep political polarization, where it is better to harm the other side than do what’s right for the country,” said Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund. “This deep domestic polarization has now crept into foreign and security policy. There has always been strong bipartisan support for NATO, but everything now has become polarized and can be weaponized against the other side, even if it supports U.S. national security interests.”

Many European diplomats breathed a sigh of relief when President Biden, a staunch Atlanticist, denied Trump another term in 2020. Now, 16 months later, Biden’s role in marshaling Western allies behind Ukraine — and his recent vow to protect “every inch of NATO territory” — has alleviated doubt in Europe about U.S. commitments, at least in the short term.

But Europeans who were heartened by the outcome of the last American election are beginning to eye upcoming contests, including this year’s midterms and the 2024 presidential race. Their apprehension about a Republican takeover of Congress, which could revive Trump’s brand of foreign policy, is offset by hope that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will strengthen the Republican Party’s internationalist wing and compel the party to lock arms with Europe.

“I’m very concerned about the situation in America — the split of the society, the concentration on domestic issues, the underestimation of the importance of America’s international role,” said Thomas de Maizière, a former center-right lawmaker and high-ranking government minister in Germany who co-chaired a NATO working group convened in 2020. “But there are Republicans we work excellently with, and I would expect them to take on a larger role if their party takes power.”

Whether that assessment reflects an accurate reading of Republican politics is an open question. The answer, however, is existential in Europe, where the fallout from the war in Ukraine has showcased the importance of the United States and the limits of aspirations for European autonomy on matters of technology and defense, according to lawmakers and diplomats.

Flash points are already coming into view. In 2020, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg started a working group aimed at strengthening NATO. The group’s final product, “NATO 2030: United for a New Era,” included proposals, such as the creation of a Center for Democratic Resilience, that have been scorned by pro-Trump Republicans, including many of the 63 Republicans who recently voted against the House resolution affirming support for NATO.

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The outcome of that vote surprised even Trump’s former ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, who argued that the U.S. commitment to the alliance has remained ironclad across administrations, despite bellicose rhetoric.

“I was nonplussed by that vote,” she said in an interview.

A diplomat from a Baltic state, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating U.S. partners, called the vote a “Trump effect.”

“But how many voted for it?” the diplomat added. “The mainstream is clearly in favor of NATO and strengthening NATO.”

Similarly, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), the co-chair of the Senate NATO Observer Group, who just returned from a trip to the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, said the recent Republican votes against NATO were “poorly timed,” but he dismissed the 63 House Republicans as an “inconsequential” number.

Amid the war in Ukraine, Tillis said, “this is a time where the alliance has really proven its mettle.”

Another European diplomat said the war in Ukraine has caused European nations to address some of the complaints leveled by Trump, including insufficient spending on defense and reliance on Russian oil and gas. Those were the two issues raised by the former president when he criticized Stoltenberg at an alliance summit in 2018.

“It should no longer be a big issue for his supporters,” the diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid on a sensitive issue.

But for some, the changes are not enough. Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), who voted against the recent resolution, said he objected not to NATO but to its future direction, which in his view places too large a burden on the United States and involves too much promotion of specific values.

The resolution’s affirmation of “unequivocal support” risks being mistaken for unconditional support, Davidson said. When asked whether he could envision the United States exiting the alliance — as Trump considered with former advisers — Davidson said the real issue is rather whether other member nations who are not spending sufficiently on defense should leave the club.

“Is there a point where America would consider pulling out? It’s something we should discuss,” said Davidson, an Army veteran who was stationed in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. “The better question is whether there’s a point where we would say to other member countries, ‘This might not be your place — you’re disinvited.’”

Davidson said he objected in particular to the resolution’s endorsement of the Center for Democratic Resilience, which he called an “entity designed to meddle in other countries’ domestic politics.”

Disagreements have broken out among member nations over the erosion of democracy within the alliance, with criticism directed in particular at Turkey, Hungary and Poland. A Central European diplomat said objections to the democracy center reflect admiration for the likes of Hungary’s Viktor Orban in other Western nations.

De Maizière echoed that view, saying his primary concern about upcoming U.S. elections was that “right-wing Republicans are drifting away from this common path of Western values.”

“But I have confidence that you more or less win elections in the middle in America, not at the extremes,” he added. “In the end, perhaps Biden will lose Congress, but I don’t see Trump again as president.”

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Radoslaw Sikorski, a Polish member of the European Parliament who chairs the body’s delegation for relations with the United States, said Ukraine “is the second big issue on which Republicans and Democrats agree, after China.”

“Ukraine has given new credibility to the Atlanticist wing of the Republican Party, which I find encouraging,” said Sikorski, a member of his country’s centrist Civic Platform party and a prominent critic of the ruling, right-wing Law and Justice party. “There seems to be competition in being pro-Ukrainian and wanting to stop Putin.”

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), the co-chair of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus and the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Europe subcommittee, said a significant portion of House Republicans are “more libertarian in their foreign policy,” a position with which he disagrees.

“We’re certainly going to have a lot of these talks with my colleagues, particularly next cycle, if there’s any assault on NATO that is launched,” Fitzpatrick said. “I will tell you that NATO needs to be reformed significantly. But it is absolutely critical that it be maintained because without NATO, dictators are going to, it’s going to be the Wild West internationally.”

Tommy Vietor, a National Security Council spokesman under Democratic President Barack Obama, said: “It’s a pretty shocking turn.”

“There’s an appropriate and important conversation to be had about the history of NATO expansion and whether it was well-thought-through,” said Vietor, now a co-host of “Pod Save America.” “But you didn’t see people in either party really fundamentally questioning the value of the alliance.”

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.