Earlier this year, as the Senate approved Finland and Sweden joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., offered a straightforward amendment to clarify in law that “Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty does not supersede the constitutional requirement that Congress declare war before the United States engages in war.” The Senate rejected the measure 87-10. In arguing against the need for clarity, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said, “Now, it’s well and good for Congress to consider war powers and a role in military conflicts, but doing so … while Ukraine is under attack and while Russia may be potentially eyeing violence against NATO nations is not the time.”
But now is the time to reconsider how the alliance was originally understood when the U.S. first joined NATO. During the Senate debate in 1949 on whether to ratify the North Atlantic Treaty that would formally establish NATO, intervention skeptics raised concerns about binding the U.S. to a collective defense of Europe and wanted to ensure ratification did not supersede the war-making power of Congress. Secretary of State Dean Acheson provided such assurances, saying ratification, “does not mean that the United States would be automatically at war if one of the nations covered by the pact is subjected to armed attack. Under our Constitution, the Congress alone has the power to declare war.”
Today, the faltering will of Congress on matters of war and peace could not come at a worse time. Russian President Vladimir Putin is threatening the use of nuclear weapons in order to defend annexed territory in Ukraine. In a response now seen by the Kremlin as further provocation, Ukraine officially submitted its application for fast-track membership to the NATO alliance. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said of Ukraine, “De facto, we have already proven compatibility with alliance standards. … We trust each other, we help each other, and we protect each other.”
To turn up the heat even more, the U.S. foreign policy establishment believes the U.S. would and should respond to any use of nuclear weapons by Russia, even if solely contained within Ukraine’s borders, all but guaranteeing the conflict would spill into NATO territory. Former CIA Director David Petraeus said, “Just to give you a hypothetical, we would respond by leading a NATO — a collective — effort that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea.” U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. has had the “opportunity to communicate directly to Russia a range of consequences for the use of nuclear weapons and the kinds of actions the United States would take” but declined to offer any indication of what could be included.
Reinterpretation of Obligations
Why did the U.S. abandon the strategic sanity expressed at NATO’s inception? Over time, a collectivist reinterpretation of U.S. obligations as a part of the NATO alliance emerged, supposing that an invocation of Article V mandates a U.S. military response to both an attacked NATO country as well as protectorates NATO has allowed under its de facto guardianship. Presidents make this collectivist interpretation possible by continually demonstrating an ability to circumvent Congress and engage the U.S. in undeclared, unconstitutional, and often endless wars. It is no wonder Europe feels enveloped in the safety of the U.S. security umbrella and has little incentive to provide for its own defense. It is no surprise Ukraine believes it is entitled to enjoy the same luxury.
The uncomfortable reality is Article V doesn’t require any specific response from any NATO member. The only commitment member states undertake in the event of an armed attack are “such actions as it [each individual member state] deems necessary” to restore the security of the region. No treaty would ever successfully supersede the sovereignty of individual states, particularly not by binding a group of nations to a future war.
The Founders also understood the importance of protecting the self-determination of the United States and the need to guard against foreign entanglements and influence. It is why the power to make treaties is shared. It is why Congress and Congress alone is vested with war-making. But the protections only work if Congress plays offense against the reckless global gallivanting of the president and defense against its own internal temptations.
Congress is failing on both accounts. President Joe Biden’s promise of unwavering support for Ukraine, deployments to the European theater, and massive arms commitment have all gone completely unchecked. In fact, Congress continues to blindly affirm, in a bipartisan fashion, policies toward Ukraine that make it nearly impossible for the U.S. to exercise any restraint as the risk of being drawn into nuclear war in Europe grows.
For the American people, burnt out on years of endless wars in the Middle East, Congress must draw red lines. Romney is wrong. Now is exactly the time for Congress to find its backbone. President Biden and NATO need a reminder that Ukraine is not a NATO ally, and even if it were, no military response could go forward without a vote of Congress. Passive members of Congress that allow anything less do not deserve another term.