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Congress has NATO’s back, despite Trump’s unilateralism

Surveys show deep bipartisan support for the alliance.

Congress doesn’t agree on much these days, but one thing that still has bipartisan support is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this week. Congress will mark the milestone by hosting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who will address a joint session of the House of Representatives and Senate on Wednesday.

Speeches like this tend to be symbolic in nature — but the bipartisan congressional invitation to Stoltenberg to deliver the high-profile address represents the latest effort by U.S. lawmakers to preserve America’s commitment to NATO at a time when President Trump has called that commitment into question. The event also underscores the continuation of a broader struggle between Trump and internationalists in both parties over the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

Here are five ways Congress has defended NATO in the Trump era.

1. Congress has NATO’s back.

Three weeks ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi extended the invitation to Stoltenberg on behalf of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and herself. The invitation, which called for strengthening the “critical alliance,” followed other congressional actions triggered by concerns about Trump’s attitude toward NATO — particularly his oft-stated skepticism of the alliance’s value and belief that NATO is a financial drag on the United States.

In 2017, the Republican-controlled House and Senate passed resolutions to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which requires NATO members to come to one another’s defense.

More recently, reports that Trump was considering withdrawing from NATO mobilized further bipartisan support for NATO. In January, the House voted 357 to 22 to approve a bill that would prohibit the appropriation or use of funds to withdraw from the alliance. In the Senate, a bipartisan group of sponsors reintroduced related legislation that would prohibit withdrawal without the approval of two-thirds of the Senate.

2. Leaders in both parties support NATO.

There is deep bipartisan support for the alliance. The 2016 Chicago Council Leadership Survey — conducted after Trump had won the Republican nomination for the presidency — found that only 5 percent of Democrats and 11 percent of Republicans in foreign policy leadership roles in and out of government favored reducing the U.S. commitment to NATO.

In fact, 87 percent of Republican and 94 percent of Democratic foreign policy leaders and experts supported either increasing the U.S. commitment to NATO, or keeping the U.S. commitment the same. There are, of course, critics who question the need for NATO in a world without the Soviet Union, but politically there remains strong bipartisan support for the alliance at the elite level.

Foreign policy leaders and experts in both parties also value multilateral backing for military interventions — though Republicans tend to be less enthusiastic than Democrats about global institutions. Our research shows that Democratic and Republican leaders, by margins of 18 percent and 15 percent, respectively, are more likely to support military intervention backed by the U.N. Security Council vs. unilateral interventions.

3. Congress is challenging Trump on other issues, too.

The congressional invitation to Stoltenberg is part of a broader pattern in which lawmakers in both parties are taking on a variety of Trump’s foreign policies. In 2017, Congress restricted Trump’s ability to lift sanctions on Russia — and imposed new Russian sanctions despite Trump’s opposition to the legislation.

In each of the past two appropriation cycles, Congress rejected Trump’s proposals to slash U.S. spending on diplomacy and foreign aid by as much as one-third, keeping funding in those areas roughly constant rather than cutting it. In 2018, Congress also aimed to reassure U.S. allies and partners of the U.S. commitment to Asia, with measures such as the Taiwan Travel Act and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act.

In 2019, the House and Senate approved bipartisan resolutions to end U.S. military involvement in the war in Yemen. And the Senate approved a resolution rebuking Trump’s announced plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria.

There are also growing signs that Trump may be unable to persuade Congress to approve the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement the United States negotiated last year as a replacement for NAFTA.

4. Bipartisanship and polarization coexist on foreign policy.

To be sure, other areas of foreign policy are subject to sharper partisan polarization in Washington. More Democratic than Republican leaders believe that limiting climate change is an important U.S. foreign policy goal — and more Republican leaders prioritize controlling and reducing illegal immigration.

Republicans are also more supportive than Democrats of the potential use of military force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And Democrats are more supportive of the Iran nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew.

But when it comes to U.S. alliances around the world, foreign policy leaders in the two parties — aside from Trump — find themselves broadly in agreement, though perhaps for different reasons.

Also in agreement is the American public. Yes, surveys show public concern about unity among NATO allies — 57 percent of Americans say alliance unity is weaker now than it was 10 years ago, including four in 10 Republicans.

But public support for the U.S. commitment to NATO remains strong. Three in four Americans favor maintaining or increasing the U.S. commitment to NATO, including large majorities across party lines. In short, polarization is a serious problem in U.S. foreign policy, but NATO policy and many other international issues remain ripe for bipartisanship.

5. Congress is signaling to both Trump and U.S. allies.

The Stoltenberg invitation and other recent pro-NATO steps by Congress are designed to constrain Trump and reassure members of the alliance. Domestically, these moves signal to Trump that he will face strong congressional opposition to any efforts to pull the United States further away from NATO. Such bipartisan opposition could be politically harmful to Trump by suggesting to voters that his foreign policy is misguided.

Internationally, the congressional actions signal to U.S. allies that other American leaders will continue to push hard for a more pro-NATO orientation in U.S. policy. Such signaling may help encourage America’s allies to stick out the current rough patch in transatlantic relations, rather than realigning their own foreign policies away from the United States.

Beyond the Trump presidency, avoiding major swings in U.S. policies toward allies and international agreements will be critical to rebuild and maintain the credibility of U.S. commitments to a rules-based international order.

Jordan Tama is an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University. Follow him @ProfJordanTama.

Joshua Busby is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. Find him on Twitter @busbyj2.

Craig Kafura is a research associate for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a Pacific Forum Young Leader. Follow him @ckafura.

Joshua D. Kertzer is the Paul Sack Associate Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University. Follow him @jkertzer.

Jonathan Monten is a lecturer in political science and director of the International Public Policy Program at University College London.