Taking on the Conventional Wisdom about NATO at the Council on Foreign Relations

It should surprise no one that Cato tends to be an outsider in Washington. At least on the domestic policy side we usually have some allies hiding somewhere along the ideological spectrum. Conservatives are more likely to support free markets; liberals are more likely to back civil liberties.

But on foreign policy Cato often stands pretty much alone. Almost everyone in the foreign policy field can be counted on to endorse every existing alliance and insist that it be “strengthened.” No matter that the Cold War is over, Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact are gone, Maoist China has disappeared, and most of America’s friends and allies have “grown up,” becoming democratic and prosperous. Whatever has been must always be is the seeming motto for liberals and conservatives alike on foreign policy.

Unfortunately, most of the debate in Washington occurs between opposing establishment advocates of the status quo. Everyone knows we should intervene. The only questions are how much more bombing is appropriate, what new tactics might prove to be more effective in imposing Washington’s will, and, most important, how to get a different result doing a lot more of the same?

But I recently had an opportunity to crash an establishment event. Actually, perhaps more surprising, I was invited to participate. The Council on Foreign Relations staged a discussion on NATO’s future in which I joined James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at the American University. Thom Shanker of the New York Times served as moderator.

It was an eminently civil affair, as Council events almost inevitably are. Goldgeier enjoys disagreeing without being disagreeable; in fact, he has participated in Cato events at our invitation. Shanker, a long-time reporter before ascending to editor, has strong interest in the issues and knowledge of the facts. The audience joined in, asking good, serious questions.

Perhaps most striking was the fact that everyone appeared to acknowledge that the alliance was seriously dysfunctional, with European countries unwilling to spend much on their own behalf while expecting America to make up any gaps. Where Goldgeier and I disagreed was whether the organization was too important for Washington to abandon. He thought so, while I contended that the end of the Cold War and rise of Europe allows America to finally turn over defense duties to those being defended.

The audience also seemed greatly frustrated with the behavior of our “allies.” While I can’t say the majority were ready to join my “out of NATO” parade, they did not seem shocked by my criticism of Washington’s most important pact. Even on foreign policy Cato’s ideas increasingly have a place in serious policy discussions. That’s all to the good, given how dramatically status quo ideas have failed. Especially in the international arena.

We still have a long way to go to change policy. But events continue to affirm the warnings that Cato scholars have made since the Institute’s founding about the dangers of promiscuous intervention. I look forward to more events, like that held by the Council, to make the case for a foreign policy that more effectively protects America—its people, territory, market economy, constitutional order, and dedication to individual liberty.