Few in Congress had more conservative credentials than Robert Taft, the anti-New Deal senator from Ohio. He believed in American exceptionalism, fiscal responsibility and limited government. And ... he was dead-set against the United States participating in NATO.
The alliance, he warned, "was more likely to incite war than to deter it. ... How would we feel if Russia undertook to arm a country on our border, Mexico, for instance?"
Taft was wrong.
The alliance helped keep the peace. It helped make Western Europe free and prosperous. In the end, NATO outlived the wall that Moscow erected to divide East from West. It is equally hard to argue that the U.S. suffered from its commitments. America finished the Cold War as free as when it started, and far more prosperous.
It would be mistake to conflate Taft's misjudgment with his conservative values. Participating in alliances, like most decisions about safeguarding the vital interests of the nation, are not ideological choices. They are matters of strategy.
Today, though the heads of state dined on nothingburgers at the recent alliance summit in Chicago, America faces a new set of critical decisions about its participation in NATO. And, now as ever, we need solutions based on strategies, not politics.
First, Washington must come to grips with some cold, hard facts. America still needs NATO. Bases and forces in Europe are invaluable for reaching global hot spots. If we didn't have these capabilities, we would need twice as many planes, ships and troops to respond to distant crises, and it would take twice as long and cost twice as much to perform the same missions. Evacuating our NATO bases would be like, while on an extended business trip to Denver, going back home to New York to get money out of your bank instead of using the hotel's ATM.
Further, the notion that we can walk away from Europe and never worry about another regional conflict is very risky business. Russia is still a disruptive power; just ask the Georgians. The Balkans are still unsettled; just as ask the Balkan nations. Iran is meddling on Europe's doorstep; just listen to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And Europe is on the edge of an unprecedented fiscal crisis: talk to the Greeks and Spaniards.
If Washington wants to keep NATO from going the way of the Holy Alliance, it needs a positive, constructive long-term agenda.
Step one is to re-energize NATO from the bottom up, with the U.S. focusing a lot more on enduring bilateral relationships built on trust and confidence. America's special relationship with Britain is vital, but it is not enough to keep the alliance healthy.
Step 2: The U.S. should press NATO to focus on its core commitments: regional peace and security. There one big lesson learned from Libya and Afghanistan is that NATO really can't do significant "out of area" operations without the U.S.
Step 3: Insist that NATO stay superserious about strategic deterrence. What is needed is a defensive posture that commits to a combination of offensive and defensive arms (including sea, land and space-based missile defense) and conventional and nuclear forces to defeat any strategic attack on alliance members.
Step 4: Push NATO to start letting new countries in. The more the alliance comprises the family of Europe, the less the family is likely to squabble.
Too little of this agenda was on the table in Chicago. Hopefully, a realistic and positive program will be on Washington's priority list for the next meeting.
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.