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Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


To mark the 75th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization this week, a statue of former President Harry Truman is being installed at the U.S. ambassador to NATO's residence in Brussels. It's a fitting tribute. Truman was commander in chief when the U.S. became a founding member of NATO, and the transatlantic alliance shares many of the traits that defined him, including a resolute, responsible commitment to collective defense.

Defense of territory, to be sure. But also something even more profound, as defined by Dwight Eisenhower, the president who succeeded Truman. "We do not keep security establishments merely to defend property or territory or rights abroad or at sea," Eisenhower said in 1954. "We keep the security forces to defend a way of life."

The support from successive presidents, one a Democrat and the other Republican, had endured on a bipartisan basis through subsequent generations. Until, that is, the presidency of Donald Trump, who as a candidate called the alliance "obsolete." More recently, at a campaign rally, Trump told the crowd that "one of the presidents of a big [NATO] country stood up and said, 'Well, sir, if we don't pay and we're attacked by Russia, will you protect us?' I said, 'You didn't pay? You're delinquent? … No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.'"

A statement like that undermines NATO's deterrence effect "by creating a lot of uncertainty in the minds of our allies and maybe giving false hopes to a country like Russia," Thomas Hanson, diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth, told an editorial writer.

Hanson, a former Foreign Service officer and former director for NATO and European Affairs at the Atlantic Council, said that NATO was "essential during the Cold War when there were only 12 members as a defensive alliance holding off the Soviet Union during the period of containment, and it's as important as ever because with the end of the Cold War it redefined itself and began to take on missions beyond the original intent."

Including in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, when the U.S. became the first and only NATO nation to invoke the collective-defense mechanism known as Article 5. America's allies were there for us then, and we should be there for them in the future.

That's the unambiguous intent of President Joe Biden, who has correctly identified the fundamental struggle of this era as one of democracy vs. autocracy. NATO is an alliance of democracies and is indispensable in keeping them that way. Meanwhile, an ad-hoc alliance of autocracies has formed between Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. But none of those countries — together, let alone individually — have the force multiplier of the world's strongest alliance, NATO, which was significantly geographically, militarily and politically boosted last year with the addition of the 31st member, Finland, and just last month when the 32nd nation, Sweden, was added.

Trump's concern over the number of countries investing the targeted 2% of GDP in defense is legitimate. His way of pressing for it, however, is not, since it potentially alienates allies and emboldens adversaries. The good news is that the Pentagon recently said that this year 18 nations will meet or exceed that mark, up from just three when then-President Barack Obama — another stalwart supporter of NATO — led an alliance-wide "Defense Investment Pledge" in 2014. Since then, there has been "an unprecedented" rise of $600 billion in defense spending, according to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

History — and common sense — shows that retreating from collective defense won't make America safer. And history shows that this is not just an international issue, but a domestic and indeed statewide concern. Minnesotans in all branches of the armed forces — including the Minnesota National Guard, which has taken part in major NATO training exercises — may be impacted.

The NATO alliance is designed to avoid direct conflict, and to date the deterrent effect has worked, in part because of bipartisan U.S. leadership. Hanson, paraphrasing Biden administration officials, said the president has built on former President Ronald Reagan's belief in "peace through strength" and broadened it to "peace through American and allied strength." That's an ethos that should last another 75 years — and beyond.