Michael Hicks: NATO has secured our peace and prosperity

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The first half of the 20th century was horrific.

There were over 30 separate wars in which at least 25,000 people died. That was out of a global population that was just one-fifth of what it is today. Two world wars, a Chinese-Japanese War, a Russian Revolution and the pestilence unleashed by these wars alone killed more than 150 million people, or close to 10% of the global population at the start of the century.

These wars were also economic disasters of historic proportions. They stalled much of the Industrial Revolution, diverted productive capital to war material and destroyed maybe one-third of the world’s productive infrastructure. Twice in just 30 years, three of the world’s most advanced economies ended wars unable to feed or house their own population.

The destruction of human capital robbed our species of untold talent, innovation, imagination and insight. The demographic ripples continue to be felt today. Minor perturbations, such as a large Baby Boom and Gen X-ers are the hangover of the economic and military disruptions of the early 20th century. In the former Soviet Union, China and Japan, the demographic effects of early 20th-century wars continue to hamper economic growth and prosperity. The shadow of 20th-century death will still be read in demographic ripples for another two centuries.

Those of us born after 1950 entered a profoundly different world. A world of relative peace and security. We wish to tell ourselves a different story, but the facts hold us in check. Between 1945 and 1950 a broad, uneasy peace fell upon the earth. It was followed almost immediately by prosperity.

In 1900 just over 75% of humans lived in extreme poverty, consuming less than two dollars per day (in today’s dollars) in food, clothing and shelter. By 1950 that number had declined by roughly 10%, leaving just under two-thirds of humans in desperate, life-threatening impoverishment. Over the next 50 years of relative peace and prosperity, the share in grinding poverty more than halved.

Many Americans believe we live in a disturbed, dangerous age of conflict and poverty. They are boorishly uninformed. The first of our conflicts after 1950 were difficult. Korea and Vietnam saw our nation lose 30 and 11 soldiers each day in conflict. In Desert Storm, we lost just over four per day of conflict. In contrast, in World War II we lost close to 300 every day of the conflict. Our war in Afghanistan cost us fewer than one dead every two days.

From 1900 to 1950, the standard of living for the average American rose by $5,400 per person in today’s dollars. From 1950 to 2000 it rose by more than $18,000 per person in today’s dollars. The long path from World War II to the present brought us unmatched peace and prosperity.

The lengthy stability and economic growth since 1945 creates complacency and forgetfulness. This makes us more likely to fulfill Santayana’s warning from 1905 that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The long peace of the last 75 years was brought to us by the alliances of rich democracies. These include the United Nations, the South East Asia Treaty Organization and the Organization of American States. The largest and most successful of these was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

We Americans joined NATO with an 82 to 13 vote in 1949. That overwhelming vote of support contrasted sharply with the debacle of 1919 when the United States Senate rejected the League of Nations. Having failed to secure the hard-won peace of 1918, Americans were in no mood to risk another generation by retreating from the world.

NATO managed to secure peace in Europe for three-quarters of a century. This allowed Americans to dramatically reduce military spending from more than 11.3% of GDP in 1950 to 2.7% in 2000, where it is today. NATO participated in peacekeeping efforts on its borders, but it focused mostly on the defense of Europe and North America.

Basking in our current peace and prosperity, Americans seem to forget that on only one occasion has NATO gone to war to defend a member — September 11, 2001. Afterward, every NATO nation and more than two dozen aspiring NATO member nations fought alongside American troops in Afghanistan.

Many also fought in Iraq. Among those supporting the United States was Ukraine, who sent more than 6,000 troops to Iraq. Ukraine suffered 18 killed and nearly 50 wounded alongside our forces. Instead of giving thanks for this enduring alliance of peace, today we hear clear echoes of American isolationism and our failure to rise against the threat of war in the 1930s.

The Senate rejected the League of Nations because the majority leader personally disliked Woodrow Wilson and had presidential ambitions of his own. By the 1930s, American isolationism plagued military preparedness. The argument for a stronger military was advanced by General George C. Marshall, who isolationist Republicans sought to label as a politicized lackey of FDR. Once the War started, Senate Republicans were divided in their support for Britain as Churchill led his nation against a brutal dictator who sought to extinguish democracy in Europe.

There is an unmistakable echo of that failed isolationism of the 1920s and 1930s sweeping our nation today. Again, it is a populist wing of the GOP that has split the party, ready to abandon alliances and ignore the lonely heroism of those holding the flame of democracy in Europe.

During World War II, the GOP abandoned its isolationist fever, aided by electoral pummeling. The second half of the 20th century was one of bipartisan support for NATO, SEATO and the United Nations. It was Ronald Reagan’s GOP who made the strength of these alliances the centerpiece of an American foreign policy that dismantled the Soviet Union.

Today, a whopping 81% of Americans support NATO, and 63% support continued support for Ukraine. A full 57% of Americans feel we should support Ukraine until they’ve recovered the land lost to the Russian invasion. That is joyful news.

The isolationist leaders of the 1920s and 1930s are remembered today only in footnotes, and there only with derision. Those who today wish to abandon NATO and our democratic allies in Europe face the same shameful future.

Happily, isolationism is not popular with Americans who are educated about the world and the grim reality of war. Sadly, citizen Trump remains willing, if not eager, to abandon NATO and Ukraine. For that reason, among many others, he must remain only a citizen.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University.