An uncertain future threatens to overshadow celebrations of this April’s 75th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s founding. NATO has, without question, been one of the most successful military alliances in human history. Now, however, many on both the Right and the Left are questioning NATO’s value and America’s role in it.

To be sure, NATO leaders have made serious strategic mistakes in recent decades. Experiments with “nation-building” in the Middle East have proven to be mixed successes at best while distracting America from longer-term threats from Putin and the CCP. NATO works better when it focuses on its military goals than when it attempts to spread the gospel of “liberal democracy.”

It would be senseless, however, to abandon NATO because of a few misguided policies or diplomatic frustrations. Instead, we should take inspiration from the alliance’s successes to set it back on the right path. To ensure the alliance lasts another 75 years, it would be better for NATO’s leaders to take their cues from conservative statesmen such as Winston Churchill rather than liberal ideologues like Woodrow Wilson.

In the wake of World War II, leaders in the West wanted to secure their victory over fascism and contain the spread of communism. They knew the crisis was not over. Totalitarianism threatened civilization itself, and that the West needed to meet this danger with strength.

That vision for collective defense is far more limited than the expansive goals of certain liberal internationalists. NATO architects such as Michigan senator Arthur Vandenberg or Churchill did not imagine that the alliance’s civilizational mission would bleed over into a radical democratization of the global order. That revolutionary spirit has more to do with earlier liberal internationalists, such as Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson and his students have done much to confuse the American mind. In Special Providence, Walter Russell Mead wrote that the “Wilsonians believe that the United States has both a moral obligation and an important national interest in spreading American democratic and social values throughout the world, creating a peaceful international community that accepts the rule of law.” Wilsonians bring a missionary spirit to American foreign policy, opposing not only dictators but even more benevolent and traditional monarchies in the name of a universal ideology. Their ideas about “equality among the peoples of the world” and “self-determination” calcified into a revolutionary creed, an excuse to overturn Europe’s old order and usher in something much more modern – and unstable.

The spectacular failure of Wilsonian liberalism in the post-World War I years should be a warning for NATO. As terrible as the war was, the destruction of Europe’s longstanding balance of power in the name of “liberal democracy” only paved the way for even more terrible tyrannies to emerge. Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” and the League of Nations proved little more than paper barriers to the fanatics who plunged the globe into another world war only 21 years after Armistice Day. Indeed, one might even say that Wilsonian liberalism sapped Western civilization’s strength and confidence when it needed them most.

Despite all this, Atlantic senior editor David Frum recently attempted to revive Wilson’s fading legacy. In his plea to “Uncancel Woodrow Wilson,” he begs readers to look past the 28th president’s ugly racism and personal flaws to rediscover the progressive optimism at the heart of his political vision. For Frum, Wilson’s “high goals” and dedication to the ideology of “freedom” are worth redeeming as a “moral legacy” for American leadership today.

Leaving aside his underwhelming defense of Wilson’s domestic agenda, Frum fails to persuade that Wilsonian liberalism is a viable grand strategy. He praises Wilson for his belief that “shared values might provide a more stable basis for peace among advanced nations than the quest for military dominance.” But it’s precisely this belief that has hamstrung the West’s response to revanchist powers even today.

Liberal fantasies about “shared values” and the possibility of negotiation with our enemies enfeebled NATO’s response to aggression on every major front against the rising Eurasian axis. From the disastrous Iran nuclear deal to generations of naïveté about the Chinese Communist Party’s true ambitions, Wilsonian policymakers clung to delusions about the “liberal world order.” They believed that inviting autocratic regimes into the community of nations would lead to peaceful liberalization. As war in Israel and Ukraine prove, however, they were terribly wrong.

Winston Churchill became one of Wilson’s greatest critics because he understood that this hubris about ideals would only empower autocratic thugs. In his history of World War I, The World Crisis, Churchill wrote that Wilson’s Fourteen Points were an attempt to give “a new Constitution for mankind, while all the practical and clamant issues had to drum their heels outside the door.” The League of Nations could never fulfill wild, messianic dreams for world peace because it was simply too weak. Wilson hoped that ideals would replace power on the global stage, but Churchill understood that strength alone can overcome tyranny.

None of this is to say, however, that Churchill had no faith in collective defense. Quite the contrary. In 1952, he declared that NATO was “the surest guarantee not only of the prevention of war, but of victory should our hopes be blasted.” Churchill knew that victory in war and stability in peace require strong alliances, and that there are no stronger alliances than those founded on shared principles. But statements of principle, no matter how poetic, will never be sufficient guarantees for security. NATO’s real virtue is that, unlike Wilson’s League of Nations or the United Nations today, its aims are clearly military.

Throughout the 1930s, Churchill worked desperately to convince the British Empire to rearm and prepare for the coming war with the Nazis. In one of his finest speeches from this period, Churchill makes it clear that the future of Western civilization itself relies on the strength of Britain and her allies’ arms:

“But it is vain to imagine that the mere perception or declaration of right principles, whether in one country or for many countries, will be of any value unless they are supported by those qualities of civic virtue and manly courage – aye, and by those instruments and agencies of force and science which in the last resort must be the defence of right and reason. Civilisation will not last, freedom will not survive, peace will not be kept, unless a very large majority of mankind unite together to defend them and show themselves possessed of a constabulary power before which barbaric and atavistic forces will stand in awe.”

That vision of a “constabulary power” became enshrined in NATO’s founding documents. Sadly, though, it has been considerably weakened by creeping liberalism. Much like the Wilsonian world of the 1920s and ‘30s, the post-Cold War world of the 1990s and 2000s decided that the West could afford partial disarmament. And just as totalitarians took advantage of liberal weakness in the interwar years, the new authoritarians built up power as the latter-day Wilsonians applauded themselves for their enlightened attitudes.

It is therefore vital that NATO countries – particularly the United States – reverse the dangerous decline in defense spending and double-down on their commitments to the alliance. Critics are right that NATO allies have not been spending nearly enough on defense. Thankfully, 2023 saw a real increase of 11% across Europe – but still too few member states meet the 2% of GDP spending commitment they made. The United States cannot provide for the security of the world by herself; we need our allies to step up and do their part.

American leaders should emphasize to their counterparts in other alliance countries that boosting defense spending is in everyone’s best interest. Rearmament might offend the ideological sensibilities of European liberals, American Wilsonians, and neo-isolationists, but restoring deterrence must take priority. Our enemies will not wait politely for us to prepare for conflict – conflict is already here.

Ultimately, a strong NATO is the best defense against rising threats to American security. The Chinese Communist Party, Islamic Republic of Iran, and Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation together pose a danger of a scale and complexity unseen since the Second World War. The only way for the United States to effectively project power across these theaters is by partnering with trustworthy allies who share an interest in maintaining global order.

World order must rest on a firmer foundation than liberal humanitarianism. NATO’s founders understood why liberalism failed, and they worked to establish a new framework for Western security. The alliance can still serve American interests, but only if leaders today abandon Wilsonian idealism for Churchillian common sense.