As we observe the fighting in Georgia, on the Russian border, we might remember just what NATO was all about. It committed us, by the treaty's language at least, to an automatic tripwire war with any state (read, the Soviet Union) that attacked any NATO member-state. The American Constitution gives the war power to the U.S. Congress. The only exception is an attack on the United States. Then and only then could our president respond, as commander in chief, even before Congress declared war. This automatic delegation of the war power to NATO was why J. Reuben Clark Jr., formerly the U.S. representative to all the arms limitation negotiations between World Wars I and II legal adviser to the Department of State and later in the First Presidency of the LDS Church, was totally opposed to NATO, even as he was a staunch opponent of communism and the Soviet threat in Europe. He considered NATO, even then, composed as it was by Western European nations, a dangerous threat to our own national security by committing us to a war we didn't want or a war between peoples not even alive when the treaty was struck.

Clark was called an isolationist.

He wasn't.

He simply believed that the U.S. Constitution means what it says.

Clark would feel confirmed in his opinion of NATO as we see the state of Georgia, directly upon the Russian border, seeking entry into NATO and this administration acting as if it already were in such a relationship with the United States and the West. Under no account would a sane administration go to war in Georgia on the border of Russia. Both Hitler and Napoleon learned what happens to nations that invade that vast land of 11 time zones. Reverse the geography and we can better understand. If Russia, in alliance with Mexico and Canada, threatened us with war over a border dispute with either Canada or Mexico, the United States would feel hugely threatened. (And a real role reversal would see the state of California, or Texas, breaking from our federation, and then border disputes between the U.S. and these former federated states, with Russia threatening to side with Texas or California.)

Geography would be on our side in case of war. But the point is, such a treaty would threaten our national security by, in effect, making war much more likely, rather than the maintenance of the peace.

We should look with great care as we encircle Russia with client states not even two decades from being in the federation of the USSR. Only by hubris beyond control would we promise to go to war over Georgia or other states so recently under federation with the USSR.

War should only be decided upon by the deliberation of the Congress of the United States. By no stretch of the imagination should a border dispute between a former state within the former Soviet Union and Russia be considered as if it were an attack on the United States. The Constitution forbids such foolishness.


Ed Firmage is the Samuel D. Thurman professor of law, emeritus, and the author of "To Chain the Dog of War: a History of the Congressional War Power" and "Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."