NATO at 70: it’s time to retire

Anti NATO Newport Protest March 2014. Source:

At NATO’s 70th anniversary gathering, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence didn’t mince his words to criticize Germany: “It is simply unacceptable for Europe’s largest economy to continue to ignore the threat of Russian aggression and neglect its own self-defense and our common defense.” President Donald Trump repeatedly railed against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany, asking why the U.S. should protect Germany from Russia when Berlin purchases so much gas from Moscow. It’s actually a fair question that inadvertently exposes the fact that NATO does not serve the interests of the peoples, and even many sectors, of Europe’s elites. Yet, the disturbing scene of German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen advocating last summer for what effectively is an instrument of U.S. power, often to the detriment of the interests of the peoples of Europe, went largely unquestioned.

As NATO increasingly encroaches Russia and the Kremlin takes counter-measures, U.S. media is mostly quiet about it. There is no public debate about this crucial issue and the American public is deeply uninformed. However, as Emeritus Professor of Princeton and NYU Stephen F. Cohen explains, “the expansion of NATO is the expansion of the American sphere of influence”. More over, companies based in NATO countries accounted for 82.4 per cent of the Top 100 arms sales from 2002 to 2015. According to the Professor of History and the Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, Peter Kuznick, “Russia does not pose a military threat, but Russia has increasingly become defensive because of this NATO encroachment up to Russia’s doorstep.”

NATO’s strategy is the geopolitics of self-fulfilling prophecy. As the U.S.-European military alliance further expands eastwards, recently making inroads into the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea, Russia reacts by reinforcing its military presence on its western border region, thusly stoking fears in its Baltic neighbors, prompting NATO to send more troops, creating a military standoff. It’s a feedback loop that cannot end well. “[NATO] just destabilizes the region more, it ratchets up the potential for conflict in the region,” says Pietro Shakarian, a PhD candidate in History at Ohio State University.

As NATO turns 70, it begs the question: what is the point of NATO? Why are they still there? What purpose do they serve?

According to newly declassified documents, Mikhail Gorbachev and other Soviet officials received what George Washington University National Security Archives researchers Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton call a “a cascade of assurances about Soviet security”, which included then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s pledge in 1990 that NATO would not move “one inch eastward”. These documents show that multiple national leaders — including Bush, Genscher, Kohl, Gates, Mitterrand, Thatcher, Hurd, Major, and Woerner — made similar promises between 1990 and 1991.

That suddenly changed when Bill Clinton took office in 1993. In 1994, NATO announced inclusion of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, marking what has been called “the most significant expansion of transatlantic security commitments in Europe for decades” (Porter 2018: 27). This meant that Article 5 guarantee was expanded now to included former Soviet satellites, ergo the U.S. went to the Balkans under the banner of NATO. Importantly, two related and key issues — the size of the U.S. military budget and NATO enlargement, or its very raison d’être — went totally unexamined by the American public. “NATO enlargement attracted little discussion within the president’s circle. […] Clinton tilted toward favoring enlargement, though not through organized evaluation” (Porter 2018: 33). Today, NATO members now include 10 of the former Warsaw Pact countries, and there is growing pressure to sway public opinion in neutral Sweden to join the military alliance.

As NATO strengthens its presence on Russian borders (its Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, recently stated: “We are looking into how we can increase our presence in the Black Sea region. […] We have already increased our presence with more air-policing, with assurance measures, with more naval presence and more exercises”), it is clearly perceived by Moscow as a belligerent stance. Russia’s military budget amounts to 8 percent of NATO’s, which should be enough to dismiss as a joke any claims that portray NATO as a defensive mechanism. NATO is antagonizing China in the South China Sea, and Russia in Syria, in Ukraine, Crimea, the Baltics, Eastern Europe. As Conn Hallinan, of the Foreign Policy In Focus, put it: “While Moscow is depicted as an aggressive adversary, NATO surrounds Russia on three sides, has deployed anti-missile systems in Poland, Romania, Spain, Turkey, and the Black Sea, and has a 12 to 1 advantage in military spending.” Commenting on the discussions at a recent NATO conference, former Soviet leader Gorbachev translated the newspeak: “All the rhetoric used in Warsaw is almost a declaration of war against Russia” and NATO “only talk about defense, but in fact they are preparing an offensive”.

In order to understand NATO’s intrinsic belligerent character, one must look back at how it came to be. The National Security Council (NSC) Directive 68 (NSC-68), a cornerstone of U.S. global strategy, was ratified by President Harry Truman in the autumn of 1950. The top-secret document made the case for expanding the U.S. military budget as well as the military aid to U.S. allies (“the ability to perform these tasks requires a build-up of the military strength by the United States and its allies”) and at the same time advocated against any sort of alternative policy to Soviet Union that not one of military containment (“This provides an opportunity for the United States, in cooperation with other free countries, to launch a build-up of strength which will support a firm policy directed to the frustration of the Kremlin design”). The document was adopted without any public debate and in total secrecy; nevertheless, it guided U.S. foreign policy for the following decades (Kinzer 2013: 96).

As Klassen summarizes: “[NSC 68] recognized that ‘[t]he United States now possesses the greatest military potential of any single nation in the world’, yet it called for a fourfold increase in military spending to ‘take initiative’ in the Cold War to ‘check and roll back’ the Soviet Union, and to avoid ‘a position of neutrality’ on the part of Germany and Japan” (2014: 70). The two nations are depicted as inherently and irrevocably inimical: “Logically and in fact, therefore, the Kremlin’s challenge to the United States is directed not only to our values but to our physical capacity to protect their environment.” NSC/68, therefore, contains the seeds of “sovietology” — the Soviet Other — as the rationale for U.S. foreign policy. In sum, NSC-68 sets up a strategy of global military supremacy, with anti-communism and threat-inflation determining factors in generating popular consent for the large-scale extraction of resources required to sustain permanent mobilization and the US’ expanding international commitments. As Richard Perle, a prominent organic intellectual of empire, has acknowledged: “The fear of the Soviet Union […] was certainly an animating factor and we would not have voted the budgets we did or supported the activities we did without that. In its absence, we probably would not have expanded into places that we went, in order to contend with and confront the Soviet Union.”

In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower approved NSC 162/2, which would become publicly known as the “New Look.” It urged for “a strong military posture, with emphasis on the capability of inflicting massive retaliatory damage by offensive striking power.” In order to face the “Soviet threat” without incurring in “exorbitant cost,” the U.S. needed to count with the support of its allies. This support was in the form of overseas bases, which “will continue indefinitely to be an important additional element of U.S. strategic air capability”; and “the armed forces and economic resources and materials of the major highly-industrialized non-communist states.” The report defines the American-led coalition as all the countries that belong to the network of security treaties and regional alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS). Those nations that are not part of any such arrangements, are considered to be “so unsure of their national interests, or so preoccupied with other pressing problems, that they are presently unwilling to align themselves with the United States and its allies.” This is considered to be a major problem because “their vast manpower, their essential raw materials, and their potential for growth are such that their absorption within the Soviet system would greatly, perhaps decisively, alter the world balance of power to our detriment.” The report goes on to state that “[c]onstructive political and other measures will be required to create a sense of mutuality of interest with the free world and to counter the communist appeals.”

NATO’s in-built logic, thus, is anti-Russian, with the goal of justifying American military presence in Europe, driving a wedge between European nations and its Russian neighbours, and forging military ties between Western elite factions. NATO serves no purpose for the peoples of the U.S. and Europe. It’s a tool for US military industrial complex. It’s a destabilizing force in the world and is endangering Europe itself.

“[NATO] beefs up the arms industries and defense industries of the countries,” Shakarian explains. (This is a headline from Voice of America last year: “With NATO Defense Buildup, US Weapons Makers Could Benefit”). Moreover, NATO synthesizes all the problems and harms caused by militarism, which has been a key instrument to pursue the American-led world order. As Catherine Lutz, professor at Brown Univeristy’s Watson Institute for International Studies, writes: “the massive and long term mobilization for war in the United States has misshapen cultural values, increased various forms of inequality, most importantly those of race, class, gender and sexuality, served as a massively antidemocratic force by accelerating the corporization of government and legitimating secrecy and violation of the rule of law, and exported violence, toxins, and authoritarianism abroad”.

As scholar Richard Sakwa eloquently explains, “This fateful geographical paradox: that NATO exists to manage the risks created by its own existence.” In fact, Professor Cohen argues that Putin is the inevitable result of unwise American policies. He is the effect, not the cause.

This is why opposing NATO should be a central element of a serious leftist foreign policy agenda. During the cold war period, it used to be the case that there was space in the media and in society more broadly for dissent on the aggressive approach towards Russia. Today, we have nothing remotely reminiscent of past conciliatory, non-militaristic approaches, like Olof Palme’s common security, Finland’s OSCE, or Brandt’s rapprochement and Ostpolitik. It is incumbent upon the Left in the U.S. and Europe to come up with an alternative.

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