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NATO and the headache of declining US military and economic power


Politicians are celebrating the announcement that the NATO conference will be in South Wales next year. With no sign of irony they tell us it will be a boost for jobs and tourism, a chance to showcase the country. 

Before serving up the platitudes and bringing on the celebrations, they would do well to consider exactly what kind of organisation is being hosted at the Celtic Manor ‘golf resort’ near Newport next September.

Right now NATO is trying to deal with a double identity crisis, but its basic purpose has always been to insure US control over European foreign policy in order better to project deadly US power around the globe.

NATO was set up in 1949 at the start of the Cold War. Ostensibly it was a mutual defence pact uniting the US and Western Europe against the threat of Soviet invasion. The reality was a little different.

First, it was part of a wider strategy to encircle, intimidate and outgun the USSR in order to ruin it. The nuclear arms race it helped to engineer put so much strain on the Soviet state that it collapsed by the early 1990s.

Second, by militarily uniting the western countries under US control, it ensured US dominance over Europe. It tied the Europeans into support for a post-Second World War foreign policy that claimed to be pro-democracy and anti-colonial, but was in fact lethally aggressive. Up to the year 2000 the US bombed at least 27 countries, assassinated or attempted to assassinate thirty world leaders and tried to overthrow forty governments. These efforts included all out wars in Korea from 1950-3, Vietnam and then Cambodia from the mid sixties until 1973 and one of the most sustained aerial bombing campaigns in world history organised by NATO itself against Serbia in 1999. 

Third, NATO co-ordinated secret special forces operations across Europe to subvert the left and prepare action against possible left wing governments. ‘Operation Gladio’ in Italy, the most famous of these NATO-led networks, was exposed in 1990. Gladio appears to have played a major role in subverting the Italian left in the 1970s and 80s, but it has since become clear that similar special operations were set up in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey   

The collapse of the Soviet satellites and then the Soviet Union itself from 1989 was a bittersweet moment for NATO's bloated bureaucracy. On the one hand it marked triumph over the main enemy, on the other hand it raised existential questions. NATO was in danger of becoming a victim of its own propaganda. For decades the ‘Communist Bloc’ had been portrayed as the big threat to peace and the free world. Its collapse threatened to remove the need for US military leadership in Europe and for the huge build-up of arms and armies that NATO had encouraged in Europe in the decades since the war.    

The fact that NATO stayed together - in fact expanded - in the post-cold war world confirmed that it was never simply about containing the USSR. David Rothkopf, one of the architects of a new NATO policy under President Clinton, explained the real dynamic behind post-war US interventionism:

‘Pax Americana came with an implicit price tag to nations that accepted the US security umbrella. If a country depended on the United States for security protection, it dealt with the United States on trade and commercial matters’.

The swift expansion of NATO in to Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union confirmed that NATO was a key element of the US imperial project. Partly it was designed to insure that the Soviet states looked westward for aid, markets and investment. But it was also a way of pre-empting any possible alliance between Western European powers and a Russia struggling in the free market maelstrom. NATO enlargement into Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary gave the US the role of gatekeeper between Russia and Germany. As a 1992 Defense Department planning document put it, ‘our first objective is to prevent the emergence of a new rival’ .

More generally NATO was a key platform in the US plan to reorganise the world economy – to open up the whole world to US business and to tie in as much of it as possible politically. NATO's slogan was ‘out of area or out of business.’ In the absence of the communist threat the US had to draw the Europeans in to aggressive wars in order to ramp up their firepower and retain leadership of a Western alliance. No surprise then that NATO led its first shooting wars in the Balkans in 1990s, first against the Serbs in Bosnia then in the much more deadly campaign against the Serbs in the Kosovo war of 1999. Another first was in the branding. It was at this time Western wars came to be presented as ‘humanitarian interventions.’  

9/11 gave rise to a period of US unilateralism. Partly the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon gave Washington hawks the chance to go it alone. Partly too, many NATO powers were queasy about an attack on Iraq. But a use was soon found for NATO once the small coalition of the willing got bogged down in Iraq. In 2006 NATO took up joint control of operations in the disastrous occupation of Afghanistan, and so took the central role in the longest colonial adventure since the great wave of decolonisation that began at the end of World War 2. 

It was also the command umbrella for Operation Unified Protector, the 2011 bombing campaign of Libya. The grand labelling was misleading, the campaign was riven by squabbling and manoeuvring as France, Germany, Britain and the US tried to maximise their bomb rate and therefore – they hoped - their influence in post-Gaddafi Libya. This unseemly scramble led to the death of tens of thousands of Libyans and the complete unravelling of the Libyan state.

Western setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the humiliating failure of Obama and Cameron and Hollande to lead a new western intervention in Syria, have created a renewed sense of doubt about NATO’s role to add to lingering post-Cold War uncertainty. US experts complain that European military spending accounts for 20% of NATO's budget compared to 40% in 1980. Many are indignant at anti-militarist attitudes in Europe. Robert Kaplan complains that ‘Europeans tend to see their armed forces members as civil servants in funny uniforms. The idea that it is the military that defends their democratic freedoms is something that Europeans find laughable’

It’s a sense of doubt which belligerent Washington intellectuals are busily trying to dispel. The US still needs NATO. Kaplan himself insists that ‘NATO is American hegemony on the cheap’. It helps to ensure European political coherence under US control. It lessens the danger of Germany pivoting into an alliance with Russia, and it provides an organising framework for the project of coralling the newly discovered mineral wealth on the African continent. Most important of all, the US has emerged from the euphoria of the unipolar moment with a massive headache. It has woken up to a new world order of intense competition.

A re-energised Russia is trying to reassert its influence in Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. But much worse, China threatens to outstrip the US economically in a few decades and is building up political influence across the world. In this frightening new environment NATO will be an essential prop for US power. Demands that Europe scale up arms spending to deal with Africa and the Middle East, as the US ‘pivots to the East’ will get louder.  The attack on Libya and Cameron and Hollande’s rush to war on Syria shows that many western capitals will see this not as a burden but an opportunity to revive glorious colonial traditions.

The worst case scenario is that NATO will be used to drag European powers into confrontations with the US's emerging challengers.

Stop the War Coalition’s central strategic purpose has been to break the link between British foreign policy and the project for the new American Century. Breaking the UK link with NATO is inevitably central to that aim.

Chris Nineham is joint national chair of Stop the War Coalition and a speaker at the International Anti-war Conference in London on 30 November 2013

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