NATO was created to counter the Soviet Union but when the Soviet Union disappeared NATO did not follow suit so new enemies were required. Afghanistan was promoted by the USA because it harboured terrorists who attacked the USA. When the Taliban fought the Soviet Union the US provided weapons and support but the US now supported those opposed to the Taliban in a civil war. NATO plus Australia became involved in a country far from its heartland. Public rhetoric about moral factors clearly had nothing to do with it.
The disastrous illegal invasion of Iraq by two members of NATO opened Pandora’s box and created a new enemy or, more accurately, enemies in Syria. NATO and its friends are involved in a most complex imbroglio where, for example, some NATO members support Kurds who are being fought by NATO member Turkey.
Despite a promising start, relations with the Russian Federation worsened when the US broke its commitment under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and Russia supported Russian speakers in what became a civil war in Ukraine and reclaimed Crimea from Ukraine by force. The Coalition of the Willing’s attack on Russia’s ally Iraq didn’t help either.
The NATO meeting that has just concluded has upped its commitment in Afghanistan and will strengthen its forces in Eastern Europe to counter a non-existent Russian threat. Russia has no intention of invading the Baltic states but it does resent missiles on its borders placed there by an openly hostile organisation which has imposed sanctions and made public demands on Russia. Ukraine is a special case and Russia is most unlikely to invade Eastern Europe but the Russians do see their border areas as a sphere of influence where they do not want hostile governments in power. NATO actions are seen as hostile and will only encourage Russia to build up its own armed forces in the region to counter the perceived threat from NATO.
President Putin is cautious by nature but highly nationalistic and thus has very considerable domestic support. He runs a highly authoritarian government but to give in to foreign threats would be political suicide. Russia has a long history of threats from the west going back to the Teutonic Knights, Poland, Lithuania, France and Germany. For their part, Russia’s neighbours have a history of threats from the Russian empire, both Tsarist and Soviet, so it is easy to see how mutual suspicion might arise. The US threat seems to come from old neocon cold war warriors if only because it is hard to see who else would have a vested interest in making an enemy of Russia. After all, when it comes to interfering in the affairs of its neighbours, the US is hardly in a position to cast the first stone as, amongst others, any Cuban, Nicaraguan, Guatlemalan or Chilean can tell you. Russians are not unaware of this and see US attempts to take the moral highground as hypocritical.
Australia has tagged along with NATO in these ventures even though no Australian interest is served by getting involved in NATO and its dubious actions. The North Atlantic is a long way away from us but presumably Australian policy is determined by our unwavering support for the USA. Nothing has really changed since Harold Holt went all the way with LBJ.
It is doubtful whether Julie Bishop’s attendance at the NATO ministerial meeting was a good use of her time and Australian resources.
Cavan Hogue was former Australian Ambassador to the USSR and Russia.