Global NATO – bringing extra danger to our neighbourhood

Jul 26, 2023
NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

On the eve of the Vilnius summit Foreign Affairs published an article by long term, and recently reappointed, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg entitled ‘A Stronger NATO for a More Dangerous World: What the Alliance Must Do in Vilnius—and Beyond’. Foreign Affairs is the bible of the American foreign policy establishment, being the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and NATO is a major instrument of US power, so the article is significant. That does not mean it should be taken literally; it is a travesty that distorts and inverts reality in a way that would leave Orwell bemused. Nevertheless what Stoltenberg says here, the way he says it, and what he omits deserve careful scrutiny.

His immediate purpose would seem to be an attempt to gloss over the predicted refusal to admit Ukraine to NATO, subsequently confirmed by the final communiqué. Zelensky was understandably furious. Ukraine was being led down the primrose path and would get wrecked John Mearsheimer warned in 2015, and this was now coming to pass. The primroses had turned into a barrier of thorns. Apart from the need to explain away NATO’s betrayal of Ukraine, and the failure of its strategy that lay behind that, Stoltenberg was also again advocating the expansion of the alliance’s presence to Asia to confront China. This had been unveiled at the Madrid summit of NATO in June 2022 and Stoltenberg was doubling down on that strategic expansion. Why, we might ask, would NATO having failed to dent Russia, let alone bring it down, also embrace a struggle of choice against far stronger China? The answer to that intriguing, if seldom posed question, lies in its genesis and development.

NATO was created as the major instrument of US imperial expansion after the victories of 1945. Established in 1949 as the Cold War got underway it was famously described by Lord Ismay, its first Secretary General as serving to “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. That was the British perspective. In fact the Russians were not trying to get in and the Americans were not trying to get out. NATO would be better described as a strategic device to pressure and hopefully destroy the Soviet Union and to exercise control over the elites of Western Europe, playing on their historical fear of Germany and their class-based fear of domestic socialist upheaval transmuted into the rather mythical threat of ‘Soviet expansion’. The device worked admirably and over the next couple of decades the Soviet bloc was riven by internal revolts in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and schisms with Yugoslavia, and China. The ‘socialist contagion’ in Europe was constrained and defanged and the empires of Britian, France, Netherlands, Spain and Italy came, in their various ways, under US ‘leadership’. Much of this success was due to the institutional structure of NATO. It was, and is, a military alliance under the control of an American general but at the same time there is a counterpart civilian apparatus headed by a European Secretary-General and a governance structure overseen by the North Atlantic Council in which all the constituent governments (initially 12, now 31) participate. It is thus a mechanism by which the European elites are coopted into the imperial administration both as governments and individuals. The position of Secretary-General, in particular, is highly prized. It has tended to be the reward of choice for premiers of the smaller countries (Norway’s Stoltenberg, Denmark’s Anders Fogh Rasmussen) or ministers of the larger ones (Britain’s Lord Ismay). The European Secretary-General is the public face of NATO while real power resides in Washington.

Thus NATO can be seen as a successful institution created to address the twin challenges of the early years of the American century – the Soviet Union and Western Europe. However, once created, institutions have a life of their own independent of their original purpose. They are organisms driven by internal desires to survive and to grow. Thus when the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO didn’t; it reinvented itself, went ‘out-of-area’ to dismember Yugoslavia, invade Afghanistan and destroy Libya. These actions were consistent with US global strategy, of course, but they were scarcely its original avowed objectives. No peace dividend for the taxpayers but continued largesse for the military industrial complex, of which NATO can be considered the multilateral embodiment. But the original objective had not been entirely fulfilled. The Soviet Union might be dead but Russia, much enfeebled, survived and under Putin began to recover economically, politically, militarily and socially.

The response to this was NATO expansion, whose principal strategist was Zbigniew Brzezinski, who saw Ukraine as the tip of the spear that would fragment the Russian Federation into bite-sized pieces for easier consumption. That hasn’t worked. Russia has coped well on the battlefield, has survived sanctions and arguably grown in international political stature, especially in the Global South. Ukraine’s offensive has floundered with horrendous losses, the economy, and war effort, only survives on outside support, increasingly uncertain. The European economies have been hit by high energy prices with social turmoil looming. The war has revealed that the West does not have the capacity to produce sufficient munitions for industrial warfare, stockpiles are depleted, and the US has had to release politically toxic cluster munitions as a stopgap. Reason would suggest attempting a negotiated, face-saving deal.

Instead there has been a continuing policy of fighting to the last Ukrainian. There are explanations for the Biden administration – winning the 2024 election for one – but these don’t quite fit NATO’s lurch towards confrontation with China. This may be compatible with US global strategy but it is unnecessarily economically harmful and militarily dangerous for European members. That is the position taken by France’s Macron who, with some support from Germany’s Scholz, has vetoed the plan to establish a NATO liaison office in Tokyo. This has angered those Japanese who see Europe as a useful supplementary ally to the US in their dreams of re-establishing primacy in Asia over China. Macron’s ‘European strategic autonomy’ is a minority position within NATO and anathema to Stoltenberg and the NATO bureaucracy. Macron has been outflanked by the announcement by Kishida and Stoltenberg at Vilnius of the Individually Tailored Partnership Programme (ITPP) for greater cooperation, including military exercises, between Japan and NATO. Kishida wants Europe’s support against China, Stoltenberg wants Japan, and the other US allies in Asia, to give additional scope to NATO as an institution and make it even more relevant to US global strategy.

Success in the Cold War drove NATO out-of-area to justify its continued existence. Now failure in Ukraine is driving it to confrontation with China. A military alliance needs an enemy and either war or the threat of it. If peace of some sort is forced upon NATO in Europe, then it must seek the possibility of war elsewhere, and China is the obvious place. Stoltenberg and all those whose profitable careers are dependent on NATO, may feel they have no choice. Like unlucky gamblers who feel that the solution to a losing streak is to raise the stakes.

All this is bad news for our region. Ramesh Thakur has recently raised the alarm on the danger this poses for Australia, as has Paul Keating with his excoriation of ‘NATO’s provocative lurch eastward’.

Ironically, Stoltenberg can be said to have given the game away with his Foreign Affairs article. He is arguing against all evidence that a stronger, expanding NATO makes us safer. But ‘A Stronger NATO for a More Dangerous World’ can be more accurately read as meaning that a more belligerent NATO makes the world more dangerous. The drawing of Australian, New Zealand and other Asian leaders to NATO summits, and the warmongering of NATO in our neighbourhood add fuel to an already dangerous situation as America tries to maintain its hegemony in the face of China’s essentially peaceful rise.

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