Why won’t Nato die?

The US never misses a chance to wheel out Nato and revive the old cold war narrative in modern form – the Russian intervention in Georgia after the attack on South Ossetia was only the latest excuse. Jonathan Steele explains why we are still lumbered with a wasteful and dangerous military alliance A few weeks […]

November 14, 2008
8 min read

The US never misses a chance to wheel out Nato and revive the old cold war narrative in modern form – the Russian intervention in Georgia after the attack on South Ossetia was only the latest excuse. Jonathan Steele explains why we are still lumbered with a wasteful and dangerous military alliance

A few weeks before Georgia’s fateful bid to storm the breakaway region of South Ossetia, Nato hired a top Coca Cola executive to re-brand the alliance’s image in time for its 60th anniversary in 2009. ‘Brands do go to the basic purpose: what is the point of this organisation?’ Nick Witney, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the International Herald Tribune. ‘Nato lost its primary rationale on the day the Warsaw Pact closed up business. It has been casting around for a different identity and role so it remains relevant.’

Now, thanks to the Georgian crisis, Nato’s task has become both easier and harder. On the one hand, with the connivance of hundreds of gullible western reporters who rushed to the Caucasus with little understanding of the area’s history, the cold war image of an aggressive tank-happy Russia has been revived. Since Nato’s stated purpose back in 1949 was to block similar tanks from occupying Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris, a narrative of the Russian bear on the move again was easy to project. No need for Nato to invent a new brand. Just trot out the old one.

On the other hand, the Georgian crisis dealt Nato two severe blows. It reminded people that the alliance was always a disproportionately US construct, dominated not just by US military pre-eminence but also by US, rather than European, strategic interests. It also showed the limits of Nato power. As Russian troops moved in to expel the Georgians from South Ossetia, Nato could do nothing to prevent it. It could not even issue a tough unified statement, since France and Germany, two of its key members, were unwilling to blame the hostilities entirely on Moscow. Nato emerged as a paper dinosaur, toothless and irrelevant.

Nato after the cold war

The fact that Nato stumbled on at all once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, rather than quietly lying down and passing out, rests on three factors: British Euro-scepticism, traditional central European fear and hatred of Russia, and Washington’s increasingly frenzied drive to maintain and even expand its global position in the face of rising challenges from Asia. British Euro-scepticism is the least important of the three, but it is not insignificant. By implementing what they assumed the US wanted, first John Major and then New Labour undermined every embryonic effort by the French and Germans to develop a European military capability that could allow Europe to act in crises without requiring US involvement. The mantra was always that ‘enhancing Europe’s defence unity must support Nato, not supplant it’.

Even so, Nato might well have disbanded in the early 1990s had it not been for the Clinton administration. Although Boris Yeltsin’s Russia was seen as friendly and pro-Western, Polish emigré groups in the US pushed hard for Nato to continue and for their former homeland to join it. US officials were divided and a sizeable corps of former US ambassadors to Moscow, as well as some US academic experts on Russia, argued against Nato’s expansion, saying it sent the wrong signal to Russia and would only encourage anti-westernism there (a prediction that turned out to be correct). The pro-Central Europeans won, and Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were admitted to membership in 1999.

By then the Kosovo crisis was at its height. Nato was wheeled out as the instrument to deal with Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic and prevent his ethnic cleansing in Serbia’s largely Albanian province. Although required by its charter to act with unanimity, Nato turned out to be nothing more than a ‘coalition of the willing’. Its new members were shocked by the Nato attack on Serbia. They pleaded unpreparedness and took no part. It was especially shocking for the Czechs and Poles, as Serbs were fellow-Slavs and Yugoslavia had been admired during the cold war for Marshal Tito’s anti-Russian and anti-Stalinist stance within the international communist movement.

As the Russian elite’s brief enchantment with the west faded, it became the turn of the Baltic states to join the clamour for Nato membership. Getting into the European Union took a long time, but getting into Nato was an easy option for joining the western club, with the added benefit of being seen as a friend of Washington.

For the US it was not only flattering. It gave Washington real political and economic rewards – the chance for its diplomacy to develop a powerful new presence in regions that used to be off limits, as well as scope for US arms manufacturers to sell advanced weaponry to a host of new customers. Under Bush this neo-imperial drive accelerated, backed by hard-nosed ‘realists’ such as Dick Cheney, a former defence secretary in the cold war period, as well as the neo-cons with their missionary zeal to push western corporate power and economic liberalism into every corner of the globe.

Nato after 9/11

Nato was not the primary tool, as the post-9/11 events showed. Days after the attacks on New York and Washington, Nato’s European members eagerly announced that they were invoking Article V, which says an attack on one member will be considered an attack on all. But, in an almost farcical humiliation, Bush ignored them. Unilateralism was his preferred option: the US decided to go after Osama bin Laden and the Taliban without its willing allies.

‘Alone if you can, with Nato if you must’ became the watchword of Bush’s presidency. Nevertheless, Nato was useful as a secondary option in the Pentagon toolbox. So once the Taliban were toppled, Nato was brought back into the game in Afghanistan. A hybrid operation was created, which still continues. There is a unilateral US presence, focused mainly in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, and a Nato presence in Helmand, Kabul and other provinces.

Meanwhile, Cheney and the neo-cons also had their eyes on the Black Sea and the Caspian as stepping-stones to Asia. Ukraine and Georgia were the targets. Prising those two countries out of the Russian orbit would not only give Washington pressure points against Moscow, it would offer the US military basing rights and airfields in an arc that would stretch to central Asia, where the US was already developing ‘assets’ in the ‘war on terror’. Dictatorships with worries about Islamist insurgencies within their own populations could be enlisted on the US side. In central Asia you play on the Islamic fundamentalist scare; in Ukraine and the Caucasus you play on the Russian scare. Either way, the policy answer is the same: let the United States protect you.

Nato after Georgia

Back then to Georgia. Has the crisis provoked by Mikheil Saakashvili’s stupidity over South Ossetia helped or harmed US interests in the region? Has it boosted or weakened Nato? The alliance is due to hold a summit in December. Long before this summer’s unexpected war, the top item on the agenda was whether to invite Georgia and Ukraine to start the process of joining Nato.

Unless the mood changes, the best guess is that France and Germany will say no. The reason is not that they are cowards, or that they have been bought off by the Russians because they purchase so much oil and gas from Moscow. Paris and Berlin have other concerns. They do not say it in public, but they are furious with Georgia’s president for his recklessness. Why should a tiny country endanger the entire balance of EU-Russian relations, and why should Europe be put at risk by lame-duck hawks in Washington? Far better to wait and see who wins in the US in November. If Obama comes out on top, as the French and Germans hope, then the Nato expansion drive may come to a welcome halt.

Or it may not. The corporate imperatives behind the drive for US global dominance are more powerful than the private views of the incumbent in the White House. Nato costs the US relatively little while providing a great deal in terms of prestige, influence, and well-positioned real estate. Writing Nato’s obituary has always been a risky exercise, and that is as true now as it was before this summer’s war erupted.


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