For the last three decades, the NATO alliance has expanded exponentially. Its membership and mission have gone far beyond the limits set by its founding statement; it has transitioned from a north Atlantic-based mutual defence organisation to an aggressive military alliance that straddles the globe, launching wars and interventions, advancing the political interests of the US and its closest allies.
Founded in 1949 in the context of the Cold War, NATO remained even after that conflict ended and the Warsaw Pact was dissolved. Rather than scaling back its military presence, the US moved to fill the positions vacated by its previous rival, eventually absorbing former Soviet republics as it took advantage of the newly unipolar world. As the countries of eastern Europe embraced free market economics and multiparty democracy, the US rapidly integrated them into its sphere of influence via NATO. In 1999, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic joined and ten days later they found themselves at war with their neighbour Yugoslavia, as part of NATO’s illegal bombing campaign. But developments at that time were not limited to expanding its membership.
At NATO’s fiftieth anniversary conference in Washington in 1999, a new ‘Strategic Concept’ was adopted. This moved beyond NATO’s previous defensive role to include ‘out of area’—in other words offensive—operations, anywhere on the Eurasian landmass. Just a few years later, NATO was at war in Afghanistan, marking its first deployment outside Europe or North America. That war lasted nearly twenty years, caused untold suffering and cost NATO members trillions of dollars; despite victory being unconvincingly proclaimed, NATO failed in its long war – the Taliban are stronger now than they ever have been.
These days, in spite of an increasing multipolarity, NATO roams the world seemingly at will, concluding a partnership agreement with Colombia, engaging in Libya and the Horn of Africa, and at its 2019 summit, NATO declared space ‘an operational domain’. Its recent summit in Brussels has pushed the geographical limits further. The summit marks an intensification of Cold War rhetoric and hostility towards China. After four tumultuous years for the NATO alliance, leaders at the recent summit no doubt planned to move beyond the disruptive animus of Donald Trump who had turned NATO summits into a game-show laughing stock. Nevertheless, President Biden’s boast that a US committed to the much-vaunted rules-based international order ‘was back’ struck a hollow note. Changes in NATO since the Trump days are primarily ones of style, not policy.
However the summit has been spun, essentially its agenda has been how to maintain Western dominance in a world where China is rising economically. The summit’s final communiqué represented a victory for Joe Biden in his attempt to recruit European countries to a more aggressive posture towards China; its new NATO 2030 agenda expands its orientation to the Asia Pacific. While some member states are less enthusiastic, this has already been fully embraced by the British government in its recent Integrated Review, with its key strategic shift to focus on the Indo-Pacific region – described as a ‘tilt’. This includes the Indian Ocean and its two key powers, India and Australia, along with the UK and Japan and others, as a network of regional allies against China – mirroring the American so-called ‘Quad’ approach.
Military exercises like the recent departure of the HMS Queen Elizabeth II aircraft carrier and attendant flotilla to the South China Sea look set to become more frequent. Part of the carrier strike force has already caused an international incident. Earlier this year, the British destroyer HMS Defender peeled off from the group and sailed into disputed waters in the Black Sea near the Crimea. It asserted that it was keeping open international shipping lanes – in waters claimed by Russia. As the BBC observed, as dramatic as the Black Sea events appear, ‘this could end up being just a dress rehearsal for a bigger test to come…. There, together with other nations, it will be challenging China’s claims to a vast contested area of sea bordering several countries.’
As has often happened in the past, the expansion of interests is accompanied by a political narrative that attempts to justify and provide window-dressing for what are essential military and strategic goals. NATO 2030 continues the old lie that the organisation is based on democracy, liberty and the rule of law and frames both Russia and China as enemies and ‘systemic rivals’.
The summit’s final statement argues that NATO guarantees the security of its territory and its one billion citizens, and guarantees them freedom, and the values that NATO shares, including individual liberty, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. But the idea that NATO stands for these values is just not true. NATO is a nuclear-armed military expansionist alliance, not a human rights organisation. And that is clear not only in NATO’s activities globally, but even within the borders of its member states. NATO member Turkey is a clear case in point: do these rights and protections apply to Kurdish peoples living in Turkey, for example? Clearly not.
The communiqué states: ‘We are committed to the rules-based international order.’ But any scrutiny would show that NATO repeatedly breaks international law. You only have to consider the fact it is a nuclear-armed alliance and has a nuclear first strike policy. That is itself illegal under international law.
But these attempts at rebranding NATO, trying to give it a soft image, are also being copied by other international institutions. Take, for example, the recent G7 summit where leaders of some of the most powerful and wealthy nations came together to discuss the world’s key problems. Rather than recognising that they have brought these problems upon the world with their policies—the economic crisis, the climate emergency and even the pandemic—they again trumpet the same fantasies, talking about their ‘enduring ideals as free open societies and democracies’.
They say they will ‘harness the power of democracy, freedom, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights to answer the biggest questions and overcome the greatest challenges.’ Yet inequality and poverty escalate, and billions have no access to vaccines while the planet burns. We hear fine words from the G7 and NATO, but not only are they meaningless, they hide a whole structure of brutality.
The reality of NATO and its role in the world is little understood in Britain and that unfortunate truth applies to the left as well as wider society. Pronouncements from the leadership of the Labour party, even during the Corbyn years, seemed to take NATO’s propaganda at face value rather than assessing its military impact, its expansionism or its carbon bootprint. As the world enters a more dangerous phase, it is time to take another look at NATO and understand it for what it really is.