NATO: Following the 20th Century Into History

After more than 50 years of marriage, the partners are growing weary of one another. They give as little as possible to one another, and the world that is changing around them leads them to have different interests. Such is the state of NATO. Even promise of new vows in the form of a “new strategic concept” and the offer of missile defenses – cannot rekindle the flame.

With the defeats of the German and Japanese totalitarian regimes and the collapse of Europe’s colonial empires, US elites achieved a century-old goal first enunciated by Senator Seward in the 1850s: the United States as the world’s pre-eminent power. With the creation of the United Nations and related international agencies, the Marshall Plan, NATO, and other alliances, to serve as infrastructures for neo-imperial empire, the 20th century became “the American century.”

The foundations of US dominance – economic, military, cultural, intellectual, political and religious/spiritual – carried with them the seeds of their undoing. The “unipolar order” that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse was a passing – if deadly – illusion. The drive to expand NATO frightened Moscow and hit the wall when it sparked the Georgian War. The “war of choice” against Iraq devastated a nation already bled dry by a decade of sanctions, reinforced Iran’s growing regional influence, transformed the US into a pariah nation and sapped US strength. The unwinnable US/NATO Afghanistan war, which the Pentagon and Obama administration now want to extend through 2014, wasted another trillion dollars, highlighted the superpower’s limitations and sharpened rifts within NATO as Europe turned inward and away from “out of area operations.”

There is also generational change. Conversations with young Germans indicate that the legacies of the Third Reich rest less heavily on their hearts and minds. A generation after the cold war, much the same can be said about US perceptions of Russia and NATO. Just as the Vietnam War has been consigned to ancient history, few in the US are attuned to the continuing bloodshed in Iraq or the US-NATO Afghan war. That the US continues to prepare for nuclear war, with an estimated 180 “tactical” nuclear weapons still based in five European countries – and no plans to remove them – is unimaginable for most.

With our continuing economic crisis, fears that the best days of the United States “are behind us” and the political struggles and fears attending this month’s Republican Congressional victories, few in the US are focused on this weekend’s NATO summit or debates over whether or not (mostly not!) there will be a new NATO strategic concept. As in Europe, these anxieties, combined with the corruptions of our media and electoral democracy and racism bring a whiff of the 1930s as we recall the circumstances that led to the rise of European fascism.

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual for our “national security” elite and the military.

The Albright Report, with its recommendations for a new NATO strategic concept, reflect the ambitions and interests of the US Eastern Establishment. Like Secretary of State Clinton’s declaration of a “new American moment,” it is a dreamscape envisioned to reinforce US, European and global dominance. Fortunately, Europe which has problems enough of its own, is not rushing to embrace it.

NATO was always about more than containing Moscow. After World War II, the USSR was a devastated nation, posing no immediate threat to Western Europe. US leaders understood that, given the Red Army’s sacrifices in driving Hitler’s armies from Moscow across Eastern Europe to Berlin, the post-war division of Europe was inevitable, if not just. Eastern Europe would serve as Moscow’s buffer against future invasions from the West. (Think Napoleon as well as World War I and II.)

Like the unequal treaties that defined European colonialism in Asia, NATO has been a fig leaf, providing a degree of legitimacy for the continuing US military occupation and related US political influence across western Eurasia. Relegitimating this arrangement is a goal of the “new strategic concept” and the Portugal summit.

The Soviet collapse eliminated NATO’s cold war raison d’etre and undermined rationales for the foreign deployment of hundreds of thousands of US warriors and the US military-industrial complex itself. In response, elite figures, led by President Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, conceded the imperial nature of the US project. Before a senior Bush White House official could boast, “We’re an empire and when we act we create our own reality,” Brzezinski published “The Grand Chessboard,” a primer explaining that the Empire’s most essential geostrategic requirement: dominance of the Eurasian heartland. As an “island power,” like Britain before us, he argued that the US must have footholds on Eurasia’s western, southern and eastern peripheries. Brzezinski described NATO allies as “vassal states,” whose elites share in imperial privilege in exchange for the resources and services they provide. Thus, a modified military occupation continues in Western Europe, even if it compromises commitments to democracy and self-determination. NATO also serves as a rear base, reinforcing US dominance of Eurasia’s southern flank: the oil-rich Middle East. And, today, it helps to make the Central Asian war possible.

NATO also reduces the costs of US foreign military interventions, while providing allied European elites relatively low cost guarantees of military security, or at least needed political cover. The US makes its demands and European elites respond with the minimum needed to maintain the alliance.

In Portugal, heads of state will kowtow to an updated version of the Albright report, with its demands for greater alliance solidarity and military spending and its insistence on keeping US nuclear weapons in Europe. But there will be more smoke than fire as papered-over differences fester into the future. One serious focus of debate may be whether NATO officially signs on to stay in Afghanistan through 2014.

The “blah, blah, blah” of the summit in Portugal will not reverse more powerful realpolitik dynamics. Russia’s military power continues to decline to the point that even the Albright Report concedes that Europe faces no immediate threat of a foreign invasion. Despite pressures from generals and military-industrial complexes, with the economic crisis, there will be no appetite to respond to Washington’s demands for greater European military spending. Some NATO forces will likely remain in Afghanistan as long as US does, but the ambition to transform NATO into a global alliance committed to “out of area operations,” in part to contain China’s rise, perished in the Afghan quagmire.

Times do change. The structures on which our nations, societies and lives are based are subject to political physics and entropy. If political structures and relations do not completely decay, they are transformed. Today, the delay in the Senate’s ratification of the New START treaty notwithstanding, with the need for fossil fuels and visions of triangulation to isolate China, entreaties from authoritarian Russia will continue to be actively engaged by Berlin, Paris and even Washington. As Europeans pursue their real interests, pressures from below – from popular movements – and recognition of existential interests – NATO will pass into history. If we are proactive, NATO’s end will come with a whimper and not with catastrophic nuclear or other military bangs.