The case against the continued existence of NATO is made by examining its role in the Libya, Ukraine and Syria conflicts.
Donald Trump’s inauguration has focused worldwide opposition against the direction of American power to the greatest extent since at least the fallout of George W. Bush’s destructive and illegal wars in the Middle East.
Everything about Trump’s person, platform and political movement justifies this generalised opposition – but much of what is most dangerous about US policy around the world at the dawn of 2017 – complicity with Saudi war crimes in Yemen, silence over Israeli occupation and blockade of Palestinian lands, continued bank-rolling of military bases, drone operations and nuclear silos around the globe – is the continuation of long-standing American policy, including under Barack Obama.
With a newly mobilised opposition to American imperialism in all its aspects, this is an opportunity to open up previously taboo debates on former sacred cows – such as NATO.
The contrast between rhetoric and reality on NATO is striking. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was established to counter a communist superpower (the Soviet Union) and, later, a military alliance (the Warsaw Pact), neither of which exist anymore. Even its supporters should acknowledge that this demands a reappraisal of the organisation’s purpose, though such a discussion has never occurred in the public political sphere of any of its member states.
And yet, when Jeremy Corbyn responded to a question on NATO in a Labour leadership debate by saying he favoured promoting diplomatic relations with Russia on the basis of international law over a British military engagement with the country as part of NATO, thus triggering a Third World War, Corbyn was lambasted by many critics within the party. One MP wrote: “As one of the most significant achievements of the post war Attlee government, Nato – like the creation of the welfare state, the NHS and the development of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent - is also one of the shining achievements of the Labour party.”
Similarly, the night Trump was elected, his supporters, American and British alike (including Nigel Farage), were asked by incredulous BBC journalists whether they supported Trump’s position on NATO (as a candidate he had questioned its relevance). For these journalists, Trump’s ambiguous stance towards NATO was a major consideration of his presidency.
Regardless of one’s opinion on the role of NATO in the days of the socialist command economies of Eastern Europe, it is today a naked extension of American militarism and foreign policy among the sovereign states of Europe. Three salient examples will demonstrate this.
Firstly, Libya. The second largest proportion of nationals entering Europe as refugees are Libyans, following the wholesale destruction of that country at the hands of NATO in 2011. Those who lament the plights of the thousands crossing the Mediterranean ought to have unambiguously taken a line against the Western devastation of that country in 2011, or at least sought forgiveness for their errors. Anything else equates with the crocodile tears shed by Tim Farron as Liberal Democrat leader when reflecting on the refugees he voted to create.
Lest it be believed that the NATO intervention in Libya was a humanitarian intervention gone wrong, recall the conference in Paris after the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi where Libya’s substantial, and formerly mostly state owned, oil reserves were shared out among the intervening powers. Thus, the new Libyan state was robbed of ownership of its own natural riches and the financial means of building a better society. The destruction of Libyan society was in-built into the design of the intervention itself.
A second example is Ukraine. Recent reporting on Ukraine by Western media has not necessarily been mendacious, merely so devoid of detail or context as to be meaningless, lending itself to cliché and caricatural interpretations of international relations. Viktor Yanukovych, the last democratically elected president of Ukraine, was forced out of the country in 2014 by often violent protests in Kiev, giving rise to a ‘provisional government’ that included openly neo-Nazi parties and ministers. The United States has a demonstrable track record of backing staged ‘revolutions’ in Eastern European and Central Asian countries with governments favourable to Russia. Ukraine had been a democracy since its secession from the Soviet Union, and in its brief period both pro-Russian and pro-‘Western’ figures have ascended to its presidency, until the final destruction of the country by the 2014 putsch and its external allies.
Russian-speaking Eastern parts of the country rose up in protest with many declaring secession as an unelected government in Kiev toppled the president they had elected, installed fascists into government ministries, outlawed the communist party despite its strong support in the East and removed Russian as a state language. That there was an understandable political context to the protestations of these communities was not discussed in Western media, which suggested instead they were acting as stooges of the Kremlin.
Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea violated international law. This incident is held up as evidence of insatiable Russian expansionism and the necessity of NATO. Nowhere in the public debate is it asked why Vladimir Putin did not also move to annex other parts of Eastern Ukraine that were ungoverned by Kiev, Russian-speaking and declaring support for their Eastern neighbour.
Crimea has been the site of Russia’s only warm water naval base since Tsarist times, when present-day Ukraine formed part of the Russian Empire, as it did throughout the existence of the Soviet Union. It was an internal re-designation of the Russian-Ukrainian border in the 1950s that made Crimea part of Ukraine not Russia. The Soviet leadership did not anticipate that this would lead to Moscow’s Black Sea fleet being domiciled in another country created by the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union. Peace in this transition was guaranteed by an understanding of the neutrality of Ukraine (that it would join neither the anti-Russian NATO nor any future Warsaw Pact equivalent).
The 2014 regime change naturally endangered this understanding, posing the imminent threat of a pro-American government in Kiev joining NATO, making it possible for American troops to be stationed on the Russian border, alongside strategic energy pipelines and a crucial naval base. The Crimean annexation can therefore be read as a calculated defence of Russian strategic interests – justified or otherwise – that is ironically caused by aggressive NATO expansionism since 1991 to encircle – and provoke – the regime in Moscow.
Thirdly, there is Syria. Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in Syria, Bashar al-Assad and Russia have sought a diplomatic solution to the conflict, no doubt swayed by the initial weakness of the Damascus regime on the ground. Diplomatic efforts were resisted by Western-backed opposition groups, in the hope that by holding out there would be a Libya-style intervention that would remove Assad and bring them to power, without the need for compromise or negotiation. This included some explicitly calling for NATO action.
The alternatives are clear – diplomatic exchange in the context of international law. To say such measures lack force is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as multilateral institutions such the UN have only the strength their member states are willing to lend to them. Given the international moral legitimacy carried by international war, it is worth noting the likely illegality of NATO – and its heinous actions in Libya and elsewhere – under the UN charter.
If it has been hard to criticise NATO in the past – presumably due to some hangover of Cold War rhetoric about the defence of the free West – the fact that European states are currently locked into diplomatic and military ties with the US of Donald Trump is an opportunity to slaughter this sacred cow once and for all.