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Photo by ifijay

Way back in April 1949, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded, its first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, had no doubts about the new military alliance’s purpose – ‘to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down’. One can’t argue with immediate results, but the long-term fallout is something else again.

NATO is very much a product of the post-World War Two military standoff between the US and the late (and little lamented) USSR. But, like so many of the products of the Cold War (huge military budgets, wars throughout the Global South, national security paranoia), NATO has not, as many hoped, withered away. Far from it: since the collapse of the USSR it has expanded eastward, with most countries of the former Warsaw Pact joining. Today it counts for 70 per cent of the world’s total military spending. The most recent candidates for membership, Georgia and the Ukraine, have set alarm bells ringing in Moscow.

NATO has also taken on an ever-expanding role as a global police instrument controlled by the Atlantic powers (predominantly the US) but operating anywhere in the world. Its most recent adventure is a very long way from the North Atlantic – the military quagmire in Afghanistan. NATO is the instrument of choice when the US wants to avoid the political complexities of UN peacekeeping. No worries about Security Council vetoes or embarrassing defeats in the General Assembly. As an organization shrouded in military secrecy, most NATO debates take place behind closed doors and political agreements involve only the consent of fairly like-minded politicians. If there is disagreement, US political and economic pressure is usually enough to bend the governing council to its will.

None of NATO’s 13 Secretaries-General have actually been from the US but this is just multilateralist windowdressing. If you look down NATO’s command structure it is easy to find out where the real power lies: the two strategic commands – the ACT (Allied Command Transformation) and ACO (Allied Command Operations) – are in the firm grip of senior US military officers. In the 1960s General de Gaulle realized that the name of the game was US control with a nod to the ‘special relationship’ with Britain. He pulled France out of the NATO command structure in order to maintain an independent military (and foreign) policy. President Sarkozy now wants to go back in.

NATO is far more than a mere mutual defence pact. It includes dozens of institutions: military training schools, air and army bases, research institutes, a pipeline system, parliamentary associations and civil society cheerleading groups. NATO facilities can be found from the Portuguese Azores to Izmir in Turkey, from Stavanger in Norway to Bydgoszcz in Poland. It is embedded in the economy and culture of most of Europe. It also supports a vast military industrial complex spewing out weaponry that has proved remarkably recession-proof in the current global economic turmoil.

NATO has always been surrounded by controversy. In the 1980s an independent peace movement grew up on both sides of the Iron Curtain, opposing what the British historian EP Thompson referred to as the philosophy of ‘exterminism’ associated with the constant upgrading of nuclear weaponry. This movement saw NATO as reinforcing the most authoritarian and recalcitrant elements in the communist world. Similarly, the main political beneficiary of NATO’s eastern march today has been Vladamir Putin and his KGB-style ‘managed’ democracy. Another cost of the continued reliance on a US-dominated NATO has been the failure of the European Union to develop an autonomous voice in global affairs. Writing in the International Herald Tribune, a former State Department bureaucrat, E Wayne Merry, points out that, ‘The failure is at heart psychological. Europeans are so accustomed to using the United States like a pair of crutches for security that they do not notice that their injury is long healed and that using crutches is artificial, awkward, and causes serious strains on the European organism.’ European costs include pressure to maintain unreasonably high defence expenditure, weakening the European social state, and body bags returning from ‘defending’ some remote corner of the US Empire.

Another cost of NATO-dominated security structures is the relationship between the ‘transatlantic alliance’ and the rest of the world. This is readily laid out by a high-profile policy document produced in 2008 entitled ‘Towards A Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World’. Its authors, former defence chiefs from across NATO, call for a kind of super- NATO which could enforce the edicts of ‘a common transatlantic sphere of interest’ anywhere in the world. The icing on the cake would be maintaining NATO’s right to ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons. If you don’t do as we say...

Lurking here is a notion of ‘barbarians’ at the gate of Atlantic civilization (terrorists, migrants, polluters, rogue states) that must be kept at bay by NATO’s forces of order. Absent, of course, is any true multilateral sense of common security of all nations. Assumedly this is left to the woolly-headed and hopeless thinkers at the UN and other such utopian institutions. When it comes to realpolitik it is only NATO you can count on.

Aside from the aggressive racism that underlines such thinking, it no longer reflects the shifting realities of global power. As the continuing economic meltdown has made clear, global financial power has shifted eastward to Asia (particularly India and China). In Latin America, Pax Americana and the Washington Consensus are becoming just a bad memory. With global economic power shifting away from the Atlantic world, it could be left only with the military clout of NATO buttressed by the massive Obama-supported US military machine. In such circumstances it is fair to ask – who will be the barbarians?

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