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60 Years of NATO

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The 60th anniversary year of NATO’s formation will require not just protest but education to strip away the image of a cosy club and show its reality as a nuclear military alliance increasingly drawn into global military adventures. The developments in NATO post-1989 have exposed the hollowness of the claims it made in the previous decades.

The 60th anniversary year of NATO’s formation will require not just protest but education to strip away the image of a cosy club and show its reality as a nuclear military alliance increasingly drawn into global military adventures. The developments in NATO post-1989 have exposed the hollowness of the claims it made in the previous decades.

 

The justification for its existence as a military alliance committed to a first-strike nuclear strategy was that it was faced with an enemy – the Soviet Union – that would invade Western Europe with superior ground forces unless there was the threat of the use of nuclear weapons even against conventional forces. With the introduction of Pershing, Cruise and Trident missiles in the 1980s, the strategy moved from ‘mutually assured destruction’ to developing first strike capacity.

 

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The end of the Soviet Union and the demise of the Warsaw Pact should have resulted in the winding up of NATO. Its rationale had gone. There was much talk in that period of a peace dividend and it should have been the time for negotiating radical cuts in nuclear and conventional disarmament and withdrawing US bases from Europe. None of that was on the agenda. All the arguments used by those who opposed CND and other European peace movements were no longer relevant.  They always argued that they were really in favour of multilateral disarmament but had to maintain constantly updated nuclear capacity because of the large Warsaw Pact armies and Soviet intransigence. There was now only greatly weakened Russian troops, a collapsing economy and a compliant Yeltsin government but they still had no intentions of pursuing nuclear disarmament or ending the NATO alliance. Quite the contrary – the strategy was to recruit new countries into NATO and expand it right up to the Russian borders.  The determination to expand NATO despite the fact that its supposed rationale had gone has exposed its real nature as an American led military power structure seeking ‘full-spectrum’ control not a defensive alliance. From the US perspective, NATO is a way to keep a close grip on Europe and from the perspective of European members states it is a way of staying on board with, what seemed, the only global superpower.

 

So instead of the nineties being a period of serious disarmament and slashed military budgets, it soon became apparent that the game was to expand the military power base and to continue promoting arms expenditure and new military technical innovation. Some of
this pressure would have come from the normal institutional vested interests – staff and officials had to invent new roles for themselves to keep their jobs (rogue states and ‘you never know what will happen’) and commercial interests had to keep lobbying for new arms expenditure. But there was a bigger strategic picture being played out in addition to the vested interests. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US saw itself as the only superpower with a window of opportunity to entrench its global role. Its objective in NATO was to expand its membership to all the former Soviet bloc countries together with the former Yugoslavia except for Russia itself. The outcome would be that the former rival would be completely surrounded and there would be no prospect for it ever to rival the US again. In addition the establishment of ‘missile shield’ bases would make its dominance even greater by ‘neutering’ (or supposedly so since the system is unlikely to work) Russia’s nuclear capacity. The outcome (so it was presumed) would be a uni-polar world with permanent US control. Some NATO members, like Germany, were rather more cautious about this encirclement strategy and have slowed its pace but the strategic objectives have been quite clear to the Russians and have produced a predictable response – a threat to increase its nuclear capacity. From the prospect in 1989 of nuclear disengagement we have
in 2009 the prospect of another arms race.

 

There has been another strand in NATO’s role that has changed quite radically. It was supposed to act only in the European context but it has been taken in a new global direction by the US. It has pressurised NATO members (with enthusiastic British support) to act in Afghanistan and this pressure is likely to increase with the Obama presidency, both to give legitimacy to its actions but also to spread the economic and manpower burden. This attempt to develop a global role is unpopular with the public in many member states and this may inhibit its further development. It is interesting to note that the Israelis pushed for NATO to be the ‘peacekeepers’ on the Lebanon border and is also saying that it is only NATO it would accept in that role in Gaza. Since that would be totally unacceptable to much of the rest of the world, it won’t happen but it does illustrate the straws in the wind.

 

Isobel Lindsay