NATO, but not as they know it

After Georgia: The crisis in the Caucasus reveals the West’s Cold War-era peace-keeping alliance as a force of instability and division today.

What is the point of NATO now? The crisis in the Caucasus confirms that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, created almost 60 years ago to keep the peace on behalf of the West, has become a force for international instability. And that the military-political wing of the Western alliance has become a cockpit of disunity among the Western powers.

NATO is a child of the 50-year Cold War stand-off between the West and the Soviet bloc. It was created as a system of collective defence in April 1949, when the North Atlantic Treaty was signed by the USA, Britain, France, Italy, the Benelux countries, Portugal, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Three years later Greece and Turkey joined.

Britain’s Lord Ismay, the first NATO secretary general, famously stated that the organisation’s objectives were ‘to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down’. West Germany’s re-integration into the fold was later confirmed when it joined NATO in 1955. This led to the formation of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet bloc’s equivalent of NATO.

For 40 years, NATO embodied the belief in a coherent Western political and military alliance under American leadership. Like the Warsaw Pact, it was a force dedicated to maintaining the status quo and not rocking the international boat. NATO was not without its problems, most notably when President De Gaulle’s France broke ranks and opted for an independent defence policy. But the unifying ideology of anti-communism, embodied in the idea of the Soviet threat, was enough to keep the NATO powers together under the nuclear umbrella.

At the end of the 1980s, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union were hailed as great victories for NATO. These events also removed the organisation’s raison d’être. However, in a changing world the old Western powers – especially the British and Americans – were unwilling to let go of the certainties of the past.

Thus the struggle began to find a new mission for NATO. The consequent two decades of thrashing about was to help lead to the current crisis in the Caucasus. Searching for a purpose and a focus for maintaining Western unity, NATO tried to take on the role of an interventionist policeman.

During half a century of the Cold War, forces under NATO’s command had never fired a shot in anger. So what was the first military action carried out by the mighty alliance ostensibly created to defend the West against the Soviet Union? NATO bombed the tiny forces of the Bosnian Serbs in the civil wars in the Former Yugoslavia of the mid-1990s. Then, in 1999, Tony Blair’s Britain and Bill Clinton’s US used the cover of NATO to bomb Serbia into submission over Kosovo, without the sanction of a resolution from the United Nations Security Council.

In 2001, NATO invoked the ‘attack on one is an attack on all’ clause of its charter for the first time ever, bizarrely deciding that the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington constituted an assault on a member state under the treaty’s terms. This decision was used to justify NATO involvement in the invasion of Afghanistan and the wider ‘war on terror’. It is a long way from tank manoeuvres on the plains of Cold War Europe to guerrilla warfare in the Afghan hills.

The other post-Cold War job-creation scheme Western officials have found for themselves has been the project of NATO expansion. When the newly reunified Germany became a member after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said he was assured there would be no further NATO expansion in the east. But in 1997, the former Soviet bloc states of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were invited to join NATO, which they did in 1999. Seven more ex-Soviet bloc states – Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Slovakia - were invited to become NATO members in 2004 and joined in 2006.

Earlier this year Croatia and Albania were invited to join, while Georgia and the Ukraine were told that they could eventually expect to follow. The political expansion of NATO eastwards has been given the appearance of military force with controversial plans for a missile defence shield to be sited in former Warsaw Pact countries.

Why has NATO indulged itself in this policy of expansion? There is no military need for it. Russia today poses no real threat to the West, and is far less of a problem than was the conservative ‘superpower’ Soviet Union. It is hard to resist the conclusion that NATO has moved into the east ‘because it’s there’, in an effort to give this outdated and directionless alliance some appearance of dynamism and fresh purpose.

The consequences of this tokenistic policy, however, have been real and self-destructive enough. NATO has succeeded in antagonising the Russians, with whom it had been building closer relations. It has also raised false hopes of full Western support in places such as Georgia. Both of these factors, as analysed elsewhere on spiked, were instrumental in bringing to a head the crisis between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia (see Georgia: the messy truth behind the morality tale, by Brendan O’Neill).

The fallout from that crisis has also revealed the lack of a united cause among the NATO powers in the post-Cold War world. While the US and British governments have called for tough action against Russia (even if the toughness is largely rhetorical), the French and German authorities have appeared far less keen on raising the stakes with the Russians. Tomorrow’s NATO meeting over the Caucasus may come to some formal agreement, but the deeper tensions are expected to be clear enough.

So an alliance that was supposed to make the world safe for Western democracy has become a catalyst for conflict, instability and division. Anti-militarists have never been friends of NATO. But even its allies should surely be wondering what purpose it serves now.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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