The strange death of the NATO alliance

Why is the West’s North Atlantic Treaty Organisation squabbling over who should bomb north Africa, 20 years after the Cold War ended?

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics World

How did something called the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – NATO – come to be dropping bombs on Libya in north Africa? What is a military alliance set up 62 years ago, ostensibly to defend Western Europe against the Soviet Union, doing waging a disreputable little war in 2011 – 20 years after the Soviet bloc ceased to exist? And why is NATO, aka the Western alliance, now so disunited and disoriented that none of the alleged allies seems able to agree who is in charge of the Libyan intervention or exactly what it is supposed to achieve?

The identity crisis being experienced by NATO in the skies over Libya is the latest chapter in the unravelling of the old world order and the crisis of Western leadership. That crisis might not seem like much of a problem to those of us who were always inclined to look upon NATO as a front organisation for US and Western imperialism. The trouble is that it is creating an unstable world where nothing is certain, things can quickly unravel, and a local conflict in a small state such as Libya can be turned into an open-ended international war.

NATO, lest we forget, was formed by the North Atlantic Treaty of April 1949 as a Cold War system of collective defence between the US, the UK, France, eight other European states, and Canada. Designed to help stabilise and secure postwar Western Europe under the protection of American power and in the face of the Soviet bloc, its purpose was defined by NATO’s first secretary general Lord Ismay as ‘to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down’. That was refined in 1955 when the West German state joined the NATO alliance – which prompted the Soviets to set up their Warsaw Pact of East European states in opposition.

Through the Cold War decades, NATO stood under the US nuclear umbrella as a symbol of Western unity and power in the world, staging huge military manoeuvres without ever firing a shot in anger. Even then there were tensions among member states, most notably the French, who withdrew from NATO’s military structure in 1966 in protest at American dominance. But in general the alliance was held together by the cement of anti-communism.

When the Cold War ended and the Soviet bloc collapsed, it might have been assumed that NATO’s job was over, its battle won without a fight. The Warsaw Pact dissolved in 1991, and the West’s rival alliance should logically have followed suit. Yet in the subsequent 20 years the opposite has happened. NATO has somehow expanded from its original 12 members to number 28 states today, including several former Warsaw Pact members. Even France fully rejoined the apparently redundant alliance in 2009.

More bizarrely yet, NATO, having never fired so much as a pea-shooter at the Soviet Union during 40-plus years of the Cold War it was created to contest, has since launched several hot wars and interventions. NATO’s first-ever military actions were in 1994-95, not to defend its members but to attack the Bosnian Serbs during the Yugoslav civil war. In 1999 NATO went further, providing the cover for Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s three-month bombing war against Serbia over Kosovo.

And it got stranger. In 2001, in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in New York and Washington, NATO for the first time ever invoked Article 5 of its treaty on collective security, calling on members to rally to defend one of their number – even though nobody knew exactly who they were supposed to defend America against.

This led to NATO backing the US-UK invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and, in 2003, NATO assumed permanent command of Western forces in the Afghan War. This was its first deployment outside Europe and North America, a long way from the North Atlantic, and a war without any clear causes or aims that seemed a far cry from the ‘collective security’ of the West. Now, albeit under some duress, NATO has taken over running the Western powers’ no-fly-zone in Libya without any pretence of its collective security being at stake, though its members remain reluctant to take responsibility for a half-cocked war which appears even more open-ended and lacking in clarity than the mess in Afghanistan (see The barbarism of buffoons, by Brendan O’Neill).

In short, in the era when NATO had a clear mission and sense of purpose in the world, it never fired a shot. Yet since the end of the Cold War removed that purpose, and with it the alliance’s ostensible raison d’être, NATO has become involved in a series of increasingly far-flung and directionless conflicts, an obsolete alliance trying to find some role in a world changing beyond recognition.

While the name remains the same, the meaning of NATO has changed too. In the Cold War, the US exercised its dominance of the Western world through the anti-Soviet NATO alliance. From the 1990s, the US and other Western powers sought to relaunch NATO as a collective champion of supposedly humanitarian intervention in other people’s conflicts, in order to bolster their global authority and forge a new world order.

Today, over Libya, NATO stands exposed as an empty shell, an alliance in name alone. The US no longer exercises global leadership through NATO. Instead it has effectively withdrawn from the Libyan conflict and pushed NATO forwards in its stead. Yet no other NATO member has the wherewithal or the will to take the lead. For all their pretensions to playing an independent role, even the French government is now reduced to complaining that the Americans should do more.

When the US, French and British leaders published their joint call to arms on Libya earlier this month, it looked less like a collective show of strength than an exercise in buck-passing, each trying to hide behind one another and the paper shield of NATO. It was striking that no NATO members responded to the request to send more warplanes to bomb the Gaddafi regime – not even US president Barack Obama. Lacking leadership and direction, the NATO states are now like longstanding members of a club who still begrudgingly pay their dues, but take little active part in its activities, while grumbling about one another’s habits and especially about the self-aggrandising committee members.

Those who might doubt the disorientation of NATO today could do worse than glance at the organisation’s own website. There, as an explanation of what NATO is for today, they will find this pathetic introductory statement: ‘We want to be sure we can walk around freely in a safe and secure environment. Security in all areas of everyday life is key to our wellbeing, but it cannot be taken for granted.’ This is set against background images of children jumping for joy and what look like students relaxing on the ground with a bird and a flower. The overall impression is more of a Neighbourhood Watch Committee or a Campus Women’s Safety Group than of a military alliance defending the free world.

Those on the left who have long viewed NATO as a front for Western imperialist interests around the globe, whether marching under the banners of anti-communism or humanitarianism, will shed no tears for the decline of the alliance or pine for the old days of simple US hegemony. Yet the leadership crisis embodied in the emptying out of NATO does matter.

It means that we are potentially faced with the worst of all worlds: not an end to imperialism, but an era of imperialism without purpose. Rather than forming strategic alliances and staking out solid geopolitical positions, disoriented Western powers are now capable of lashing out in any direction largely to project a moral image of themselves. In the process they will interfere in and blow up other people’s conflicts for no good reason, turning civil wars into international battlefields. In such arbitrary situations it is possible for things to unravel out of control, for the clattering train of which nobody is in charge to charge on who knows where. The only thing that seems certain about such a shapeless, leaderless and open-ended intervention as NATO’s Libyan war is that no good will come of it, least of all for those on the receiving end.

Who needs NATO now? The alliance is an empty shell, yet in the absence of anything to replace it, NATO continues to command the centre of world affairs. No state has the power or the determination to step forward to break the mould and challenge for a new world order. Even the economic superpower of China, now creeping into political and military affairs by, for instance, sending new warships to the Middle East while Western powers are scuppering their old ones, remains for now a conservative status quo power with no interest in going to war with NATO for the world.

So the ghost of NATO can still stalk the stage, as the Western powers limp about the globe sticking their noses and bombers into other people’s business and liberties. Where will it end? NATO only knows – and it doesn’t really have a clue.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked

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Topics World


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