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NATO and Imperialist Military Expansionism


The NATO Summit took place on June 29 and 30 in Madrid. Pedro Sánchez, president of the “most progressive government in history” formed by the PSOE-Podemos-PCE coalition, presided over the deliberations. The war in Ukraine and NATO’s confrontation with Russia was the main topic on the political agenda at the summit, where a new “Strategic Concept” was defined.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is currently made up of 30 states. In addition, Finland and Sweden are set to join the alliance. Ten states joined NATO in the first four decades after it was founded in Washington in 1949. The greatest expansion took place after the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification. NATO ultimately reached Russia’s borders in the late 1990s.

This political and military organization hegemonized by the United States in an alliance with European imperialism has experienced significant internal tensions throughout its 73-year history. However, after what was perhaps the period of greatest internal decline, during Donald Trump’s presidency, it has been unexpectedly revitalized by the war in Ukraine. Several member states have committed to increasing their military budgets to 2% of their GDP, thus fulfilling a NATO requirement with which, until now, few states had complied. The summit will be marked by the militaristic escalation and the rearmament of all imperialist states under the guise of “defending democracy.”

In this article we review part of its recent history to debate against the idea that it is possible for NATO to play a “democratic” or “progressive” role internationally, which has been widely repeated in Western media. But not only there. On several occasions, but especially now in the context of the war in Ukraine, we have seen “progressive” groups or sectors of the left embellish the role played by NATO, as if it were a progressive camp fighting against Putin’s reactionary regime.

NATO is an imperialist war machine at the service of US and European expansionism. In our time we will undoubtedly see increasing confrontations between world powers, as shown by the war in Ukraine.

Not One Inch

“Not One Inch” is the latest book by US historian Mary Sarotte, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. In it, the author reconstructs the recent history of NATO’s expansion, and especially its growing tensions with Russia. Based on declassified documents, interviews and memoirs of some of the protagonists, Sarotte reviews the key political decisions (from 1989 to 1999) that led to NATO’s “boundless” expansion to the east. The book was published shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, therefore, does not address the events of this year. But many of the points made by the author indicate that the current war is largely a result of policies that were implemented long before and beyond the territory of Ukraine, in Washington, Berlin and Moscow.

The main thesis of Sarotte’s book is that decisions were made in that decade that, at each step, prevented a return to previous positions and “foreclosed other possibilities” in the relationship between NATO and Russia. To illustrate this, she uses the metaphor of a “ratchet,” a toothed wheel that allows motion in one direction only. She maintains that this ratchet was turned at least three times. From 1989 to 1992, during the German reunification process; in the middle of Bill Clinton’s first term with the shift towards NATO expansion to incorporate the former Warsaw Pact countries; and finally with the accession of the Baltic States, which had previously been part of the USSR.

The phrase “Not one inch” referenced by the book’s title was uttered by James Baker, Secretary of State under President George H. W. Bush, in February 1990, to Mikhail Gorbachev, who at that time was head of state of the USSR. Baker reportedly promised that NATO would not expand “one inch” to the east in the context of negotiations regarding Germany’s reunification. For the United States, it was essential that the reunification take place with NATO’s permanent presence, which had not been guaranteed beforehand. This meant that the USSR would have to accept NATO’s expansion beyond the “iron curtain” and it paved the way for the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact shortly afterwards, as well as the USSR’s disintegration in 1991.

The author indicates that, according to various sources, Baker made this promise to Gorbachev, but it was almost immediately rejected by Bush and his team. “To hell with that!” was the response reportedly given by the President of the United States at the time. The author also reconstructs a dialogue between Bush and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, in which the US president reportedly said: “We prevailed, they didn’t. We can’t let the Soviets snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.”

The resolution established with regard to Germany’s reunification (1989-1992) within NATO was a qualitative gain for the interests of the US and the Atlantic alliance in the scenario that emerged after the fall of the Berlin wall. It guaranteed the continued presence of US military bases, troops and nuclear weapons on German territory, as well as the withdrawal of the USSR. The latter was not a minor point, as it is estimated that the USSR’s military presence in East Germany in 1991 included a total of “338,000 military staff, 207,400 family members and civilian personnel, 4,100 tanks, 8,000 armored vehicles, 705 helicopters, 615 aircraft and thousands of artillery pieces, all distributed in 777 barracks, 3,422 training centers and 47 military airports.”

The second key turning point for NATO’s expansion occurred, according to the author, around the middle of Bill Clinton’s first term. Following a brief “honeymoon” period in US-Russian relations, under the leadership of Clinton and Yeltsin, there was a significant decline. Until then, the idea that had prevailed with regard to NATO’s relationship with Eastern European countries was that there would be an “intermediate” path for their integration, through the Partnership for Peace, which would allow their collaboration without fully including them in the Alliance. But that changed quickly. While Russia’s geopolitical maneuverability became increasingly limited, in the context of the unprecedented economic crisis that followed the disintegration of the USSR, NATO’s expansionist line began to prevail.

The author mentions some significant comments made by Clinton in this regard. Referring to Russia’s pressing need for loans from the IMF and other international organizations, which could be used as currency, the US president said: “Russia can be bought off.” Despite Russia’s opposition, NATO’s future expansion would include Article 5 “coverage” for Eastern European states. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined the military organization in 1999 under this statute.

That same year, the ratchet began to turn for a third time, with the decision that the Baltic nations would be the next to join. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia were officially invited to join in 2002 and completed the process two years later. Albania and Croatia joined in 2009 and the accession of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Macedonia was made possible in 2017. Ukraine, the great physical border with Russia, formally applied to join NATO in 2008 and reaffirmed its intention to join in 2014 after Euromaidan.

For Sarotte, these strategic decisions made by the US, Germany and NATO increased Russian hostility and nationalism in the context of what was perceived as a boundless humiliation. This, in addition to other policies implemented in Moscow, led to an increase in tensions between Russia and the Western powers. The author analyzes the period from Gorbachev’s pro-market reforms to the disintegration of the USSR, the economic crisis and the proliferation of mafia-like oligarchies, Yeltsin’s administration and his subsequent decline (not only political but also physical), the two wars in Chechnya, as well as the growth of nationalist and Bonapartist tendencies that were consolidated with Putin’s rise to power.

In February 1997, US diplomat George Kennan published an article in the New York Times in which he claimed that NATO’s expansion had been “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” Sarotte returns to this idea at the end of her book to support the thesis that the possibility of an alternative path, which could have led to better relations between the United States and Russia (greater “multilateralism”), had been foreclosed. Sarotte defends the existence of NATO as well as its expansion. She confirms this in a recent interview, but she entertains the illusion that a different US policy would have prevented what she describes as Russia’s alienation from the Western international order. She also believes it would have even prevented Putin from being the one who made the decisions. She maintains that there was “a wide range of possibilities” and that a “more sustainable and less violent relationship” could have been established. Her analysis is ultimately based on the illusion that the United States could have maintained its hegemonic presence in the world while moderating its militaristic interventionism, achieving some kind of geopolitical order where “consensus” prevailed, rather than force.

This view is shared by sectors of the European social democratic or reformist intelligentsia, who aspire to a more multi-polar international order, and even to greater political and military independence of the EU from the United States. However, it is based on a total lack of understanding of the imperialist character of the main world powers in NATO, as well as the inextricable link between the military, the political and the economic dynamics of capitalism.

NATO, the Imperialist War Machine, and US expansionism

In a speech made alongside the president of Finland and the Swedish prime minister on May 19, Biden presented NATO as a “defensive” alliance that has never been a threat to any nation and whose only purpose is to defend its members against potential aggression. The association of NATO with the defense of freedom and democracy is undoubtedly a brilliant example of political and military marketing. US imperialism has created an extraordinary model in this regard.

NATO clearly plays a “defensive” role, which is, first, to protect the interests of US imperialism and, second, those of its European allies. It emerged in 1949 to confront the Soviet advance through a “collective defense” system, by which the member states of the Treaty agreed to defend any of its members in the event of an attack by a foreign power. This occurred despite the fact that the Stalinist bureaucracy’s policy with regard to imperialism was “peaceful coexistence,” after it had played a key role in defeating the post-war revolutions and collaborated in the recomposition of the bourgeois state in imperialist countries like Italy and France. In 1954, the Soviet Union even made a proposal to join NATO with the aim of maintaining “peace in Europe,” but it was rejected by the allies. This, together with West Germany’s accession to NATO on May 9, 1955, immediately resulted in the establishment of the Warsaw Pact, signed on May 14, 1955 by the Soviet Union and its allies.

Under this strategic framework, NATO’s expansion was sustained over time. As explained above, the qualitative leap took place after the disintegration of the USSR. Since then, NATO’s advance has been overwhelming. And while Russia was effectively placed under siege, NATO intervened in dozens of military conflicts, sowing death and destruction with the aim of expanding and promoting the interests of US imperialism in different regions. This has been and continues to be NATO’s true “offensive” role. The most significant of NATO’s military interventions were the war in Kosovo in 1999, the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and its intervention in Libya in 2011.

The first joint attack operation in NATO’s history was its incursion in the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina against Serbian forces in 1995, in the context of the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the successive wars of independence in the region between 1991 and 2001. But it was in 1999, during the Kosovo war, that NATO unleashed all of its military might. Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro were bombed by 600 planes from thirteen countries, resulting in the deaths of 2,500 to 5,700 civilians, with thousands of others injured, and tremendous material and environmental damage caused by the use of uranium bombs. The justification used for NATO’s intervention was the need to stop the ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbian forces in Kosovo, which had carried out heinous crimes against the civilian population. However, its objective was not to defend the legitimate right to self-determination of Kosovo Albanians, but fundamentally to install a pro-US government that would expand NATO’s presence in Russia’s area of ​​influence in the Balkans.

Engagement in this type of armed conflict on “humanitarian” grounds became a doctrine of the Democratic Party establishment. It is referred to as “liberal interventionism” and was inaugurated by Bill Clinton. And NATO’s incursion into Kosovo was perhaps the most paradigmatic example. As Claudia Cinatti points out, “the United States did not have national interests in the area, but it did have two geopolitical objectives: the first was to present itself as the “indispensable nation” in the context of the European allies’ failure to contain the dismemberment of the Balkan countries. The second, and perhaps the more important one, was to expand NATO towards Russia’s borders as part of a policy of overt hostility.”

The only time so far that a NATO member country has invoked Article 5 of the Treaty requesting aid in its defense was when the United States did so in 2001 after the attack on the Twin Towers. In the context of the so-called “War on Terror,” a concept that emerged at that time from neocon powerhouses, the United States enlisted all NATO members in the invasion of Afghanistan, as part of operation “Enduring Freedom.”

The justification provided for the invasion was the need to capture Osama Bin Laden. It was the perfect excuse for an imperialist operation that was effectively planned as an attempt to avoid the decline of US imperialism, whose vulnerability had been laid bare before the eyes of the world, through a strategy based on its military power and that of its NATO allies.

The operation initially benefited from a great deal of legitimacy and strong support among the population due to the heinous nature of the attacks. But after the fall of the Taliban in October 2001, the protraction of the occupation of Afghanistan for years as part of a “nation building” policy and the generalization of “preventive war” as a method, this began to change. The Iraq war in 2003 was the continuation of this interventionist policy. And it received the support of some unconditional allies like the United Kingdom and the Spanish State. The claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, which was used to justify the war, turned out to be fake news, as everyone was aware. Large movements against the war emerged in countries like Germany, France, the Spanish State, Italy and the United States.

After two decades of occupation, hundreds of thousands of deaths and the devastation of Afghanistan’s territory, the war ended in a humiliating withdrawal of NATO troops and the establishment of a Taliban government, while an Iranian-allied government was installed in Iraq. It was an unexpected result for the neocon strategists who aimed to “redraw the map of the Middle East.”

Lastly, NATO’s intervention in Libya took place in the context of the uprisings and revolutionary processes developing in the Middle East and North Africa, popularly known as the “Arab Spring.” Under the aegis of the UN, whose Security Council gave the green light for an air raid on Libyan territory to “protect civilians,” NATO bombed and intervened militarily in Libya for five months. The actual objective of the military intervention was not to provide “humanitarian aid,” but rather to abort the development of the armed popular uprising and prevent the fall of Gaddafi from resulting in the emergence of a regime that would question the interests and businesses of US and European imperialism, especially those of France, the United Kingdom and Italy, whose oil companies had significant operations there. The imperialist intervention resulted in a wave of death and destruction, and the displacement of millions of people.

Imperialist Progressivism?

In late 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron claimed that Trump’s politics were causing the “brain death” of NATO, suggesting that it was time for Europe to rethink its geopolitical project and its own defense strategy. At that time, many analysts were referring to NATO’s “strategic disorientation.” While US strategists had been focusing on the strategic challenges posed by the emergence of China, the role to be played in the future by the Atlantic alliance was unclear.

Of course, there was no leftism in Macron’s criticism of NATO at that time. Rather, in keeping with the sort of highly degraded brand of Gaullism he has adopted, his only aim was to protect the interests of French and European imperialism ⁠—and even to potentially gain greater independence in their relations with Russia or China. And French imperialism is certainly on a par with US imperialism when it comes to its history of brutal colonialist interventions, racist crimes and the plundering of peoples and territories.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has revitalized NATO, projecting US hegemony over Europe. However, if the war continues over time, which seems to be the White House’s intention, the divisions will re-emerge. The war is taking place on European soil, and its economic consequences are already being felt in the EU. Will Europe be able to carry out its energy reconversion plan so as to dispense with Russian gas before next winter? How will inflation and food prices in European countries continue to be affected by the war? How long will it be possible to maintain this seemingly unanimous alignment of the European bourgeoisie with the US’s strategic plans regarding Russia? These are some of the questions that arise in this scenario.

Among the reformist left there has also been criticism of NATO, for example from Pablo Iglesias in the Spanish State or Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, but this criticism has always remained within the limits of imperialist politics. The program of the electoral coalition (NUPES) led by Mélenchon for the legislative elections in France along with the PS, Greens and Communists, does not include the proposal to exit NATO. In Mélenchon’s words, proposing such a plan “would prevent the union from taking place.” In the case of Mélenchon, when he has toyed with this idea, he has done so to propose a European defense system as an alternative or to prioritize the defense of France’s imperialist interests. The same can be said of Pablo Iglesias: while he questions the role of NATO in his podcast, Podemos and the Communist Party are part of the government that will preside over the Madrid summit and that is advancing in the Spanish State’s imperialist rearmament. In several articles in this supplement we have also debated with other positions on the left that embellish the role played by NATO interventions in conflicts like the one in Libya or the war in Ukraine.

Since 2014, in parallel with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the start of the civil war in Ukraine, NATO member countries have significantly increased their military spending (by 24.9% from 2014 to 2021). But since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, all member states have announced a major increase in their allocations. In this context, it is essential to promote mobilizations against the war, against the Russian invasion, as well as against the imperialist rearmament of NATO member states.

The day of mobilization against the war organized by grassroots trade unionists in Italy, is a good example of this. There, several unions called a strike against the war in Ukraine, but also against the rearmament of their own government, and against the rise in the cost of living. In dozens of cities, demonstrations were organized under the slogan “lower weapons, raise wages.” On June 26, a massive protest will be held in Madrid against the NATO summit, where it is also essential to ensure that an anti-imperialist and independent policy can be expressed.

The war in European territory is accelerating the trend towards greater political, trade and military confrontations between world powers. The Leninist definition of our era as a time of wars, crises and revolutions is more relevant than ever and we will undoubtedly see more turbulent scenarios throughout the 21st century. In this situation, an independent, internationalist and anti-imperialist policy is urgently needed.

Originally published in Spanish on May 21, 2022 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translated by B.C. Daurelle.



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