As Russia increases its presence in the Crimean Peninsula and its sabre rattling towards Ukraine, NATO is being portrayed by the establishment as a necessary protector. But can NATO be a positive force? John Molyneux looks at the history of NATO intervention and argues that its function is not to protect ordinary people, but rather to further the United States’ own imperial ambitions.
When the Polish-German socialist, Rosa Luxemburg, was denouncing the First World War she pointed out that the German press was full of attacks on the crimes of Russian and British imperialism but silent about Germany’s own imperialist deeds and aspirations. Similarly the British press of the time condemned German militarism and aggression but said nothing about Russia (Britain’s ally) or British massacres and conquests i.e. the imperialist powers told the truth about their opponents but lied about themselves.
Imperialism has never just been about the oppressive relationship between powerful countries and their victims (indigenous peoples, small countries etc) but also always about conflict between rival imperial powers. For example Britain gained decisive control over Canada, North America and India in the Seven Years War against France in 1756-63.
Imperial powers always present their operations as ‘defensive’ and ‘in response’ to attacks from rivals or rebels. Thus in Derry on Bloody Sunday the Paras were responding to gunfire from the IRA and in Palestine the Israelis are always responding to rockets from Hamas. British imperialism has been playing this card for centuries. It ‘defended’ itself against the Spanish Armada, the Dutch in the mid 17th century, the French throughout the 18th century, Napoleon at the start of the 19th century, then the Russians in the Crimea, the Sudanese in Sudan, the Germans in Africa and ended up ruling a third of the world. And, of course, with any great empire, the larger it is the more there is to ‘defend’.
All this applies to NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). It was launched on the initiative of the US on 4 April 1949 and consisted of 12 mainly Western European countries: the US, France, Belgium, Netherlands , Luxemburg, Canada, UK, Portugal, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. This was when anti-Communism and McCarthyism was at its height in the US. It claimed, naturally, to be a defensive alliance to prevent a Soviet attack on western Europe (for which there was no evidence and which, given the balance of forces, was unlikely in the extreme). In reality it was an instrument for the enlargement and projection of US imperial power.
Some care was taken to construct a civilian superstructure for NATO which would make it appear an alliance of ‘equals’. But the military realities behind this facade expose the absurdity of this notion. In reality US military power far exceeded that of all other NATO members combined. It still does. In 2020 US military spending stood at $778 billion. That of China was $252 billion and Russia ‘only’ $62 billion. Indeed US spending exceeded that of the next ten countries in the world put together ($630 billion). And when it comes to global military reach the US has about 750 military bases worldwide. No other country comes anywhere near this figure. This is not because China, Russia etc are more peace loving; it is simply a fact conditioned by all of modern history.
The ‘balanced’ appearance of NATO is fostered by drawing its civilian figure head – the Secretary-General – from different countries in turn. It is currently Jens Stoltenberg, former Prime Minister of Norway. But from 1949 to the present every one of NATO’s 19 Supreme Military commanders has been from the US.
It is therefore inconceivable that NATO would take action other than at the behest of and in the service of US imperialism.
This is borne out by the history of NATO interventions.
The Balkans: In September 1995 NATO mounted a two week bombing campaign, called Operation Deliberate Force, against Bosnian Serbia, destroying 338 targets, dropping over a thousand bombs and making use of depleted uranium munitions. In 24 March – 10 June 1999 NATO launched a further bombing campaign on Yugoslavia, called Operation Noble Anvil by the US, which claimed about 500 civilian lives.
Afghanistan: In 2001 the United States was able to mount its invasion of Afghanistan under the auspices of NATO which entrenched Afghanistan in a cycle of terrible war that lasted 20 more years and in total defeat for the United States.
Iraq: In 2004 NATO sent forces to assist the disastrous US invasion of Iraq by ‘training’ Iraqi forces. This was primarily a way of ensuring at least token participation in the appalling Iraq war by its various allies.
Gulf of Aden: Beginning on 17 August 2009, NATO deployed warships in an operation to protect maritime traffic in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean from Somali Pirates, and help strengthen the navies and coast guards of regional states. Typically the operation involved warships primarily from the United States though vessels from many other nations are also included.
Libya: In 2011 the US used NATO to intervene in Libya against the regime of Colonel Gadaffi. It mounted over 5900 attacks and devastated the country – devastation from which it has still not recovered.
None of these interventions had anything to do with defending democracy. They were all exclusively concerned with assisting in the process of maintaining the US empire.
Defence, enlargement and democracy
If NATO had really been about defending Western Europe from Soviet attack, NATO would have dissolved itself after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 19889-91. By then it was abundantly clear that Russia not only did not intend to march into Germany or France etc but could not possibly do this if they wanted. But far from dissolving, NATO set about a relentless process of expansion, precisely in the direction of Russia’s borders. In 1999 the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined. Followed by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia in 2004 and Albania and Croatia in 2009. From an original 12 countries NATO has enlarged to a total of 30, with many directly bordering on Russia.
In 1962 the US took the world to the very brink of nuclear war over the presence of Russian missiles in Cuba. Imagine the outcry and the howls of rage (including in the Irish media) if the Warsaw Pact (Russia’s equivalent of NATO) had expanded to include Canada and Mexico along with Venezuela and Brazil.
Any notion that NATO has anything to do with defending democracy as opposed to advancing the strategic interests of the US and its main allies is laughable. It is not just a question of what it has done, the actual interventions it has made, but also what it has failed to do. The instances where NATO and the US have failed to ‘defend democracy’ or even speak up for it are legion: they range from Chile under Pinochet, Brazil and Argentina under military rule in the 70s, Greece under a military junta 1967-74, Apartheid South Africa, Apartheid Israel always, through to Saudi Arabia and Egypt today.
To this can be added the fact that many NATO countries have assisted the US in its horrific policy of extraordinary rendition whereby political prisoners are flown to counties where they can be interrogated i.e. tortured, by methods not permitted in the US.
The bigger picture
NATO must be seen within the bigger picture. It is just one arm of the foreign policy of US imperialism, running alongside the Organisation of American States (OAS), the AUKUS deal in the Far East, the activities of the CIA and multiple other agencies, all ultimately dependent on and serving US economic and military power.
This in turn exists within the framework of global imperialist rivalry. In the 20th century the US established itself as the overwhelmingly dominant economic and military superpower and it saw off the challenge from the USSR. In the 21st century US hegemony is coming under threat from China, whose economy is consistently outgrowing that of the US. In the long run military power rests on and follows Economic power. The US is attempting to use its current military superiority to shore up its economic empire and construct a ring of bases and alliances to hem China in. Restricting Russia – in geo-political terms a potential ally of China – is part of this strategy.
Socialists oppose this whole system. Unlike Labour and Social Democracy (in Ireland and internationally) we do not line up with US and Western imperialism. Unlike the Stalinists and some on the left we do not support China or Russia (each of which has its own imperial ambitions) or their surrogates and we especially do not support them against revolts by their own people as in Kazakhstan or Hong Kong.
But Ireland is part of the Western, US-led bloc. Despite Ireland’s official neutrality, the fact is that our political establishment consistently acts in concert with the US and NATO, whether by allowing the US military to use Shannon, or supporting Israel, or joining in the fake ‘outrage’ about Ukraine. They are also working gradually towards getting Ireland to openly abandon its neutrality (which is supported by the majority of the Irish people) and join NATO and increase its commitment to a European army via PESCO. Therefore our main job, without having any illusions in Xi Jiang or Putin, is to concentrate our political fire on our own rulers.