NATO: Balkan Paper Tiger – OpEd
By Eric Walberg
What’s up with NATO these days?
In 2009, NATO celebrated its 60th anniversary. With its recent deluge of new member states, it needed more space and announced it would build a new HD across the street from the bunker-like 1950s original one.
It was supposed to open in 2015, but in a fitting metaphor for the troubled organization, it was discovered that the half billion euro project would cost twice that, and would not be finished till 2017. Just in time, as the new US president was toying with the idea of dispensing with what he has called an expensive, obsolete organization, even as it continues to expand, long after what many considered to be its expiry date.
So it was with a sigh of relief that the 28 European member heads of state welcomed the abrasive American leader in May 2017 for the dedication of the new HQ. Trump came, but took the opportunity to lecture his NATO allies for not spending enough for collective defence, and declined to endorse Article 5 of the alliance’s founding treaty, which states that an attack on any member is an attack on all. His subtext: Enough of pulling Euro irons out of fires.
The conventional wisdom now is that NATO will endure indefinitely, and the strange new headquarters, more like a massive ramp on the nearby expressway, or a cavernous airport, certainly gives that impression. The designers intended the fluted shell to represent interlocking fingers – symbolizing Allied unity and cooperation, but it could just as easily symbolize its fractured, brittle, disjointed character.
After 1991, NATO changed from Cold War defence pact to something much more ambitious. Its supporters argue because it is composed of “likeminded liberal democracies with shared interests” and is “a community of values”, it will endure. Expansion is justified as “a tool for democracy promotion”, the building of liberal democracy in the former communist countries, and crisis management in Europe and the world, responding to “new” threats of terrorism and proliferating weapons of mass destruction.
It is an instrument of collective security with new “cooperative” security institutions, including the Partnership for Peace and the special consultative forums with Russia (now, long gone) and Ukraine, for crisis management and peacekeeping operations beyond NATO territory. Strengthening existing networks and developing new ones “will create a genuine global rule of law without centralized global institutions.” (Read: who needs the UN?)
This acceptance of the transformation of NATO from a “temporary Cold War creation to fight the Soviet Union to a strategic partnership” which “transcended the common or any other specific threat—based on common values and interests” was far from certain when the Soviet Union collapsed. People just assumed NATO would disband along with the Warsaw Pact. French president Francois Mitterand coined the slogan “US out and Russia in”, meaning, of course, Europe. Czech Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier in 1990 proposed replacing NATO and the Warsaw Pact with the OSCE European Security Commission but clearly the new Czech leaders were given a talking-to and in 1991 a Czech Foreign Ministry official reversed Mitterand’s call: “We wanted it the other way around.”
Ronald Asmus, a Cold War Hungarian dissident now at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and a so-called ‘liberal’ hawk (‘liberal’ on domestic policy and hawkish on foreign policy), was a key player under Clinton to end talk of shutting NATO down, and instead sought to expand it as quickly as possible. He set out the new program in the Council on Foreign Relation’s Foreign Affairs, portraying the new member-hopefuls as a pro-US political elite eager and willing to do whatever the US wants, and exhorting France to “abandon its exaggerated fear of American hegemony”. He predicted that future massacres such as occurred in Bosnia will be prevented by a rapid reaction force.
There was also a split in the US establishment over expanding NATO. Unlike the Euro-split, which was really a disagreement over US world hegemony, the US debate was, on the contrary, whether being saddled with a string of poor, unprepared, untried statelets would advance or hinder this (US) hegemony, making NATO a confused, ungovernable, fractious debating forum (like the expanded EU), or a functional alliance, bringing the new entries up to western military standards quickly and cementing them in the western alliance of nations.
Democrat defence doyen Sam Nunn was against expansion: yes, defend eastern Europe against Russia, but Russia would see expansion as aimed at it. Realists like Nunn realized that Russia would not submit, that enlargement was very expensive, that expansion was probably not really useful to US imperialism, and control of nuclear weapons was a more important objective and one that would not antagonize Russia. But Republicans and ‘liberal’ hawk Democrats like Asmus won the day with their policy of expansion, and approved of the NATO bombing of Bosnia in 1995 and Serbia in 1999. This marked the end of Yugoslovia as a ‘modern’ state, which conducted its own foreign policy. Among postmodern states, the use of force is now unthinkable, but it is fine when dealing with premodern states (Afghanistan, Iraq), or the remaining modern states (Russia, China).
Trump has hinted loudly that he is not interested in the US as world policeman, that he wants to improve relations with Russia, and that he sees NATO as that confused debating club disdained by the anti-NATO crowd. But he still acts as if the US is the world hegemon in Syria and Iraq, and with daggers drawn against him in Washington, he has softened his tone on NATO, so it is impossible to predict where he will take us (and NATO).
How do you analyze the effects of joining NATO on the political interdependence of the Balkan countries?
This postmodern imperialism—on the surface—is the voluntary, multilateral global economy, kept in place by the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and, of course, NATO. The postmodern EU offers a vision of cooperative empire: “The age-old laws of international relations have been repealed. Europeans have stepped out of the Hobbesian world of anarchy into the Kantian world of perpetual peace.” (Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, 2003.) After the Yugoslav civil war in the 1990s, the Balkans entered this brave, new world. But what is it underneath? What is it in reality?
The transformation of countries to postmodern status is really a form of castration, of their subordination to the US agenda. Kagan’s “perpetual peace” is more like the peace of the grave. The US, by invading the remains of Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan, and by pressuring and subverting Iran, Syria and others, is in reality trying to reduce—to carve up—these countries into similarly harmless but crippled third world versions of the more fortunate postmodern western European states. Thus, the attraction of joining the NATO club (before it ‘joins’ you). Much better to concede defeat before you are invaded and reduced to rubble. Just ask the Serbians, Afghanis, Iraqis, Libyans or Syrians.
Almost nowhere is the question raised of whether NATO should have been dissolved with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, clearly the intent of Gorbachev, western non-hawks and ordinary citizens everywhere, leaving the international order to the UN and other truly multilateral organizations.
One prominent mainstream US voice has been William Pfaff, who complained that “large and firmly implanted bureaucratic organizations are almost impossible to kill, even when they have no reason to continue to exist, as is the case of NATO since the Soviet Union, communism, and the Warsaw Pact all collapsed.” Apart from the huge and useless expense of maintaining it, it is nonsensical for a military alliance to pretend to be a democracy-promotion vehicle. Worse, its continued existence and expansion has led to a new arms race and Cold War with Russia. Its only justification—its real intent—is as a means to ensure uninterrupted US world hegemony. Trump likes the cake, but wants it at a discount, and without upsetting the Russians. Can he square the circle?