BY KAREL VAN WOLFEREN
Where I live (the Netherlands), if you were to call NATO the world’s most dangerous institution, a consensus would quickly form to conclude that you must have lost your marbles. Yet, without NATO we would not have a Ukraine crisis, and no speculations about the possibility of war with Russia. Taking nuclear war seriously as a policy option should be listed in psychology handbooks as indicative of complete insanity or lethal ignorance. This has not stopped newspaper editors from speculating about it in their headlines, as they fill in the blanks of what a number top officials on both sides of the Atlantic have recently been half-saying or implying. With no NATO they would not have had occasion or reason to do so. Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko recently said: “Everybody is afraid of fighting with a nuclear state. We are not anymore”. Political insanity can exist independently of NATO, but the least one can say is that it has become a facilitator of that insanity.
It would therefore be a momentous development for what is still called ‘the West’ if last week’s Der Spiegel signals a relevant German awakening. The weekly magazine published a hard hitting article in which the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Breedlove, is accused of undermining Chancellor Merkel’s attempts to find a solution to the Ukraine crisis through diplomacy. The military head of NATO, with his exaggerations and untruths about Russian troop movements, spouts “dangerous propaganda” according to officials in Merkel’s Chancellery, as quoted by the magazine. In other words, he can no longer be trusted.
Lies coming out of Washington that portray Putin as the grand aggressor are nothing new; for about a year they have formed a constant stream, from the lips of the Vice President, the Secretary of State, and in a milder form from the President himself. As a result the idea of Russian aggression has become close to an article of faith in Northern Europe’s mainstream media. But by singling out Breedlove, the German fingerpointing is directed at NATO, and Obama and Co may draw their own conclusions from it.
An assortment of conflicts have gone into the Ukraine crisis, but the two that now appear to have become fundamental to it play themselves out far away from that tragic country. One is centered in Washington where an out-of-his-depth president must decide whether to become realistic or give in further to right-wing forces that want to give the Kiev regime the weapons needed to continue its war in Eastern Ukraine. The second conflict is an incipient one about NATO – meaning European subservience to the United States – begun by Angela Merkel’s and Francois Hollande’s recently formed Peace Party, of which their mission to the Kremlin, Merkel’s joint press conference with Obama and the abovementioned German reporting are early signs.
Until now Obama has given as good as free rein to the liberal hawks and neocons in his own government. The War Party. A prominent member of that group, Victoria Nuland, who played a central role in helping to organize the coup d’état in Kiev last year, is eager to give Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko the means to survive the onslaughts of supernationalists in his own environment and to subdue, finally, the anti-regime troops in South East Ukraine. Nuland works closely with Breedlove, and both have expressed themselves in denigrating terms about European recalcitrance in the face of what they want to accomplish.
Should Obama choose to become realistic, it would require measures to show the world his re-established political control over the State Department, and other institutions where neocons and “responsibility to protect” liberals have nestled. These have been writing America’s foreign policy basics since George W. Bush. It would also have to be accompanied by a genuine change of position vis-à-vis Putin. Obama must be aware that if, instead, he chooses to continue siding with the War Party, he runs the risk of demonstrating to all and sundry NATO’s impotence as military instrument of ‘The West’. The fighting forces of Donetsk and Lubansk wage an existential battle, and have all along been superior to the demoralized and apparently disorganized Kiev military. American intervention could only be effective if the proposed ‘lethal weapons’ have the capacity to turn the Ukraine war into a theatre of full military escalation, with tactical nuclear weapons an ultimate option.
The newly revealed split in transatlantic purposes may finally decide NATO’s future. As an institution that began living a life of its own with purposes and actions entirely different from, and at odds with, the original purposes for which it was created, NATO has had a much more fateful influence on political Europe than is routinely understood. Set up in 1949 to reassure a demoralized and war devastated Europe that it would help prevent a new war, the European member countries normally do not question the official reason that it exists to protect them. But there has not been a single instance since the demise of the Soviet Union to confirm such a function. It has, instead, forced governments to lie to their populations (we are threatened from behind the Hindu Kush and Saddam Hussein can make mushroom clouds), poisoning the air in which reasoned geopolitical discussion ought to have taken place. It has, moreover, created risks from blowback activity as member countries participated in wars that were none of NATO’s business.
But NATO’s worst consequence is what it has done to Europe’s prospects to pull itself out of its current muddledom and become a political entity recognizable as such by the rest of the world. It has prevented the European Union from developing a defense policy, and consequently a foreign policy worthy of the term. Since the demise of its original reason for existence, it has caused Europe to slip ever further into a relationship vis-à-vis the United States best compared to medieval vassalage. That sad fact could hardly have been more blatantly obvious when in 2014 it succumbed to Washington’s pressure to join punitive economic sanctions against Putin’s Russia, to its own significant economic detriment, and for reasons justified solely by American propaganda.
The ease with which European Union heads of government fell in line behind misguided American efforts in the demonization of Putin reveals an even deeper problem. Since the end of the Cold War NATO has kept European politicians in a kind of geopolitical kindergarten, encouraging a comic book style vision of world affairs scripted in Washington with bad guys threatening the West and its ‘values’.
Some of this is of course well-understood in parts of the highest ruling circles of the European Union. Hence the recent suggestion made by EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker in an interview with Germany’s Die Welt newspaper, that Europe requires its own army to amount to anything on the world stage, and also to impress Russia with what Europe stands for. Juncker is well-known as an enthusiast for a federal Europe.
One of the reasons to wake European Union up to the fact that is a political entity, and to encourage its development in the direction of a federal superstructure, is that by projecting its own power it could create a much needed counterbalance to the tragic American extremism in world affairs. It would force a militarist United States to stop legimizing its aggression with references and appeals to putative ‘Western values’.
The European Union missed a chance to establish itself squarely on the world stage when Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder did not clarify why they denied George W. Bush a UN Security Council resolution for his invasion of Iraq. They failed to explain to their own public and to the wider world that Europe continues to uphold the UN Charter as the basis of what we have in the way of fledgling international law. Instead, from that moment onward the world saw an open European display of utter subservience to a tragically out-of-control Washington in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The much bandied about ‘Western values’ do not now include earlier principles connected with international law, desirable world order, sovereignty or diplomacy. Those have been eclipsed by Atlanticism, which is a peculiar European secular faith. It holds that the United States, while perhaps flawed, is still an indispensable savior, and without its leadership there cannot be good world order. Hence we must all do what Washington demands.
Since Atlanticism is worshipped most intensely by NATO, we may think of this institution as the Church of this faith. Its texts are slogans about liberty, ‘shared values’, human rights and the need to spread democracy. It has of course derived strength from historical experience and also from deserved gratitude. A weak lingering fear that without American supervision European quarrels could turn nasty – an original additional reason for wanting to have it around – may still enter into it as well. But its resilience is probably most of all due to an utter dearth of imagination among the technocrats and ideologically crippled men and women that form majorities among Europe’s ruling elites.
“Like no other institution, NATO embodies Atlantic cohesion, something that remains essential for any Western effort to promote a degree of international order. NATO links Europe to the world’s most powerful country and uniquely ties the United States to a common procedure of consultation and cooperation. …European governments, therefore, are crazy not to support NATO. To watch it wither is at best frivolous, at worst dangerous”, so said the well-known NATO advocate Christoph Bertram when in 2004 misgivings about George W. Bush were creating European doubts about its value. The crucial point he and other true believers have missed is that already for some time now genuine consultation is no longer part of the deal and, more importantly, that at the center of their faith is a country addicted to enemies.
An enemy that others can agree on offers a simple, rudimentary, way of measuring the goodness, badness and seriousness of fellow citizens. Especially for American politicians being ‘tough’ on baddies has become an almost indispensable means to demonstrate their political bona fides. When obvious solutions for substantial political problems affecting everyday life are too controversial, politicians tend to take firm stands on matters that brook no disagreement, like crime or familiar enemies. For a long time one of the worst things that could befall an American candidate for high office was to be called “soft on communism”. President Lyndon Johnson against his own better judgment did not end the Vietnam War because he anticipated massive political attacks from Republican ranks for having caved in to it. Today Obama’s detractors in the Republican Party have the Ukraine crisis as a welcome opportunity to ‘prove’ their repeated claim that he is a weak president, who cannot stand up to the challenges supposedly thrown down by Vladimir Putin. As a result the ‘liberal hawks’ in Obama’s own administration have a field day in pushing anti-Russian hysteria.
The mandatory enemy has determined much geopolitical reality since the end of the Cold War. Living with one prompts standard behaviour that, in the way of all regular behaviour, itself becomes an institution, which does not simply go away when the enemy vanishes. So after the demise of the Soviet Union there was a sudden desperate need to promote countries to enemy position. Since 2001 the “soft on terrorism” accusation has partially substituted for the political use of the putative communist threat; and before the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center Towers in Manhattan a fabrication of ‘rogue states’ or ‘failed states’ was introduced to keep all manner of Cold War institutions going.
When leading Vietnam War official Robert McNamara testified before Congress that with the Soviet Union gone America’s defense budget could be cut in half, the Pentagon and assorted military-related institutions suffered from a collective panic attack. Their answer was a report compiled by Colin Powell, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who obligingly created new threats, dictating that in future the United States must be able to fight two wars simultaneously against new enemies. China is held in reserve, radical Islamists are currently serving, and Putin’s Russia has now been added as a huge new but still familiar fake monster to join the list. With NATO membership the Europeans get America’s enemies as a bonus.
The one genuine threat to NATO, the fact that it is obsolete, has remained mostly hidden. It has been searching for causes that would keep it relevant, hence the involvement of member states in Afghanistan and Iraq and Mali and Libya. Hence its expansion, through absorbing the former Warsaw pact countries; a bureaucracy that increases in size gains new relevance. Ten years after the Berlin Wall came down it sought relevance by changing from a defensive into an offensive alliance, promptly violating the UN Charter, through its war in Kosovo.
To do away with NATO in one fell swoop, desirable as it may be, is obviously not going to work in the immediate future. But it could be allowed gradually to wither away, as it was doing before the Pentagon dragged it into Afghanistan.
A bureaucracy is not easily killed once it becomes redundant. Complicating matters in this case is that behind its appeals to ‘common values’, the alliance is an outgrowth of the U.S. military-industrial complex, adding to its military procurements, jobs, astronomical profits, and highly remunerated official positions.
But there is something more to NATO than this and all the already mentioned other reasons, something less tangible and hence easily overlooked. Its withering will not make the Atlanticist faith go away. That faith, together with NATO are links to political certainty of a kind. They are an extension of a spiritual handrail that existed throughout the Cold War, one helping to counter radical doubt. The post-World-War-II international order that developed in the shadow of United States-Soviet rivalry came, for all its defects, closer to a relatively stable society of states than anything seen in global relations since the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, and with it we could be certain that we knew what was politically good and bad.
Suddenly that was gone, and we had a post-Cold-War world throwing up massive uncertainties that, as imagined by a generation of concerned Europeans, have eaten into the fabric of moral and political life of the West. One could hardly expect the Cold War generation right away to throw overboard an Atlanticism that had been a political life sustaining faith. Decades later, clinging to that faith and as members of NATO, you get a modicum of certainty along with the American enemies that accompany it.
Listen to why retired French, German, Dutch, British and American top defense officials, in a book prepared for a 2008 NATO conference, advocated a military response not to physical threats but to foreign ideas that question Western supremacy and power. These NATO thinkers spoke explicitly in terms of a “restoration of its certainties” as a condition for the security of the West. China has the temerity to compete with Western interests in Africa, and Iran wants to wipe out Israel. The foreign ideas to be fought are irrational and aimed at defeating Western values. Implicitly claiming a moral monopoly of the use of violence for the United States and NATO, those former NATO generals came out in favor of using nuclear weapons, if need be, to stop other countries from developing weapons of mass destruction. In the words of Germany’s former chief of Defense, “we cannot survive … confronted with people who do not share our values, who unfortunately are in the majority in terms of numbers, and who are extremely hungry for success”. The massive Western propaganda of last year, demonizing Putin, from the putsch in Kiev onward, breathes the same spirit.
Neocons and liberal hawks deal in certainties. They have uncovered existential threats to Western values coming from terrorists and islamists. The anomalous fantasy of the ‘war on terrorism’, which cannot exist and is the biggest lie of the twentyfirst century, nevertheless brings the certainty of valiant defenders of Western values.
But Chancellor Merkel received her political education on the other side of the Iron Curtain. It would appear that her view of the situation has come rather close to that of Putin as expressed in his 2007 Munich Security Conference speech:
“I am convinced that we have reached that decisive moment when we must seriously think about the architecture of global security. And we must proceed by searching for a reasonable balance between the interests of all participants in the international dialogue … The United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way … And of course this is extremely dangerous. It results in the fact that no one feels safe. I want to emphasize this — no one feels safe.”
Germany’s foreign minister, the formidable Frank-Walter Steinmeier visits the United States this week to talk with high officials. Writing in the New York Times of 11 March, he came with what can be read as an appeal to realism and formerly held principles – albeit with a sop to prevailing opinion about Russian aggression.
The potential of a heightened conflict between Washington and a Chancellor Merkel, if she has the courage, the intelligence, and the inclination fully to open her eyes to Europe’s interests, lays bare the all-important question whether the United States is still capable of re-engaging in diplomacy. This is something it abandoned after the end of the Cold War, along with the very principle of respecting the sovereignty of countries that do not do its bidding. As of now, the United States simply will not accept sharing the globe with any other power that has significant political influence in its own part of the world.
This particular superpower psychosis is a first in history.
Merkel, and some other top European officials must by now have concluded that there is urgency in the matter, quite aside from avoiding the further provocation of Moscow by arming Poroshenko. Waiting in the wings is Hillary Clinton who, by all relevant commentary and impressions of her past actions and opinions will be an even worse war president than Obama has been, if she makes it to the White House.