You are here

NATO in Crisis and Agendas for Chicago

(Published by the International Network of Engineers and Scientists, April, 2012)

Joseph GersonDespite its recent dubious military triumph in Libya, NATO is an alliance in crisis. With the rise of China and other BRIC nations and the Western economic crisis, U.S. economic power – and thus its ability to maintain historic levels of military spending and mobilization – is in relative, if not absolute, decline. NATO’s “new strategic concept”, formally adopted last year in Lisbon, was designed to compensate for this loss by increasing both the influence and burden-sharing of Washington’s European allies. In exchange for assuming greater financial and war-fighting burdens, privileged European partners are to have a greater say in the alliance’s policies and a larger share of the booty. With Europe’s economic crisis threatening to pitch the world – as IMF Managing Director Christine Legard warned – into a 1930s-like Great Depression, Europeans are understandably in no rush to financially reinforce the alliance.

The alliance faces a second major challenge: the loss of perceived legitimacy. Cold War tensions provided rationales for the alliance, but since the implosion of the Soviet Union U.S. national security managers have reiterated that Russia poses no threat of invasion. In fact, despite very real tensions over U.S./NATO missile defense deployments, Iran and Syria, the Russian and Western European economies are increasingly integrated and interdependent, with oil and natural gas as lubricants. Rather than giving priority to preparations for war with Russia, the alliance has been transformed and now focuses on “out of area” operations that could extend as far as the South China Seas. As a result, good faith arguments that the alliance exists to defend Europe from Russia are increasingly difficult to come by. Add to this NATO’s subversion of the U.N. Charter with its regime change war against Serbia; the decade old war in Afghanistan, described by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan as illegal (with the U.S. now seeking to negotiate a Karzai-Taliban coalition government;) and the violation of the U.N. mandate in Libya resulting in the replacement of the Qaddafi dictatorship with militia fueled chaos, and you have a delegitimized NATO.[1]

Thus it is hardly surprising that NATO’s agenda for its Chicago summit this May focuses on these fault lines.

NATO’s Evolution & Roots of the Crisis

First a little history: NATO has always been about more than containing Moscow. After WWII, the USSR was a devastated nation with 20 million dead that posed no immediate threat to Western Europe. George Kennan, author of the containment doctrine, recognized early on that given the Red Army’s sacrifices in driving Hitler’s armies from Moscow across Eastern Europe to Berlin, the post-war division of Europe was inevitable if not just.[2]  After two catastrophic German invasions in the first half of the 20th century, Eastern Europe was to serve as Russia’s sacrificial buffer against future invasions from the West.

Leading figures of the U.S. liberal establishment, Zbigniew Brzeznski and Joseph Nye, provide complementary lenses for understanding NATO and its roles in reinforcing U.S. post-World War II hegemony.

Before a senior Bush White House official, rumored to be Karl Rove, boasted that “We’re an empire and when we act we create our own reality,” Zbiginiew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, was writing a primer for his students and acolytes that described the foundations of the U.S. “imperial project.”[3]  Embracing traditional geostrategic thinking, he explained that the prize required for global mastery is dominance over the Eurasian heartland. He went on to explain that as a distant “island power” the U.S. requires footholds on Eurasia’s western, southern and eastern peripheries if it is to maintain its imperial influence.

NATO, Brzezinski continued, has long provided the vehicle for ensuring “the United States [as] a key participant even in inter-European affairs.”  European allies are “vassal states.” and the reward that their elites receive for supporting the alliance with resources and services – be it hundreds of military bases and installations, diplomatic support, co-production of weapons systems, and intelligence sharing -- is a slice of imperial privilege.

As the recent wars in Libya and Afghanistan illustrate, NATO reduces the U.S. monetary costs and casualties of U.S. wars, while providing allied European elites with, for example, privileged access to Libyan reconstruction contracts, oil, and over the longer term relatively low cost guarantees of military security. The U.S. makes its demands, and for the most part European elites respond with the minimum needed to maintain the alliance.

Writing more recently about a different part of the world, Joseph Nye, formerly Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and President Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, put it more bluntly: “Markets and economic power rest on political frameworks, and American military power provides that framework.” 

What does this mean in the real world? New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman explained it alliteratively: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist -- McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.''[4]

Twenty-first century NATO isn't the Cold War alliance that many of us grew up with. The collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated NATO's Cold War raison d'etre, thereby undermining the rationales for the foreign deployment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. warriors on hundreds of U.S. and "NATO" bases across Europe. The Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations responded by transforming NATO into a global alliance. Violating President George H.W. Bush's pledge to Mikhail Gorbachev not to expand NATO a centimeter closer to Moscow in exchange for the Kremlin's blessing of German reunification on Western terms, Clinton began the process of expanding NATO to Russia's borders. Directed not only against Moscow, but also Washington’s Western European allies, NATO expansion opened the way for divide and rule diplomacy including playing "New Europe" (in the East) against "Old Europe" (in the West.)  The U.S. now has bases across Eastern Europe, and there are to be more with "missile defense" deployments.

Precedent for NATO’s intervention into Libya’s civil war came early with NATO’s war against Serbia. Promoted as a “humanitarian” intervention on behalf of endangered Kosovars, the war reduced Russian influence in Eastern Europe, brought a corrupt regime to power in Kosovo, and worse, “with little discussion and less fanfare ... effectively abandoned the old U.N. Charter rules that strictly limit international intervention in local conflicts…in favor of a vague new system that is much more tolerant of military intervention but has few hard and fast rules.”[5]

Beyond Europe, NATO adopted doctrines permitting "out of area operations," i.e. military interventions in Africa, the Middle East, and beyond. With NATO's role in the Afghan war, "out of area operations" became the alliance's primary mission. Today, with 22 “partnerships” including Israel and still more planned for Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asian nations, NATO is also being used to ensure access to the mineral resources and trade of the Global South and to reinforce the encirclement of China, as well as Russia.

In these circumstances, it was no accident that with minimal dissent NATO joined the United States in its Libyan regime change war. Nor should we have been surprised by a remarkable article by Charles Kupchan in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs which explained that China's rise does not inevitably lead to its becoming the world's dominant nation.[6] If, over the long term, NATO can be merged with the European Union, the West, Kupchan argues, can remain dominant through the 21st century. While certainly not the whole story, this has been an element in the Obama Administration’s strategy of “resetting” relations with Russia, now jeopardized by Washington’s commitments to missile defenses and competing ambitions in the Middle East.

The new and expanded NATO has been institutionally reinforced in the course of its recent summits, first in Strasbourg (where protestors endured massive and brutal police state repression,) and more recently in Lisbon where the new “strategic concept” was adopted. This new doctrine elevated the influence and roles of the European allies to compensate for the United States’ relative decline, reaffirmed commitments to out of area operations and to NATO remaining a nuclear alliance, and to increasing the number of “partnerships”. Meanwhile, many in Europe opine the institutional marriage between the European Union mandated by the Lisbon Treaty, the E.U.’s functional constitution.

On the U.S. side, the Obama Administration recently reaffirmed these new directions and roles for NATO “in this resource-constrained era” in the Pentagon’s new Strategic Guidance released in January.[7]  And NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen demonstrated that he understands the resource-oriented game when he wrote that, “The United States will demand with an even strong voice that Europeans assume their responsibilities in preserving order, especially in Europe’s periphery.”[8]

Thus, sixty-seven years after the last of World War II’s bombs and bullets in Europe claimed their human tolls, a sophisticated form of military occupation continues across nearly all of Europe. Russia is contained. German militarism is capped. And Washington has a rear base to reinforce its now contested dominance of Eurasia’s southern flank: the oil-rich Middle East and occupied Afghanistan.

NATO’s Fault Lines:

In his attempts to influence Europe’s policy makers in the lead up to the Chicago summit, Secretary General Rasmussen has been working assiduously to frame the debate. Speaking this past September, he stressed that “The backdrop to our NATO summit in Chicago is the global economic crisis. And there is no contradiction between being concerned about the economy and being concerned about security.”  Addressing U.S. and European elites, he has conceded that NATO faces a crisis, writing that the “alliance that brings Europe and North America together requires an equitable sharing of the burden” and that “Downward trends in European defense budgets” raise undeniable concerns. He has also warned that “At the current pace of cuts, it is hard to see how Europe could maintain enough military capabilities to sustain similar [Libya War] operations in the future.” [9]

How deep have those cuts been? Between 1991 and 2011 European military spending declined from 34% of the NATO nations’ total to 21%.[10]

NATO’s crisis is not limited to Europe.  Under cover of the Bush Wars, U.S. military spending has nearly doubled since 9-11 and is increasingly recognized as a major cause of unsustainable government deficit spending, the loss of essential social services and a drag on economic revitalization. From town meetings and state legislatures to the halls of Congress, the Pentagon’s budget is increasingly being targeted, and its leaders are playing defense.

This is not to say that U.S. political commitments to its military and to “full spectrum dominance” are evaporating. The Obama Administration is engaged in a major military build up as it “pivots” from Iraq and Afghanistan toward Asia and the Pacific in its effort to manage China’s rise.[11] Remarkably, annual Pentagon spending for the Afghanistan war, Washington’s historically unprecedented network of foreign military bases, and U.S. military research and development each still exceed the total military spending of any other nation. Yet, as the CIA predicted, with the rise of China and the other BRICs, the hollowing out of U.S. industrial vitality in pursuit of low wage production “platforms,” and the outsourcing of services to India and the Philippines – not to mention the reckless embrace of casino capitalism  U.S. power is in relative decline.[12] U.S. military spending has exceeded the limits of what the national economy can sustain, and the U.S. people are weary of war.

As a result, the Pentagon has been forced to announce plans to cut its anticipated spending increases by $487 billion over the next decade. With priority being given to the military build up in Asia and the Pacific, this means that 6,000 to 7,000 U.S. troops are slated to be repatriated from Europe and that there will be some consolidation of U.S. military bases and installations.

It was to reassure allied European elites and to stanch potential fears that these reductions signaled still greater withdrawals that could decouple the alliance that the Pentagon  announced that the Air Force’s massive Ramstein air base in Ramstein, Germany will serve as the headquarters for the alliance’s dubious “missile defense” forces. To hammer the message home both the U.S. Secretaries of Defense and State – Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton – travelled to Munich for the annual military “security” conference. As the New York Times reported, their goal was “to make it absolutely clear that Washington would not abandon its European allies even as it cut spending and turned its focus more toward the Asia-Pacific region.”  Thus Secretary Clinton insisted that “Europe remains America’s partner of first resort” and Panetta reiterated that Europe remains the United States’ “security partner of choice for military operations and diplomacy around the world“ and promised that, even with the Pentagon’s new Strategic Guidance and pivot toward Asia, “our military footprint in Europe will remain larger than in any other region of the world.”[13]

But there was a warning as well as a promise. Panetta insisted that Europe “stop cutting its own military budgets” and “get its own economic house in order to keep the NATO alliance strong.” In doing so, Panetta was treading a well worn path. Months earlier, his predecessor, Robert Gates, had pressed the limits of diplomacy in his valedictory speech to alliance leaders.  As widely reported, Gates’ stern message to the Europeans was that their lack of military spending and political will risked “a dim if not dismal future” and “irrelevance.”. “The blunt reality,” he threatened, “is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”[14]

Perhaps this means that just as “Move the Money” campaigns (from the Pentagon to job creation and addressing human needs) has become the dominant theme of the U.S. peace movement, that similar initiatives like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s push for jobs and education, not Trident replacement could provide the means to make NATO’s retirement a popular issue.

The Chicago Agenda

Although it was initially anticipated to a be routine diplomatic event– nothing like the artificial celebration of the alliance’s 60th anniversary or the adoption of the new strategic concept – NATO’s future is now the summit’s agenda. As the Pentagon sees it, Chicago will be about whether or not NATO has the resources and commitment to fulfill the new strategic concept and how NATO can survive the economic crisis. The Pentagon also hopes to use the summit to seize opportunities, especially by expanding partnerships to include Middle Eastern and North African nations in the wake of the Arab Spring and deepening U.S.-European space- and cyber-warfare collaborations. [15]

As part of the “reset” strategy, a NATO-Russia summit focused on missile defense negotiations was on the calendar for Chicago until it was cancelled by the Kremlin. The reason: the alliance plans to use the NATO summit to formally announce “interim operational capability” of its missile defense systems.[16] With the U.S. and NATO refusing to provide Russia complete access to its missile defense technologies, Moscow has been anything but reassured that these shields for potential first strike swords are not targeted against them as well as Iran. Given the possibility of a U.S./NATO-Russian proxy war in Syria, Israeli threats against Iran, and President Putin’s xenophobic responses to popular demands for democratic reforms, there is little reason to anticipate progress in NATO-Russian relations until as that unscripted Obama-Medvedev exchange in Seoul signaled – well after the U.S. presidential election. 

But don’t expect NATO’s deliberations to dominate media reports coming from Chicago. After having been largely ignored by three generations of U.S. peace and justice movements, the back to back G-8 and NATO summits this May promise a reprise of the notorious 1968 Vietnam era Democratic Party national convention in Chicago.

What better opportunity to press the end of NATO’s decade long war in the service of the military-industrial complex, oil companies, and fundamentalist Afghan warlords? Where else to insist on moving the money from the Pentagon to job creation, funding essential services, and investing in a sustainable environment?  What better time to say NO! to NATO’s enforcement of economic globalization for the world’s 1%?

Enraged by the G-8’s management and NATO’s enforcement of the global economy for the benefit of the world’s 1%, Ad Buster, which initiated the Occupy movement, has called for a month-long occupation of Chicago beginning on May Day. A Counter Summit for Peace and Justice is being organized by the newly created Network for a NATO-Free Future. Nurses are planning to strike, and street demonstrations are being organized.

Rahm Emanual’s response?  Not unlike Strasburg, where President Sarkozy outlawed the display of rainbow peace flags during the 2009 summit, a raft of new city ordinances severely restricting the freedom of assembly and speech have been imposed. A campaign to close down much of the city – including its universities – in advance of the summits is being enforced. And 13,000 Chicago police are being trained for “mass arrests to prevent [read create] chaos” has been widely reported in the Chicago press.

All of which has old timers recalling the words of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s 1968 anthem: In a land that's known as freedom/ How can such a thing be fair/ Won't you please come to Chicago/For the help that we can bring/We can change the world/Re-arrange the world/It's dying ... to get better.

Dr. Joseph Gerson is Director of Programs for the American Friends Service Committee in New England, Director of New England AFSC’s Peace and Economic Security Program, and a co-founder of the Network for a NATO-Free Future


[1] See among others, Richard Falk. “Libya After Qaddafi”, The Nation, November 14, 2011 and Anthony Shadid. “Libya Struggles to Curb Militias as Chaos Grows”, New York Times, February 9, 2012.

[2] George Kennan. American Diplomacy, 1900 – 1950, Mentor Books, New York: 1951

[3] Zbigniew Brzezinski. “The Grand Chessboard” Basic Books, New York: 1997

[4] Thomas Friedman. “A Manifest for the Fast World”, New York Times Magazine, March 28, 1999/

[5] Michael J. Glennon. “The New Interventionism: The Search of a Just International Law”, Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999

[6] Charles A. Kupchan. “NATO’s Final Frontier: Why Russia Should Join the Atlantic Alliance”, Foreign Affairs, May/June, 2010

[7] Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, January, 2012. http://www.defense.gov/news/Defense_Strategic_Guidance.pdf

[8] Anders Fogh Rasmussen. “NATO AFTER Libya: The Atlantic Alliance in Austere Times”, Foreign Affairs, Vol 90, No. 4, July/August 2011; Rasmussen, op.cit.

[9] Anders Fogh Rasmussen. “Towards NATO’s Chicago Summit”, Speech at European Policy Center, Brussels, September 30, 2010;.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Hillary Clinton. “America’s Pacific Century”, Foreign Policy, November, 2011, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/10/11/americas_pacific_century?page=full

[12] See, among others: Fred Kaplan. 2020 Vision: A CIA report predicts that American global dominance could end in 15years, SLATE, January 26, 2005, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/war_stories/2005/01/2020_vision.html 

[13] Elisabeth Bumiller and Steven Erlanger. “Panetta and Clinton seek to reassure Europe on Defense”, New York Times, February 5, 2012

[14] Ibid.; Thom Shanker and Steven Erlanger. “Blunt U.S. Warning Reveals Deep Strains in NATO”, New York Times, June 10, 2011

[15] Major General Mark Barrett, U.S. Air Force Deputy chief of Staff, Strategic Plans and Policy, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Allied Command Transformation, “NATO and Modern Security: An Alliance for the 21st Century”, Harvard University, November 1, 2011

Filed under: