With the spectre of the Soviet Union hanging over Western Europe, the capitalist powers banded together in a military alliance to deter any potential Soviet action. Whether this move was good for the Western nations or not, or whether this action was offensive or defensive are both interesting questions, but these shall not be the thrust of this article. This piece will look at a more fundamental question: in the modern world, what is the point of NATO?
In the 21st Century foreign policy is more challenging for Western nations. The Cold War created an environment with two defined military powers, or hegemonic bipolarity in technical terms. In this international context foreign policy was relatively straight-forward for Western powers: support whoever isn’t supported by a Communist power. This didn’t always put the West in a good moral position, the support for Apartheid South Africa and Pinochet’s Chile spring to mind, but the nature of the international system framed every conflict as a choice between capitalists and communists.
A part of this dynamic was the formation of NATO in 1949; by creating an alliance based on collective security, Western capitalist countries could prevent any expansion of Soviet territory or influence in Europe. Indeed this model of military alliance was essentially mimicked by the USSR and Soviet satellite states with the signing of the Warsaw Pact in 1955. In a world where proxy wars were being fought all over the world and the threat of a nuclear holocaust was a distinct possibility, collective security made sense for one important reason: warfare remained conventional.
By this I mean that the way wars were being fought was still largely about ground troops and the lot, but more importantly it was often a conflict between nation states. In the Vietnam War, for example, the United States may have fought largely a guerrilla army in South Vietnam, but these forces were supported by the North Vietnamese and China. The US was fighting over specific territory against other nation states. Admittedly there were some aspects of the war that were unorthodox, like the use of Agent Orange and Napalm, but the fighting itself was between two actual armies.
In the modern world warfare is (most of the time) not about two nations going to war against each other over commonly claimed territory, but is much more often about terrorism and civil wars. For example, even though the 2003 Western invasion of Iraq was, by my definition, a conventional war and was later justified on the neo-Wilsonian theme of ‘spreading democracy’, the primary motivation was the threat of terrorism. Almost all Western interventions of recent years have been either picking sides in a civil war or a military adventure designed to combat terrorism. Terrorism is the main focus of Western military and foreign policy, and therefore military alliances are less important.
Because the threat of invasion was the driving force behind the creation of military alliances, by definition these alliances become less important when the threat of invasion is removed. A terrorist cell does not wish to invade a nation state and institute its own form of government, it wishes to inflict sporadic acts of violence to induce fear in the native population. Obviously they have their own views about what they wish society to look like but they don’t have a standing army with tanks and fighter planes behind them.
So, I pose this question: if terrorism is the main threat facing western nations in the 21st Century, how does NATO help the situation? NATO was established as a political ‘fuck you’ to the Soviet Union and was designed to prevent a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. If the Soviet Union no longer exists and the threat of invasion is not the primary foreign policy concern of Western leaders, what is the point of NATO? Supporters of the continued existence of the organisation will point to things like the sharing of intelligence and expertise as a way of fighting terrorism. However, whilst this certainly is true, I would contend that this would continue irrespective of NATO’s existence.
Here’s a hypothetical situation. A man is suspected by British authorities to be a terrorist or have sympathies with terrorist organisations. Over a number of weeks the authorities have monitored him and conducted surveillance, and as a result built up a dossier that confirms that he is a terrorist. Before the British authorities go and arrest him, the man travels to the US. If NATO didn’t exist, would Britain tell the US that they believe a terrorist is on the way to their country. Of course they would, because neither country wants terrorists running around inside their own borders. Intelligence sharing existed before NATO and will exist if NATO is dissolved.
Another interesting way to look at the topic is through the old lens of deterrence. As I said above, NATO during the Cold War was designed to deter Soviet aggression, but does NATO deter terrorism from occurring? The short and long answers to this question are the same: no. We know this from recent history. Did the US’ membership of NATO prevent the 9/11 attacks? Did the British membership of NATO deter terrorism within its borders? The answer to both questions once again is no. Terrorism is not deterred by large military alliances and this is because terrorists side-step collective security. If a man blows up a building in Berlin, the Canadian army won’t be dispatched to streets of Germany to look for the perpetrator. Also, if the attack was a suicide bombing the threat of being hunted down becomes decidedly hollow.
The other aspect of Western foreign policy, intervention in civil wars, is also independent of the existence of NATO. This is clearly obvious but it is important to dismantle NATO’s legitimacy in every way possible. If a civil war breaks out in Morocco, for example, this reasons for this will be many but the most common are lack of economic opportunity, social change (such as famine or irregular migration patterns) and/or a repressive government. Let’s say that France intervenes and in the process some of its soldiers get killed. What is NATO’s role in this circumstance? The answer is nothing because France wasn’t invaded. In the two realms of modern military policy, civil wars and terrorism, NATO has no role.
So far I’ve not directly focussed on the question I asked in the introduction, but having made the case that NATO is now effectively superfluous, the answer to that original query is made clearer. The original question I asked was ‘what is the point of NATO?’ not ‘should NATO still exist?’. Now we are in more speculative territory as there is no answer to this question.
In my opinion NATO still exists to preserve the military influence of Europe and North America in a world where other countries are becoming more economically important. The other dimension of this equation is that NATO continues to exist in order to keep Russia from invading Eastern Europe, but I would argue that the opposite is true. NATO expansion to include the Baltic States and speculation about potential membership for Ukraine could be seen, from a Russian perspective, as Western expansionism. If NATO disbanded in the early 1990s, I would argue that Russia would not currently be so insular-looking and hostile towards Western nations.
To conclude, NATO should no longer exist as the raison d’être of the organisation ceased to exist over 20 years ago and the organisation cannot act to defend its members from the threats that face them in the 21st Century. Because of the end of the Cold War NATO has changed to be a general alliance of countries in Europe and North America. This subtle change was designed to institutionalise US and European military power in the same way the IMF and WTO were designed to preserve US and European economic influence. NATO is not a force of stability in the world. It is a provocative organisation that has no logical justification for its continued existence. So what is the point of NATO? Nothing at all.