The NATO Global Alliance Comes to Chicago
Joseph Gerson*
Informationsstelle Militarisierung (IMI) – July, 2012

        Opponents of the Afghan War, NATO and military spending from twenty-four states and a dozen nations were mobilized by the Network for a NATO-Free Future and converged onChicagoon the eve of the NATO Summit this past May. Much to our surprise, our Counter-Summit conference, media outreach and nonviolent demonstrations brought our critiques and alternate proposals into the center of the mainstreamU.S.debates over foreign, military and economic policies. We didn’t expect to bring down the alliance, but we succeeded in building movement capacities for the longer term and changed the way millions of U.S. Americans understand NATO.

        The Summit was initially conceived as a routine diplomatic event designed to reinforce President Obama’s stature in the run up to November elections. 

But, the Lennon’s Law that "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." dictated otherwise.[i] Midst the corruption and failures in Afghanistan, the European economic meltdown and the U.S. economic crisis the Summit became increasingly important for the Western powers to ratify their continued military presence in Central Asia through 2024, to reaffirm the Alliance’s New Strategic Doctrine’s commitment to fighting "out of area" wars like Libya, and to paper over differences about levels of military spending. 

Major General Mark Barrett, U.S. Air Force Deputy chief of Staff and a leading figure in the U.S.redesign of NATO, maintained that the summit would determine if NATO had the resources and commitment to implement the new strategic concept and to survive the Western economic crisis. The Pentagon also saw the summit as an opportunity to expand its Middle Eastern and North African partnerships in the wake of the Arab Spring and to deepen U.S.-European space- and cyber-warfare collaborations.[ii]

With the U.S.facing an economic crisis and the rise of Chinaand other BRICS nations and the Western economic crisis, U.S.imperial power is in relative decline.[iii] To compensate for this loss, in 2010 NATO formally adopted its "new strategic concept" and increased "burden-sharing" responsibilities for its European allies during the Lisbon Summit. In exchange for assuming greater financial and war-fighting burdens, privileged European elites now have a greater say in the alliance’s policies and receive a larger share of the resources they secure.

But NATO faces a profound structural fault: the loss of its perceived legitimacy. The Alliance’s advertised raison d’etre evaporated with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, with the deepening of European-Russian economic interdependence over the past two decades, Western security elites have had to reiterate that Russiaposes no threat of invasion, and "the threat of a premeditated nuclear exchange between the United Statesand Russiahas long since disappeared."[iv] While the campaign to contain Russia continues with NATO expansion and missile defense deployments, the alliance has been fundamentally transformed, with preparations for "out of area" operations on a global basis now its priority. As a result, assertions that the alliance exists to defend Europe are rarely heard. And, in the wake of NATO’s Serbian War subversion of the U.N. Charter, the illegal invasion of Afghanistan, and the violation of the U.N. mandate in Libya, NATO lost its mid-20th century aura of legitimacy.[v]

NATO’s Evolution

In our call, the Network for a NATO-Free Future was clear that NATO has never been an exclusively defensive alliance. After WWII, the USSRwas a devastated nation with 20 million dead that posed no immediate threat to Western Europe. Given the Red Army’s sacrifices in driving Hitler’s armies from Moscowacross Eastern and Central Europe, U.S.acceptance of the post-war division of Europewas inevitable if not just.[vi] After these catastrophic German invasions in the first half of the 20th century, Eastern Europe was to be sacrificed as buffer states forMoscow.

Leading figures of theU.S.liberal establishment have provided complementary lenses for understanding the real reasons NATO was established.

In the late 1990s, Zbiginiew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor in the late 1970s, published a primer dedicated to his students describing the operating principles of what he termed the U.S."imperial project."[vii] Geostrategically, he explained, dominance over the Eurasian heartland is the prize required for global mastery. As a distant "island power," likeBritain in its imperial heyday, theU.S. thus requires footholds onEurasia’s western, southern and eastern peripheries in order to project coercive power and maintain its global dominance.

NATO, Brzezinski explained, provides the means to ensure "theUnited States[as] a key participant even in inter-European affairs." European allies, he proclaimed, are "vassal states." The reward that their elites receive for providing hundreds of military bases and installations, diplomatic support, co-production of weapons systems, intelligence sharing, etc. is a slice of imperial privilege. Not incidentally, NATO and U.S. troop deployments were also designed to cap German military power.

As the Afghan and Libyan Wars illustrate, NATO reduces theU.S.monetary costs and casualties of Washington’s wars. It provides political and diplomatic cover for imperial wars. And, it provides allied partners with privileged access to development and reconstruction contracts, oil, and over the longer term comparatively low cost guarantees of military security.

Writing about what has since been termed the "pivot" from Iraqand Afghanistan to Asia and the Pacific, Joseph Nye, President Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, provided a complementary lens: "Markets and economic power rest on political frameworks, and American military power provides that framework."[viii] Or as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it still more bluntly, "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.''[ix]

Before the Chicago summit this May, few in the U.S. – including most peace movement activists – had little awareness of NATO and less of its post-Cold War transformations. One of the primary goals of the Network for a NATO-Free Future was thus to help theU.S.people understand that it’s no longer their Daddy’s NATO.

Beginning with the Clinton Administration, theU.S.opted not to retire, but to re-purpose NATO into a global alliance. Violating the first President Bush’s pledge not to expand NATO a centimeter closer to Moscow in exchange for the Kremlin’s acceptance of German reunification on Western terms, Clinton began expanding NATO to Russia's borders. The expansion was also directed againstWashington’s Western European allies, opening the way for divide and rule diplomacy, including playing "New Europe" (in the East) against "Old Europe" (in the West).

NATO’s 1999 war on Serbiaraised the curtain on the new NATO. Promoted as a "humanitarian" intervention, the war reduced Russian influence in Eastern Europeand as anticipated brought a corrupt regime to power in Kosovo. More importantly, as Foreign Affairs reported, the U.S. and NATO "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."[x]

NATO has since adopted doctrines making "out of area operations," i.e. military interventions in Africa, the Middle East, and beyond the alliance’s primary purpose. These commitments were institutionalized with the Afghan war. Now, with 22 "partnerships" in Eastern Europe and the Global South, and more planned for Asian and Pacific nations, the Pentagon’s new strategic guidance has tasked NATO with ensuring control of mineral resources and trade while reinforcing the encirclement of China, as well as Russia.[xi]

Yes, China! Another recent and remarkable Foreign Affairs article and Brzezinksi’s new book Strategic Thinking provide the rationales and road maps. Each argues that China's rise does not inevitably mean that the Middle Kingdom will again become the world's dominant nation.[xii] Instead, they believe that if NATO can be more fully merged with the European Union, a Greater West can remain dominant through the 21st century. An element of their vision is the possibility of integratingRussia into the Greater West, which helps to explain Obama’s efforts to "reset" relations withMoscow.

Thus, sixty-seven years after World War II, a sophisticated form of military occupation continues across nearly all ofEurope.Russiais contained. German militarism is capped. AndWashingtonhas a rear base to reinforce its now contested dominance of Eurasia’s southern flank: the oil-rich Middle East and occupiedAfghanistan.

Follow the Money:

In the run up to the Summit, NATO Secretary General Rasmussen played bill collector. He stressed that "The backdrop to our NATO summit…is the global economic crisis," and that "[d]ownward trends in European defense budgets" raised undeniable concerns. He warned that "At the current pace of cuts, it is hard to see how Europecould maintain enough military capabilities to sustain similar [Libya War] operations in the future."[xiii]

More recently, the Dutch parliament’s vote to withdraw from the planned purchase of nuclear-capable F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, at a cost of more than five billion euros, could ultimately "lead to a situation where the weapons are removed in a disorganized fashion, undermining alliance cohesion and effectiveness."[xiv]

Indeed, the U.S.peace movement and some members of Congress understand that those cuts should serve as a model for the U.S. Between 1991 and 2011 European military spending declined from 34% of NATO’s income to 21%.[xv] Meanwhile,U.S. military spending doubled since 9-11 and is a primary cause of theU.S. national deficit and the loss of essential social services and economic vitality.

Despite the massive budget deficit, U.S. commitments to "full spectrum dominance" have not diminished. The Obama Administration is engaged in a major military buildup as it "pivots" toward Asia and the Pacific in its effort to manage China’s rise.[xvi] And, as we explained in Chicago, 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 exceeds the total military spending of any other nation.

As last year’s Budget Control Act conceded, U.S.military spending exceeds what the national economy can sustain. 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 buildup in Asia and the Pacific, this means that 6,000 to 7,000 moreU.S. troops are slated to be repatriated fromEurope.

Ramstein Air Base in Germanywas named Alliance’s missile defense headquarters to stanch the possibility that European elites might fear that these reductions signaled still greater withdrawals that could decouple the alliance. To hammer home the message of the U.S.commitment to NATO both Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton travelled to Munich in February. 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." They insisted that "Europe remains America’s partner of first resort" and that Europe is still the United States’ "security partner of choice for military operations and diplomacy around the world." They promised that "our military footprint in Europe will remain larger than in any other region of the world."[xvii]

They also communicated an implied threat. Panetta insisted that Europe"stop cutting its own military budgets" and "get its own economic house in order to keep the NATO alliance strong." He was following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Robert Gates, whose stern warning was that low levels of European military spending and political will risked "a dim if not dismal future" and "irrelevance" for the alliance.[xviii]

The Summit

While we were successful in helping many U.S. American understand that NATO’s wars and military spending are antithetical to real security (the provision of essential social services including health care, education, job creation, etc.) we lacked the political power and allies to reverse NATO’s course.

Despite opposition to the continuing Afghan War by the majority of the U.S.people, media criticism and street protests, President Obama got pretty much what he wanted out of the Summit. Most importantly, it confirmed the commitments made at the Bonn Summit in September to support the Kabulgovernment militarily and financially for the "Decade beyond 2014."  It reaffirmed commitments to the new security concept and celebrated NATO’s victory in Libya. To address the financial threats to the alliance to advance the vision of a Greater West, the Declaration stressed that "The EU is a unique and essential partner for NATO. Fully strengthening this strategic partnership…is particularly important in the current environment of austerity." And, no surprise, the commitment to partnerships, new and old, was reiterated.[xix]

One setback for the Alliance was that the "reset" campaign withRussiawas forced into abeyance until after the U.S. presidential election. The parallel NATO-Russia summit inChicago, which was to provide a forum for missile defense- negotiations was cancelled by Putin. With the U.S. insisting that the NATO Summit be used to announce the "interim operational capability" of its missile defense systems and NATO’s reiteration of its commitment to bring Georgia into the Alliance, Russia’s leader understandably opted to avoid humiliation.

Tom Hayden, primary author of the founding document of theU.S.New Left, the Port Huron Statement, who is best known for his leadership of resistance to the Vietnam War, sees the struggle for greater justice and peace in dialectical Sisifussian terms. Progress is made, and conservative establishments push back. By bringing together thirty-eight partner organizations and activists from across the country and around the world, the Network for a NATO-Free Future built the foundations for longer-term opposition to NATO and a host of campaigns, from cutting the Pentagon budget and bringing all the troops home from Afghanistan, to the imperatives of preventing war against Iran and Syria and withdrawing U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe.

With our partners, includingAfghanistanandIraqmilitary veterans who dramatically returned their war medals, and through our nonviolent protests we won the moral high ground. And we built on it by garnering 22% of the national media coverage of theSummit.  Meetings with editorial writers, op-ed articles and countless media interviews made it possible to hammer home the messages that providing real security (job creation, provision of essential social services, preventing housing foreclosures and guaranteeing access to education) means cutting military spending, ending wars, and bringing the troops home.

Obama and Rasmussen succeeded in winning theAlliance’s stamp of approval for another decade of war inAfghanistanand to reinforce the New Strategic Concept. We built theU.S.and international movement to bring the troops home and to retire, not repurpose, NATO.

As the Italians say, La Lutta Continua.

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.

[i] John Lennon. Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy). Double Fantasy, 1980.

[ii] 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.

[iii] 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

[iv] Kingson Reif, Remarks at Stimson Center Event on the Nuclear Weapons Budget, June 5,2012, <http://armscontrolcenter.org/policy/nuclearweapons/articles/remarks_at_stimson_center_event_on_the_nuclear_weapons_budget/

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

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

[vii] Zbigniew Brzezinski. The Grand Chessboard, Basic Books,New York: 1997.

[viii] Joseph S. Nye, Jr. "The Right Way to Trim", New York Times, August 4, 2011.

[ix] Thomas Friedman. "A Manifest for the Fast World", New York Times Magazine, March 28, 1999.

[x] Michael J. Glennon, op. cit.

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

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

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

[xiv] KingstonReif and Emma Lecavalier. "Parting words: Gates and tactical nuclear weapons in Europe", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,  14 July 2011, <http://thebulletin.org/web-edition/op-eds/parting-words-gates-and-tactical-nuclear-weapons-europe>

[xv] Anthony Cordesman. Defense Budget Cuts and Non-Traditional Threats to US Strategy:

An Update, Center for Stratgic and International Studies, Nov. 15, 2011, p. 60. http://csis.org/files/publication/111511_Defense_Resources_Threats.pdf

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

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

[xviii] Thom Shanker and Steven Erlanger. "Blunt U.S. Warning Reveals Deep Strains in NATO", New York Times, June 10, 2011

[xix] "Chicago Summit Declaration." May 20, 2012. NATO.  <http://www.nato.int/cps/en/SID-1989BED1-0B7459B8/natolive/official_texts_87593.htm?mode=pressrelease>