(Contribution to the Conference 'Quo Vadis NATO?' in Bremen, 27 April 2013)
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was founded in 1949. Its supporters claim that this military alliance succeeded in building a dam against the aggressive expansionist communist system that threatened to wage war over Europe.
A more thorough reading and analysis of the facts, however, give a strongly nuanced and even different story. NATO's founding had less to do with the external military threat of the Soviet Union than with ideological, economical and geopolitical interests.
Even hardliner John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State (1953-1959) said back in 1949 that “I do not know of any responsible high official, military or civilian in this government or any other government, who believes that the Soviet now plans conquest by open military aggression.”
The Marshall-plan that came shortly after World War II was crucial in NATO and creating US-influence in Europa. It wasn't built on American altruism but was to serve American economical and political purposes. After World War II the US risked an economic crisis due to the lack of European purchasing power. William Clayton, under-secretary of state for economic affairs in 1947, wrote the following to his chief George Marshall. "Let us admit right off," he said in defense of the idea of foreign aid, "We need markets--big markets--in which to buy and sell." The intent was not to help foreign countries; it was to reward US-based multinationals who actually got the cash as the government purchased political influence abroad. Behind the NATO shield Western European countries could thus with the help of the Marshall plan rebuild and modernize their economies. In this way US capitalism could further develop as it gained access and control over Western Europe.
Economic interests and armament
US business was well aware of the advantages of overestimating the threat of the Soviet Union. The president of General Electric was really happy about the economic results a war could offer and made the proposal of a “permanent war economy” via a lasting alliance between business and army. President Truman and his administration did their utmost to create a cold war atmosphere. The high military expenditures lead to big military orders for the arms industry. In the year 1955 US military budget reached 40 billion dollar on a total budget of 62 billion. The companies working for defence gained fortunes. When Germany became a member of NATO in 1955 the Cold War got really institutionalized. Nine days later the Soviet Union reacted with the establishment of the Warsaw Pact together with the Eastern European communist states.
A year later the North Atlantic Council, NATO's highest decision-making body, would adopt a resolution to approve a report of experts with recommendations for political, economical and cultural cooperation. The resolution suggested softly to expand the Treaty's application zone to the whole world, because influence and interests of its members could be jeopardized outside the NATO area. NATO was thus formally given an economic task, i.e. to support free market.
US policy inside and outside NATO would generally take form via the policy lines as drawned by an influential security adviser of several American presidents, called Brzezinski. He would develop his strategy later in more detail in his book The Grand Chessboard. In Europe the US presence was to be consolidated as bridgehead for American geostrategic and economical interests. The Soviet Union was to be isolated and pushed back, which seemed to be plausible through the support of the Afghan resistance which caused the Red Army a lot of problems. The breaking up of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the nineties would liberate the way for the Great Game over the oil and gas rich Central Asian region. Afghanistan was to play a key role for the opening up of that region.
End of the cold war
With the breaking up of the Warsaw Pact (mid 1991), the Soviet Union (end 1991) and also the German unification (October 1990) the official reasons of existence for NATO had disappeared.
Although the heads of state confirmed the end of the cold war during the London NATO summit July 1991 there was no question of dissolving NATO, rather to reform it into a global player to serve the interests of its members. This was organized through the adoption of three New Strategic concepts through-out the post cold war period. The central part of the strategy was threefold:
1. The territorial enlargement of NATO towards the East of Europe
2. The transformation from a primarily defense into an intervention organization
3. The construction of alliances or cooperation structures with partners all over the world
The US were very concerned that with the end of NATO they would lose the politico-military and consequently economic control over Europe. So they opted to reform NATO through the establishment of cooperation structures (partnership for peace) with the former East-block countries or simply through admitting former Warsaw pact countries as new NATO members.
Economic considerations certainly played a role. In Rome, November 1991, the NATO declaration stated: 'The allies are absolutely convinced that political change has to be accompanied by economic freedom and the development of market economies. We support the development of an economic policy that promotes trade and economical cooperation between the republics in the interest of growth and stability.' Soon, the concrete enlargement of NATO took place in several waves from 16 in 1989 up to 28 in 2009. In it's latest NSC (Lisbon, 2010) the NATO foresees new members: the door to NATO-membership remains fully open to all European democracies which share the values of our Alliance”
Out of area
The 1949 NATO treaty made quite some restrictions in the alliance's territorial action radius and made it essentially a collective defense organization through art 5.
The end of the Warsaw Pact and the dissolution of the Soviet Union made the whole strategic environment change. The trans-Atlantic alliance was presented with an existential dilemma which was often summarized as “out of area or out of business”. NATO answered its fundamental threat for the first time with the extension of its powers in its new strategic concept (NSC), which was adopted at the Rome summit of November 1991. Justification was found in Central and East European transformation that lead to economical, social and political difficulties, ethnical tensions and territorial disputes with possible consequences for security in the European NATO zone. Yugoslavia's disintegration was a suitable example to underline this argument, but NATO leaders certainly also had the Mediterranean and the Middle East in their mind. This first new strategic concept was to be the go ahead for a gradual transformation of the alliance from a collective defense force towards an intervention force. Initially emphasis lay on the security threats that had to be responded to. NATO member states would however claim the role of operating outside the treaty zone in order to control crises which could jeopardize the stability of the NATO zone.
On the eve of the 1999, Washington Summit NATO secretary general Javier Solana described the stake of the meeting as follows: 'Kosovo shows us clearly the necessity that diplomacy is backed by military force'. The point is on which legal base this is to happen. In January 1994 NATO government leaders still stated that peacekeeping and other operations should be realized under the 'authority of the UN Security Council'. Washington, however, didn't see the necessity to act any longer under explicit UN rule. Already in summer 1993 the US ambassador presented a memorandum to the allies at NATO headquarters in Brussels under the title: With the UN, whenever possible, without it when necessary. The document was produced some months after the disastrous ending of the Somalia operation which pushed Washington to a critical approach of military operations under the UN flag.
Washington wanted in the first place to get rid of Russian and Chinese consent – both veto countries in UN - for NATO's out of area operations. Britain followed the US point of view, as usual. In their declaration of the Washington summit for the 50th anniversary, April 1999, the heads of the NATO member states cryptically said there was to be respect paid to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, instead of the proposal from France 'under the authority of the Security Council'. What this could mean was already clear in Kosovo. NATO as well as leading member states began to operate beyond the Security Council. After Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999) the war in Afghanistan was presented as a 'defense' against an attack (and so no UN permission was necessary) and also the British-American war against Iraq (2003) bypassed UN. The invasion of Afghanistan was followed by the biggest military operations ever in NATO's history.
Towards a global NATO
The formal inclusion of non-article 5 operations (i.e. out of area) in NATO's core business at the Washington summit 1999 was a logic next step in the gradual transformation of NATO towards a global military organization. In the eyes of Washington NATO remains the instrument to help better defend its global strategic interests. The US National Military Strategy of 1997 speaks about a global commitment: 'Because America is engaged worldwide, even in peacetime, significant portions of our Armed Forces are present overseas or readily available to deploy overseas, where many of our interests are found. US troops also preserve our access to important infrastructure'.(20) 'Our troops abroad serve as role models for militaries in emerging democracies; contribute uniquely to the stability, continuity, and flexibility that protects US interests; and are crucial to sustained democratic and economic development'. The US started to shift its attention to what it called the Euroasian region. In recent years NATO has constructed strengthened alliances at the southern and eastern flanks of this Eurasiatic region with Japan and Australia, that are essential partners to control the Pacific, and with Israel which continues to be the most important western ally in the Middle East.
Gradually, a debate on article 5 was started as a consequence of the terrorist September 11 attacks of 2001. Even though the US attacked Afghanistan in practice at first outside the military alliance, they contributed to the fact that NATO responded with the creative application of article 5. In that manner, the US and the allies could start an external war one month later without asking the UN Security Council for permission, because the Charter of the United Nations allows violence in case of defense against an armed attack. In the background, the opening of natural gas resources from Turkmenistan played an important role and therefore the control over Afghanistan was a necessity.
After the regime was changed and replaced by a pro-western government, the “defense against an attack” became a long-drawn occupation war. The first time that one could talk about a real out-of-area operation far away from the Euro-Atlantic zone happened with the NATO taking command of the ISAF-troops from the end of 2003 onwards. This was a clear move in the direction of a global NATO.
The conduct of operations in Afghanistan and the experiences gained there would be determining for the further remodeling of the NATO towards a global alliance in the run-up to the major NATO-top in Lisbon in November 2010, where a third NSC would be agreed on. During a seminar, in Warsaw, Rasmussen said that the significance of territorial defense is changing. He argued that if we want to defeat terrorism, we should defeat it at its source and that this is what is happening in Afghanistan.
Foreign military expeditions becoming defense
In Lisbon the principle was accepted that there no longer is a difference for the future NATO between standard defense-missions and intervention actions far away from the own territory. In the NSC is written: “The Alliance can be hit by political and safety developments outside the borders or can influence these latter. The Alliance will engage actively in reinforcing international security, by way of partnerships with relevant countries and other international organizations.” In other words, in this new strategy every military action on or outside NATO-territory will be defined as an action in the interest of its members’ security. Nevertheless the NSC states frankly that it can be necessary to take actions if the energy supplies are menaced. The capacity has to be expanded to “contribute to energy safety including critical energy infrastructure as well as regions and lines of transits…” These interests has been translated by the concept of 'Cooperative Security' - in the Lisbon NSC defined as a 'core task' - through i.a. partnership with relevant countries and other international organizations. According to the NATO there is currently cooperation with 41 countries or partners. With the Partnership for Peace program that was used to promote twelve new Eastern European into NATO between 1999 and 2009, the Mediterranean Dialogue, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative and, as of last year, the newly formed Partners Across the Globe (whose initial members are Afghanistan, Australia, Iraq, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan and South Korea), NATO has spread its angels in the two last decades all over the world. With the new administration in Cyprus confirming its intention to immediately join the Partnership for Peace, every nation in the Mediterranean Sea Basin will be a NATO member and partner. Similar efforts have been made by NATO to forge a collective partnership with the 54-member African Union. Furthermore, the
Alliance aims to deepen political dialogue and practical cooperation with the UN, as set out in the
UN-NATO Declaration signed in 2008.
The military campaign against Libya shows clearly that NATO focuses on the oil-rich states, in which Europe and the US see a common interest. Several issues were involved in the operation in Libya. European as well as American enterprises profited from the plunder of African raw materials. From a western point of view a new competitor has shown up as China is seeking to expand its presence in Africa. This is why the old European colonial countries feel constrained to give their partnership with Washington a new dimension: a cooperation to secure their interests on the African continent. A strong warning is to be given to China and other rivals that they are setting foot on private hunting ground. That is the raison d’être of the Pentagon-department Africom and the current structural connection with Eucom and NATO.
In the whole course of its history NATO has tried to justify its existence with all kinds of arguments. During the Cold War emphasis lay on the military threat of Central and East European communism. When the Warsaw Pact had been dissolved new arguments were to be put forward. First it was about the consequences for our security caused by the unstable ex-communist states. When the latter were at the point to join NATO or the European Union, NATO saw itself play the role of humanitarian intervention force. After nine-eleven the war on terror, the danger of rogue states and cyberterrorism became the headlines of all speeches and analysis papers in western strategic and political circles.
NATO has little to do with the 'defense of values, democracy, human rights, freedom and a law based state' as then NATO secretary general Javier Solana claimed on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of NATO. NATO is about defense of economic and geostrategic interests, as its history shows abundantly. A number of member states were all but examples of good practice. Just to mention in this field Portugal under Salazar, the military regime of the colonels in Greece, the serial military coups in Turkey and the atrocities committed by the colonial NATO members. After the Cold war NATO continued to manifest itself as the military shield for the economic interests of its member states. Every now and then this is overtly admitted by the NATO protagonists themselves as in the following quote of the former secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in his Brussels New Year's speech of January 8, 2008. "This century will be, to a large extent, about energy. Energy security is a theme where NATO is in the process of defining its added value. Protection of critical energy infrastructure. You've heard me before. It has been discussed already previously. NATO certainly doesn’t carry the primary responsibility in the framework of energy security. NATO's not an economic organization. But there is certainly added value to be defined and you can be sure and certain that energy security will also figure on the agenda of the Bucharest Summit"