Should criticism of NATO — indeed, questioning its very existence — be taboo? The answer from most media coverage of the just-passed NATO summit and Trump’s meeting with Putin today appears to have been a resounding “yes.” In typical fashion, Trump’s actions over the past week appeared to have moved those opposed to him to swiftly embrace the opposite of whatever his position is — in this case, by rallying around NATO.
Just as Trump’s comment in early 2017 that the alliance was “obsolete” sparked an explosion of fierce, often liberal, denunciations of Trump and defenses of the Cold War-era alliance, so Trump’s veiled threats to leave NATO over the past week or so have driven much of the media to insist on its importance. They’ve done so by citing former diplomats or members of the national security community, and implying or even outright stating that Trump’s skepticism toward NATO is at last the proof that he’s working directly for the Kremlin.
This kind of talk, besides providing further fuel for the fire of Trump-Putin conspiracizing, serves to delineate the boundaries of acceptable debate. In this hurricane of pro-NATO coverage, it’s easy to come away thinking there’s no reasonable case that NATO is obsolete, outdated, part of an American project of maintaining imperial dominance, or that it should be dismantled, or at the very least radically transformed into something other than a military alliance.
Such ideas, which fly in the face of the Washington consensus, are now the province of unserious, boorish ignoramuses (like Trump) or Putin stooges (like Trump).
So goes the narrative anyway. In fact, the notion of NATO as a sacrosanct entity whose existence and mission are beyond debate would probably surprise its many critics over the decades — a list which included George F. Kennan, the intellectual father of “containment,” the US policy of checking the expansion of both communism and the Soviet Union throughout the world.
Kennan viewed containment as a political and economic strategy rather than a military one, and opposed the creation of NATO, the rearmament of Germany, the development of the hydrogen bomb, and other military escalations. Kennan’s views obviously lost out in the Truman administration, and as Soviet ambassador through 1952, he would privately complain that US policymakers “were expecting to gain our objectives without making any concessions whatsoever to the views and interests of our adversaries,” a view he compared to “the policy of unconditional surrender.” As a result, “there remained a certain hard core of genuine belief in the sinisterness of Western intentions” among Russian leaders, he told the state department.
Even on the American imperial architects’ own terms, any Cold War-era justification for NATO’s existence vanished after the Soviet Union collapsed. As two defense secretaries (at the time, one former and one future) argued in 1999, NATO’s “founding purpose of deterring attack from the Warsaw Pact has been fulfilled.” NATO was adrift in this post-Cold War world, and there was open discussion about what the point of it was anymore, particularly when George W. Bush initially sidelined it in his “war on terror,” in keeping with his preference for taking unilateral action.
Not all US officials were confused about its purpose, however. The Clinton administration was the first to aggressively pursue NATO’s expansion in this new world, taking advantage of Russia’s weakened state to entrench US influence further throughout Europe.
Strobe Talbott, a former Time magazine journalist who served as Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, recently explained the thinking to Keith Gessen: “If the leadership of a country has any view but the following, it’s not going to be the leadership of that county for very long. And that is: We do what we can in our own interest.”
It was ultimately the dubious purpose of the “war on terror” that would save NATO from becoming either a peacekeeping force or, as Putin had wanted, a political forum. The first time NATO’s Article 5 (the provision that treated an attack on one NATO ally as an attack on all) was ever invoked wasn’t during the Cold War, but following the September 11 attacks, and NATO eventually became heavily involved in the global “war on terror.”
So it came to be, ironically, that the two interventions NATO has become most associated with in the twenty-first century are both completely unconnected to Russia and far from Europe’s shores. They also happen to be failures.
One was Afghanistan, to which NATO initially deployed a small fighting force in an explicit attempt to avoid a Soviet-style embroilment in the country, before eventually doing just that by sending in a larger number of troops to cover for US soldiers being diverted to Iraq. The presence of large numbers of foreign troops, coupled with the death and destruction visited upon Afghans by military forces over the years, has kept alive the local resentment that insurgents feed off of, and will continue to do so for who knows how much longer.
NATO’s other triumph in this period was the 2011 bombing of Libya, which ended with the killing of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. NATO quickly hailed the intervention as “one of the most successful in NATO history,” a sentiment that stopped being plausible almost as soon as it was uttered, as the country quickly devolved into chaos. As a result of the war, easily Obama’s worst foreign policy decision, Libya became a launching pad for weapons to reach extremists around the Middle East and for the migrant crisis that has helped feed the rise of the European far right, while a thriving slave trade has emerged in the country.
Meanwhile, back in Europe, NATO’s continued existence — and, in fact, its expansion — has mostly served to resuscitate the very issue it was created to solve: Russian aggression. Soviet leaders had long viewed NATO with suspicion, and the fact that it continued to soldier on even after the ostensible basis for its existence had ceased to be only heightened this suspicion.
According to declassified documents, both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin were repeatedly assured by the first Bush and Clinton administrations, respectively, that NATO wouldn’t expand eastward, something Russians viewed as unacceptable. Imagine, for instance, how US policymakers might feel if the Soviet Union had established a military alliance with a handful of South American states during the Cold War explicitly as a bulwark against the United States, then when peace at last came, began inviting more and more South and Central American countries to the alliance while breaking an explicit promise not to do so.
This is effectively what NATO has done during the 1990s and beyond in Eastern Europe. With sixteen member states by the end of the Cold War (all North American and European), NATO has, between 1999 and now 2018, added fourteen new member states, all from Eastern Europe, including two (Latvia and Estonia) right on the Russian border. Macedonia has officially joined as of last week’s summit.
Not all US officials thought this was smart. Kennan, for instance, warned at the time that eastward expansion of NATO would be a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions” and “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” Robert Gates, secretary of defense for both Bush and Obama, has said that “pressing ahead with expansion of NATO eastward … aggravated the relationship between the United States and Russia.”
This was compounded, said Gates, by the fact that just a few weeks after adding its first three eastern European member states in 1999, NATO began bombing Belgrade, a conflict that was only prevented from spinning into a wider, more dangerous confrontation because NATO captain James Blunt — yes, that James Blunt — and a British general refused to follow Wesley Clark’s command to take control of a Russian-held airport in Pristina, Kosovo.
Kennan’s warnings about the effect of this expansion were prescient. He warned that it would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion” and “impel Russian foreign policy in a direction decidedly not to our liking.” When Yeltsin, leading a weakened Russia, had no choice but to accept NATO expansion at a 1997 summit with Clinton in Helsinki, Russian politicians denounced it as “the largest military threat to our country over the last fifty years” and “a Treaty of Versailles for Russia.”
“There was no reason for this whatsoever,” Kennan told the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman about the expansion. “Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.” As early as 1997, Kennan fretted that it would result in “a new Cold War, probably ending in a hot one, and the end of the effort to achieve a workable democracy in Russia.”
This is a history that is almost entirely left out of most defenses of NATO in the mainstream press, not to mention in accounts of Putin’s aggressive actions. And it’s no mere excuse-making on behalf of the Kremlin. Even Michael McFaul — Obama’s ambassador to Russia between 2012 and 2014, and far from a Putin apologist or dove — acknowledged in a recent debate that Russian policymakers have reacted to “aggressive US policies,” including the Iraq War and US support for “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe, which “intensified conflict and tension in US-Russia relations.” McFaul also argues that the other major ingredient was the 2012 return to power of Putin, a reactive leader paranoid about American intentions in the region who is inclined to view US actions with mistrust.
This is an alarming cocktail, especially as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has warned that the world is closer to nuclear annihilation than it’s ever been thanks partly due to tensions with Russia. And it’s only been made worse by last week’s summit.
While most of the media spent the NATO summit chiding Trump for supposedly undermining NATO at the behest of Putin, the summit produced a marked military escalation implicitly aimed at Russia, and there is evidence that Trump’s haranguing of European leaders actually succeeded in ramping up already provocative NATO military spending.
Yet not only is there an almost total absence of voices in the mainstream media calling for a de-escalation of tensions between the US and Russia, it’s members of the media — liberal ones, very often — who are virtually baying for conflict with Putin, arguing, as George Kennan had warned they would, that Putin’s reactive aggression is simply “how the Russians are.”
With two minutes until midnight on the doomsday clock, and an atmosphere of historically bad mutual mistrust between Russia and Western leadership, the commentariat has nearly unanimously cast suspicion on an entirely routine diplomatic meeting between Trump and his Russian counterpart (and one Trump has taken more than twice as long to undertake than his predecessors) where they are set to discuss reducing their nuclear weapons, before transitioning to calling for its cancellation.
When you ignore Trump’s rhetoric — as commentators correctly tend to do when the subject is domestic policy — his administration has been one of the more aggressive toward Russia in recent memory. That most of the media ignores this is mirrored by their fierce, unanimous defense of NATO, one that entirely leaves out the alliance’s failures and the fact that it’s brought us to this perilous moment.
Turning Back the Clock
At best, NATO is a Cold War relic whose attempts to broaden its mission in the twenty-first century have been disastrous failures. At worst, it’s a vehicle for anti-Russian provocation that both strengthens the hand of reactionary forces in Russia and edges the world closer and closer to armed, potentially nuclear, conflict.
Yes, getting rid of NATO is one of Putin’s most cherished goals. But that fact alone shouldn’t color debate over NATO, any more than it would be a good idea to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine just because Putin wouldn’t like it.
We are in a dangerous moment in history, as the vast majority of media coverage has focused on wild conspiracies about whether or not the US president is Putin’s “asset” instead of on the rapidly escalating tensions between Russia and the West. This escalation should be rolled back. One way to do that involves questioning the continued existence of NATO, as it has played a key role in bringing tensions to their current boiling point. The scope of debate shouldn’t depend on whatever the US president does or says on any given day.