Grey Anderson (ed), Natopolitanism: The Atlantic Alliance since the Cold War

IssueDecember 2023 - January 2024
Review by Gabriel Carlyle

The now-obscure term ‘Natopolitan’ appears to have been coined by the British Marxist historian EP Thompson in the late 1970s.

It referred not just to NATO proper, but also (in a later gloss by Edward Said) to ‘a mentality whose web extended over a lot more activity and thought’.

This reader on post-Cold War NATO – pieces range in date from 1994 to 2023 – examines both, but its core material focuses on three main topics: NATO’s massive expansion following the collapse of the enemy that it was ostensibly created to counter; NATO’s transformation from an ostensibly defensive alliance whose operations were supposed to be confined to the North Atlantic into the ‘roving, interventionist cartel’ that bombed Yugoslavia, Libya and Afghanistan; and the alliance’s role in helping to precipitate and prolong the ongoing carnage in Ukraine.

A large number of the pieces – including some of the best – are reprinted from New Left Review, but there are also ones from such bastions of the establishment as Foreign Affairs and Survival.

In keeping with this being a critical reader, many conventional orthodoxies are taken to task.

NATO’s founding 1949 treaty engaged its original 12 signatories ‘to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law’. And yet both fascist Portugal and countries fighting brutal colonial wars (including France) were among its founding members.

Moreover, according to historian Melvyn Leffler – author of one of the major scholarly works on US policy during this period – the alliance was formed at a time when US statesman ‘did not expect and were not worried about Soviet aggression’.

Rather, notes Grey Anderson, ‘European leaders looked to NATO as a bulwark against internal subversion as much as against the Red Army.… By design, not flaw, it has effectively limited the exercise of sovereignty of its constituent publics, insulating existential decisions over war and peace from the hurly-burly of electoral politics’ (emphasis added).

Above all, Thomas Meaney writes in the book’s conclusion, NATO is ‘a political arrangement that guarantees US primacy in determining answers to European questions’.

Though outside the spectrum of thinkable thought today, this was explicitly stated by the French president Charles de Gaulle in 1963: ‘NATO is a subterfuge. Thanks to NATO, Europe is placed under the dependence of the United States without appearing to be so.’

The alliance’s first secretary-general, Hastings Ismay, was even more blunt, describing its mission as: ‘To keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down’.

Such considerations would continue to drive policy following the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Writing in 1994, Benjamin Schwarz (then an analyst for the US military think tank RAND)noted that: ‘Now that the USSR has disappeared, it would seem reasonable that American security policy would change profoundly.… If, however, US security policy has been primarily determined not by external threats but by the apparent demands of America’s economy’ – specifically, maintaining an ‘open global economy’ – then ‘it would follow that, despite the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Washington’s global strategy must remain unaltered’.

According to Schwarz, US planners had long reasoned that: ‘The only way to overcome the dangers inherent to international capitalism [was] for a preponderant power to take care of other states’ security problems for them, so that they need not pursue autarkic [closed-off, economically self-sufficient] policies or form trading blocs in attempts to improve their relative positions. This suspension of international politics through hegemony [had] been the fundamental aim of US foreign policy since 1945: the real story of that policy is not the thwarting of the Soviet “threat”, but rather the effort to impose a specific economic vision on a recalcitrant world’.

In her piece (from 2014), US historian Mary Sarotte notes that: ‘the issue of NATO’s future in not only East Germany but also Eastern Europe arose soon after the Berlin Wall opened, as early as February 1990’. She suggests that, while ‘there was never a formal deal, as Russia alleges… US and West German officials briefly implied that such a deal might be on the table, and in return received a “green light” to commence the process of German unification’.

In fact, according to the National Security Archive at George Washington University, declassified US, Soviet, German, British and French documents show that ‘U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s famous “not one inch eastward” assurance about NATO expansion in his meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990, was part of a cascade of assurances about Soviet security given by Western leaders to Gorbachev and other Soviet officials throughout the process of German unification in 1990 and on into 1991.’

Despite this, following the newly-reunified Germany’s joining the alliance in 1990, NATO has expanded ever eastwards, with the inclusion of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic in 1999, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004, Albania and Croatia in 2009, and Montenegro and North Macedonia in 2017 and 2020, respectively.

In 1999, Peter Gowan noted that the ‘great danger’ facing the US post-USSR was ‘that Germany becomes the hegemonic power in Western and Central Europe and then establishes a condominium with Russia over the bulk of the Eurasian landmass. To prevent that happening, US political ascendancy in the territory between Germany and Russia becomes pivotal.’

In the immediate post-Cold War period, Gowan continues, ‘Washington was in danger of political marginalization in a Europe that was peaceful and full of enthusiasm for overcoming the confrontation between the blocs in 1990 and 1991.’

Therefore, expansion took place ‘precisely to defeat decisively European pressures for a norm-based, collective security order in Europe.’

Serving the United States’ wider political goals in Europe, NATO flew its first combat mission in Bosnia in February 1994, before launching a major illegal war on what was left of Yugoslavia in 1999.

The latter especially had ‘enormous pan-European political consequences, far more important for the state interests of all the great powers than the fate of the Kosovo Albanians’, Gowan notes: it ‘decisively consolidate[d] US leadership in Europe’ and ensured that there would be ‘no collective security in Europe by the UN back door’.

More broadly, Gowan explains how, in Yugoslavia, ‘Western policies promoted the descent into barbaric wars’. But Washington achieved its goal of ‘rebuilding its authority over the Western European states’.

It wasn’t long before NATO was once again involved in ‘out of area’ military interventions in Afghanistan and Libya. Tariq Ali surveys the former, in a piece from 2008 (barely a third of the way into that occupation), while Alan Kuperman assesses NATO’s 2011 bombing of Libya.

Kuperman argues convincingly that NATO’s intervention in Libya likely ‘increased the duration of Libya’s civil war by approximately six times, and its death toll by seven to ten times’, and led to a post-Gadaffi human rights situation that was considerably worse than in the preceding decade – with abuses ‘so widespread and systematic that they may amount to crimes against humanity’ (Human Rights Watch).

NATO’s intervention in Libya also ‘destabilized the previously peaceful and democratic Mali’, helping to create what Amnesty described as ‘Mali’s worst human rights situation in 50 years’; encouraged Syria’s peaceful protesters to take up arms, ‘dramatically escalat[ing] Syria’s death toll’; and led to thousands of surface-to-air missiles going missing, or winding up in the hands of radical Islamists.

Turning to Ukraine – which occupies most of the book’s second half – stand-out pieces include two by Susan Watkins (from 2014 and early 2022) and Tony Wood’s ‘attempt to sketch out the historical matrix from which the present conflict developed’, also written in early 2022.

Watkins makes the important point that whereas Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was vehemently denounced by western leaders, it ‘was not a Chechnya redux. Lacking bloodshed [one soldier was killed] and probably enjoying majority support, it was visibly unlike the famously ruthless annexations of East Timor, Northern Cyprus, Western Sahara, and East Jerusalem, all condoned [or worse] without a tremor by the “international community”’.

‘Putin’s champions in the early days when he was pulverising Chechnya were those paragons of nineties centrism, Clinton and Blair’, she notes.

Meanwhile, Wood argues that ‘As the most powerful bloc, in a decades-long geopolitical contest over Ukraine, the US and its NATO allies necessarily played a role in shaping the context of the invasion, just as inter-imperial rivalries in the Belle Epoque, set the stage for the descent into war in August 1914. Any analysis that confines itself to Russia’s actions alone, or that looks no further than the inside of Putin’s head, is at best one-sided delusion, and at worst wilfully distorts the facts.’

Rejecting ‘the apparent dichotomy now developing between two explanatory schemas – one emphasising NATO expansion, the other the long-hidden force of Russian nationalism’, he notes that ‘the emergence of an increasingly assertive and militarized Russian nationalism is inextricable’ from the process of NATO expansion ‘because it was in large part propelled and reinforced by it.’

In particular, he highlights NATO’s April 2008 declaration that Ukraine and Georgia ‘will become members of NATO’, a policy that ‘left the two aspirant states in the waiting room, with none of the supposed benefits of membership, while continuing to amplify Russian concerns.’

‘Imposed by Washington from the safe distance of five thousand miles, this policy course knowingly placed the populations of Georgia and Ukraine in danger, a shameful strategic calculation for which only non-NATO members have so far been made to pay the price.’

The book’s final section takes in a broad range of themes, including Ukrainian attitudes to the current war, the airbrushing of Ukraine’s leadership in the West following Russia’s 2022 invasion, and NATO’s long-standing acquiescence in the persecution of the Kurds by Turkey (a NATO member since 1952) in which thousands have perished, and around a million people have been displaced.

Though not all the selections are of equal interest, there’s a lot to chew on in this welcome collection.

It lacks (and needs) a timeline, maps and some brief author biogs – and the dates of the articles should be more clearly flagged.

In May 1990, the president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, ‘proposed… a pan-European arrangement, one in which a united Germany would join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact’, telling US secretary of state James Baker: ‘You say that NATO is not directed against us, that it is simply a security structure that is adapting to new realities. Therefore, we propose to join NATO’.

Though the idea sounds absurd today, there was in fact ample precedent for enlarging NATO to include Russia. As historian John Lewis Gaddis points out, France was brought back into the Concert of Europe ‘as early as 1818’ (following the Napoleonic wars) and West Germany was in receipt of Marshall Plan aid ‘as early as 1947’.

However, ‘a genuine reconstruction and development effort [in the Eastern region]… combined with a new, more genuine collective security regime being built across the continent’ (Gowan) wasn’t what US planners wanted and so had to be averted.

In the book’s concluding chapter, Thomas Meaney writes that the war in Ukraine has now ‘put an end, at least for the foreseeable future, to any vision of an independent, non-imperial, cooperative state system in Europe’, with the US ‘keen to build global alliances for an imminent battle with China over the next New World Order’.

There has ‘never been more need for an alternative world order’, he notes, but ‘NATO closes the door on that possibility. NATO may be back. But it is only to hoist the old banner: “There is no alternative.”’

Topics: NATO