NATO Pushes Its Logic (and Luck?)

Anatol Lieven‘s recent articles[1] point out that the escalating tensions between Russia and the US over Ukraine could be negotiated away simply enough: by agreeing that Ukraine should remain neutral, with no prospect of membership in NATO (similar to the 1955 agreement where Austria was recognized as neutral in the Cold War division of Europe), and by implementing a 2015 agreement to provide some degree of autonomy for the Russian-aided separatist region of Donbass. Both of these seem like painless deals for the US, and offer Putin a degree of face-saving political cover. That matters mostly because Russia overreacted to the 2014 “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine by supporting separatist groups, and got away with it clean in Crimea, less successfully in Donbass. I don’t quite understand why this is a big deal for Putin, but backing down is never easy. On the other hand, the US is the one that’s seriously overstretched and deluded in this conflict.

NATO should have been phased out after the fall of the Soviet Union, but instead sought to perpetuate itself through expansion, eventually resurrecting the Russian hostility it was meant to defend against. The key question no one is asking is whether Ukraine (or any other state) is safer in or independent of NATO. During the 1950s, Austria and Finland chose to stay out of NATO, and their neutrality was respected by the Soviet Union. Most Eastern European countries signed up for NATO not because they feared Russia but because NATO was presented to them as a stepping stone to entry in the European Union. That was mostly an economic problem for Russia, as historic trading partners looked away from Russia and toward Western Europe. But as NATO expanded, the US became more negative and more militant toward Russia — especially in the use of sanctions targeting not just the state but prominent individuals. Most ominously, the US has developed a false sense of security as they’ve tightened the noose around a Russia that is seemingly incapable of responding in kind.

It’s worth remembering why NATO was created in the first place. The “Allies” (principally the US and the Soviet Union) had defeated Nazi Germany in WWII, with American and Russian armies meeting in and dividing Germany, both intent on pacifying Europe and favoring their own interests. But occupation of Europe was expensive and potentially alienating. Under NATO, the US effectively took command of all of the military resources of western Europe, assuring that as they were rebuilt they would remain subservient to US foreign policy. But to make NATO attractive, the US had to posit an external threat. The “spectre of communism” sufficed, what with Russian armies still occupying central and eastern Europe, and labor movements in the west (especially in Italy and France) still feeling solidarity with the Soviets. The Soviet Union responded by organizing the Warsaw Pact and locking down the “Iron Curtain,” although Yugoslavia and Albania, ruled by indigenous anti-Nazi resistance movements, resisted control from Moscow.

The resulting “Cold War” served US business interests in several important ways. First, “red scares” in the US and elsewhere helped suppress and in some cases break labor movements. Second, it became clear after WWII that Britain and France could no longer afford their colonial empires — especially with their militaries circumscribed by NATO — plus there was the risk that continued colonial rule would fuel independence movements led by communists, much as communists had led anti-fascist resistance movements during (and even before) WWII. The result was that by 1960 nearly all European colonies had been handed over to pliable local oligarchies, bound to the US and their former masters through business interests and arms deals. There were, variations along the way: the US encouraged Britain and France to fight against independence movements led by communists, especially in Malaya and Vietnam. On the other hand, independent action, like Britan and France in the 1956 Suez War, was forbidden.

One can debate whether NATO in 1949 was a good or bad idea — I’d argue that it was profoundly bad, both for Americans and for everyone else — but the more pertinent question is why NATO didn’t close up shop when the Warsaw Pact disbanded and the Soviet Union split up. Aside from losing their pet enemy, by then decolonization was complete, the whole world (except for a handful of “rogue states” — ones that the US bore long-standing grudges against but that, unlike China, were small enough to dismiss) was integrated into the neoliberal order, and Europe itself had lost all interest in militarism and empire, its many nation states melting into the EU. Nothing NATO did after 1991 had to be done by NATO — the US-led coalition against Iraq in 1990 had been organized under the UN, with broad support, and that could just as well have been the model for subsequent NATO interventions in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and/or Libya (if supportable cases had been made; with NATO the US was the only decider, so could get away with flimsier excuses and callous acts that ultimately made matters worse; NATO managed to stay out of Iraq, as Germany, France, and Turkey refused to cooperate, but that didn’t stop Bush from proclaiming his “Coalition of the Willing”). And, in due course, NATO has managed to push Russia around enough to create the enemy it needs to justify itself. That’s a consequence that was totally unnecessary, yet today threatens the world, as anti-Putin propaganda channels Cold War propaganda into a kind of brain freeze that affects many Democrats as much as it does Republicans (who at least profit from selling arms, fomenting hate, and smashing the working class).

For an example of that “brain freeze,” see Alexander Vindman/Dominic Cruz Bustillos: The Day After Russia Attacks: What War in Ukraine Would Look Like — and How America Should Respond. The most telling line here is the summary dismissal of Lieven’s arguments: “Presuming that diplomacy fails, there are three scenarios that could play out.” All of the imagined scenarios start with more-or-less-limited Russian advances into Ukrainian territory (much of which isn’t currently controlled by the Kiev regime). Some other references in the piece: “Kremlin’s network of malign influence”; “marshal a unified response to Russian aggression”; “if Russian military action is a given”; “impose additional costs on Russian invaders and contribute to deterrence when paired with other actions”; “avoiding a one-on-one military confrontation with Russia while punishing Russia for creating this harsh new reality.” By the latter, they mean that Ukrainians should bear the pain of America’s demonization and isolation of Russia, which the US can continue at no risk to its own interests. Isn’t is rather late to still believe that American intentions are always benign? Let alone that events always break favorably for the US?

Americans have been feeding off their own propaganda since the early days of the Cold War (or maybe since the Monroe Doctrine, but the quantity and quality took a huge leap in the 1950s, and became increasingly deranged through Nixon and Reagan and Clinton and Bush, to the point where US foreign policy gyrates between schizophrenia and dementia. Obama was a believer who still tried to rationalize fringe cases, leading to half-hearted openings to Cuba and Iran, but never questioning something as sacrosanct as NATO, so he wound up promoting conflict with Russia and China. Trump was a cynic, but even when he dissed NATO, his only aim was graft, so he effectively changed nothing, other than to expose “US interests” as self-serving. This needs to change, but Biden’s team is reflexively locked into the mythology, and the left has deprioritized foreign affairs given the need to advance domestic goals and oppose Republicans. But also note that the ability of the US to dictate craziness to its “allies” has long been diminishing, and could collapse. It’s one thing to blackball inconsequential countries like North Korea and Cuba; quite another to bite off one as large and connected as China, where sanctions may push nations to isolate the US instead. Russia is dangerous because no one knows the limits of possible US bullying, least of all Washington.

Moreover, it’s not coincidental that as NATO is putting the screws to Russia, the US is “pivoting” its military stance to face China. The current demonization of Russia and China is every bit as manufactured as the Cold War was, and predictably falls into the same rhetoric and logic. Why it’s happening is rather harder to understand, given that China and (especially) Russia are governed by the same sort of repressive oligarchs that the US has been happy to do business with all along. It’s possible that it’s no more than a scam by the politically influential arms industry to sell more arms. That was pretty clearly the point of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, where nations were led to believe that if they joined NATO (and bought new weapons systems) they’d get a chance to join the EU. And that, in turn, has created a cycle of aggressive pettiness that seems to be coming to a head.

Another point that should be made is that Putin (and Xi) are far from political geniuses. The US (and not just Trump) is leaving them a lot of moral high ground they aren’t showing much consideration for. Part of this is that they misjudged Trump as someone they could deal with, oligarch to oligarch. Worse was Putin’s election meddling, which served mostly to make Democrats more irrationally anti-Russian. The obvious thing would be to offer serious arms limitation talks, while trying to shift international conflict resolution back to the UN (which Russia and China would have to buy into, and which the US could still veto, but responsibility for failures there would be clearer). I could go on and on, especially if we allowed for some positive attitude adjustment on both sides. China doesn’t need to treat the Uighurs as brutally as it does, and doesn’t need to keep pressure on Taiwan. Russia doesn’t need to help its clients repress democracy movements, or to annex bits of neighboring territory. The US doesn’t need Ukraine in NATO or the EU. All sides need to cut back on the cyberwarfare. Russia did a good thing last week in arresting the REvil hacker group, but they’re not getting any credit because the US propaganda machine only ratchets toward war. All three could benefit from a change of heart that prioritizes peace, openness, and mutual respect and support over zero-sum antagonism.

[1]: Anatol Lieven articles referred to above:

There is also a recent interview with Lieven. While he’s being quite reasonable, he doesn’t seem to appreciate that NATO’s very existence, with or without Ukraine, is geared toward provoking ever greater disharmony with Russia, nudging us ever closer to war. Even well short of war, bad things happen, like Russia’s efforts to influence US elections, and recent US political efforts from both Republicans and Democrats to punish Russia for supposed transgressions. Also see Blinken’s response to Russia NATO demand is frankly disturbing. I think it’s clear by now that both sides have painted themselves into corners from which reasonable compromises will seem like politically crippling signs of weakness.