NATO’s unrealistic ambitions and inner weakness

Jan Helbak
Editor of kritiskdebat.dk

July 22, 2023

The media focus on the communiquè of the NATO summit in Vilnius on 11-12 July was mainly on the process of Ukraine’s accession to NATO. Next, the focus turned to the economic and military contributions of the alliance members to NATO. The 2%-of-GDP goal is no longer a norm but an absolute minimum that can be scaled up when necessary.

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy did not receive a firm plan to join NATO. Several of the “old” NATO countries would not make firm promises or deadlines. In return, Ukraine was promised continued military assistance to conduct the war against Russia on behalf of NATO countries.

But the contradictions in the alliance appear already in this relationship. The old Eastern countries pressed for a rapid admission of Ukraine. The United States, Germany, and in fact, France and England resisted. That contradiction and similar tensions are cutting through NATO on almost every dimension. I will come back to that.

Noteworthy is that the media did not focus much on what is perhaps the most important aspect of the NATO communique. Overall, the statement formalizes the many attempts over the past decade to shape NATO as the West’s unifying global organization for defending its own interests. The United States is no longer strong and powerful enough to assert its global hegemony with its own strength; furthermore, Europe, Japan and Australia lack – and will lack – the strength to act as an alternative. NATO must be able to act and keep united on behalf of the West, which, on the other hand, also means far-reaching militarization of, for example, the economies of the United States, Europe and, not least, the world trade.

If you read the very long statement, it contains different and far-reaching long-term perspectives that transcend the proxy war in Ukraine.

According to the decisions, NATO’s areas of interest should be broadened to control competition in high technology, cyberspace, AI, and space research. The Alliance must secure vital supply chains where it is in the West’s interest. Fighting terrorism anywhere in the world remains an important task for NATO, even though Bush’s “war on terrorism” has proved a catastrophic failure.

In relation to each and every area of action, there are notions of “forward defense”, which in places resemble the Bush administration’s concept of “preemptive strike”.

The basis for the conceptions of NATO’s now global defence and security policy is based on two premises. First, Western institutions and values represent the pinnacle of civilization (all other countries and continents are ‘developing countries’), which in itself authorizes NATO to take action against all threats to “the civilization strongholds.”

Secondly, it appears that China, Russia, Iran and others that may join in the future represent the “axis of evil” in all the above areas – of course, with China, in particular, stated to be striving for global hegemony.

The two premises run like a common thread throughout the final document. NATO countries represent true values, adhere to all international conventions (“the rules-based order”) and conduct open and transparent competition in all areas of the global market, at least in their own self-understanding. The opposite is true of China in particular. Democracies are under pressure from cyberterrorism, state-run competition and China’s significant buildup and expansion of its defence and nuclear capabilities (although still only a fraction of those of the US/NATO, JO).

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This buildup is contrary to NATO’s stated desire to abolish all nuclear weapons, which is why NATO must rearm further at the nuclear level. The same applies to the allegation of the intimidating and aggressive policies of China and Russia towards the countries in their immediate vicinity. This stands in stark contrast to the fact that both China and Russia act primarily defensively to protect the integrity of their nation-states and repeatedly argue and put forward proposals for binding regional security conventions that have all been rejected in Europe by NATO and in the Pacific region by the United States.

What a double standard! What China and Russia are accused of is, in fact, a projection of NATO’s and the US’s own actions and ambitions, only with the crucial difference that the megalomaniac ideas of NATO serve as a yardstick for what is permissible and what is not permissible.

And here we are back to NATO’s internal weaknesses, which go far beyond the confines of geopolitics. NATO’s eastward expansion has not really been a response to the threat from Russia, but to America’s ingrained fear of expanded Eurasian cooperation. The United States’ purpose in enlargement has been to keep “old Europe” dependent on the US and to establish a divide-and-rule order between the old and new NATO countries, the latter seeing themselves best protected by the United States.

Since the mid-1990s, the US strategy has been to prevent the “old” EU countries from challenging US global hegemony after the end of the Cold War.

The globalization strategy from the 1980s onwards attempted to overcome the crisis tendencies in Western economies by outsourcing large parts of its industry to the “Global South”, where labour costs and environmental demands were such that would increase profits and reduce the demands for new investment. At the same time, the financial power of the United States was to secure a world order and an economic power that no power could challenge without destructive responses.

So far so good. However, at the same time, the globalization strategy brought about an accelerated transfer of technology from the economies of the West to the “Global South”, albeit under the domination and control of Western capitalism. Nevertheless, the same strategy has promoted economic development throughout the “Global South”, which has helped to build a modern and well-educated workforce, develop modern infrastructure and lay the foundations for its own technological development.

This applies first and foremost to China and the rest of Asia. The flip side of the strategy has been a partial scaling down of industrial capacity, primarily in the United States but also in Europe. This is the shift that became evident during the Covid-19 epidemic, when the West’s dependence on supply chains came to the fore because, as it turned out, the West was no longer able to exercise the same control as before. In reality, these are no longer single-tier and vertical supply chains, but supply networks that are integrated into the economies of individual regions/countries.

In other words, the West’s own globalization strategy has created the new conditions on the world market that have the potential to overtake the old Bretton Woods institutions and power relations economically and politically and to draw a development scenario for a new multipolar world order both in terms of economic development and the formation of new security policy conventions.

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This status has been understood in both China and Russia. China’s three initiatives, on global security, economic growth and cultural reciprocity, and an essay by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov (Russia in Global Affairs of May 5, 2023) describe a strategy to unite the world outside the West with the aim not to build a new hegemony but to create a more equal and diverse world order in response to the West’s unipolar “rules-based order”.

This strategy cannot be isolated today because China, in particular, is deeply integrated into the current and future world economic order, which no country in the West can no longer reject simply because the West itself is now heavily dependent on the development of the Chinese and other economies.

Right now, this applies in particular to East Asian and European countries. The Global South also sees its own development opportunities in this strategy. If nothing else, they can now, in their own interest, choose between the United States and China, to put it crudely. Before, there was no choice but submission.

It is this development and scenario which, on the one hand, is the backdrop to the megalomaniacal ambitions of the final document and, on the other, also reveals NATO’s inner weakness.

Nowhere in NATO’s long text is it stated what the West can offer the rest of the world. It only describes what NATO will do to maintain the status quo.

NATO’s inner weakness lies precisely in these shortcomings of the text. If NATO is really to take seriously the grandiose intentions of its own final document, the Alliance will open a Pandora’s box. Europe cannot stand – and won’t endure – if the war in Ukraine drags on; the risk of its direct involvement is both and the consequences of it extremely dangerous. And this is a European problem and not an American one.

European countries can neither disconnect nor “de-risk” from China without inflicting incalculable economic consequences on themselves, and the EU is actually in a thinly disguised trade war with the US because of Biden’s protectionist policies. Incidentally, this also figures as a simmering contradiction between the United States, on the one hand, and South Korea, Japan and others, on the other hand.

Finally, NATO, as a domination bloc, cannot tolerate individual countries pursuing a bilateral security policy, as actually recommended in the declaration of the G7 summit from July 12, which was held to compensate for the differences at the NATO summit.

Indeed, the Vilnius NATO Summit Declaration has embedded an internal conflictual dynamic in NATO that will resurface again and again every time the Alliance intervenes on the global stage to put words into action. The very fact that the Alliance has no real plan for a pragmatic peace process in Ukraine paints a picture of how tensions and contradictions can grow further whenever NATO realises its unrealistic ambitions.

NATO’s final document from the Vilnius Summit and the G7’s vague compensation decisions appear to be an anachronism. But that doesn’t make NATO’s grandiose self-aggrandizement any less worrying and dangerous to the world. When the global centrifugal forces accelerate, the status quo can only be maintained if centripetal forces are also increased accordingly, regardless of the means to be used.


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