Nato paralysis and US decline

No candidate to replace the USA exists or looks likely to arise, writes James Turley

Nato: two-tier

In recent years, there have been no end of occasions for military strategists to wonder what, exactly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is actually for.

It used to be pretty obvious: with the Soviet bloc extending out as far west as Berlin and as far east - until the Sino-Soviet split, at least - as Pyongyang, an alliance between the USA and various European states was something of a no-brainer to the anti-communist ruling class of the western world.

Now the cold war is over, however, and so is that sense of a fundamentally shared purpose. Nato has visibly been in decline since the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and with each passing year - sometimes, it seems, with each passing month - the contradictions between different signatories become more obviously acute. Many have been long-running, of course - Gaullists in France resisted full-fledged Nato membership from 1966 until 2009, and the resistance of post-war Germany to overt militarisation is understandable - but now there is nothing left to paper over the cracks. The occasional outrages of Islamist terror cells make a poor substitute for the Evil Empire.

The latest crisis arises directly from an exasperated US establishment. Robert Gates, outgoing Pentagon chief and long-serving military-industrial bureaucrat, used a valedictory speech in Brussels on June 10 to launch a scabrous attack on European commitment to the alliance. Already in America, he said, there was a new generation of politicians who had not come of age in the cold war, and were sceptical of carrying its legacy for no obvious reason. Indeed, the broadly isolationist views common to the American right in the inter-war years are making a comeback under the sign of the Tea Party.

What is already a hard sell is made harder by the belief that only the US and a handful of close allies are truly meeting their Nato commitments, leaving America in the position of bailing out underfunded military ventures. The latest of these is the imperialist attack on Libya - “The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country,” said Gates. “Yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference.”

Fundamentally, this is an issue not of political will in the immediate case of Libya, but of reticence about military funding. “Many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.”

In the case of more recent admissions to Nato, of course, this is understandable. George Bush and Dick Cheney may have been full of praise for ‘new Europe’, as against the old powers of France and Germany, when the latter opposed the Iraq war. Yet the fact is that Germany is an industrial powerhouse, and France hardly cash-strapped (by today’s standards, anyway). The same cannot be said of the post-Stalinist countries in eastern and central Europe, or indeed the crisis-ridden countries of southern Europe.

The result is ominous for the US ruling class. “In the past,” declared Gates, “I’ve worried openly about Nato turning into a two-tiered alliance - between members who specialise in ‘soft’, humanitarian development, peacekeeping and talking tasks, and those conducting the ‘hard’ combat missions ... This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable.”

In truth, the post-cold war enlargement of Nato has brought its own problems, especially its extension into various ex-Stalinist countries. This was most dramatically highlighted in the South Ossetia crisis in 2008. Nato had been lukewarm about admitting Georgia to the alliance, most obviously because of the increasingly fraught diplomatic relations the former Soviet republic had with Russia. When war broke out between them over two autonomous provinces, the fact that Georgia remained outside Nato was a consolation - after all, had it been admitted, Nato would then have been under a formal commitment to intervene on the side of a militarily weak state run by an authoritarian and widely hated leader.

In practice, the nuclear arms race meant it was always impossible for Nato to wage a war - except in the most exceptional circumstances - against the Soviet Union. It could, nonetheless, serve the purpose of shoring up European borders against the Soviets, with the expectation that the US could enjoy popular support off the back of anti-communist sentiment for its troop and missile deployments. Today, it just looks like what it is - cynical big-power politics. Nato was always a means to rubber-stamp US foreign policy - but now they cannot pretend it is anything else.

Robert Gates’s criticisms are not idle threats. They are expressions of the underlying dynamic towards fragmentation among the western powers, and ultimately the decline of the US as a global hegemon state - its interests increasingly diverge from those of the core European powers. True, the ascendance of China and other countries has been considerably overstated and it remains crucially the case that the US can inflict a military defeat on any state of the periphery - witness Iraq and Afghanistan. But it appears unable to impose any kind of stable political order.

The Libyan intervention is an attempt to regain ground in the Arab world after a great wave of popular struggles that caught America and its allies on the hoof. The first casualties were US strongmen in Tunisia and Egypt; who knows who the next will be? Even here, however, the difficulties are obvious. America was hardly chomping at the bit to send the cavalry into Tripoli; the limitations of sustained aerial bombardment are increasingly obvious, and Gaddafi looks like he will hang on.

This is not to say the US is effectively neutralised - on the contrary, the lesson of the Bush years, and indeed of Obama’s reign so far, is that it is increasingly compelled to engage in irrational, destructive military engagements. However, in doing so it is increasingly less able to win much support from former allies, who very often see their own imperial interests suffer in the resulting devastation (the French government’s opposition to the Iraq war is a case in point).

From this perspective, it would seem that the mothballing of Nato is an inevitability. Certainly, in its present form, it is unsustainable. Gates’s comments are above all else a challenge to Germany to increase its defence spending, supported by other countries. Should it do so, and begin to make real contributions to the ‘hard’ combat missions, then perhaps the organisation as such has a future.

In the short term, this is not so much an issue; more advanced conventional weaponry, and crucially nuclear arms, are highly dependent on a technological infrastructure owned and controlled by the United States. Further into the future, there is the potential for this military-technical integration to fragment as well.

As with the Chinese case, the proclamation of the century as a European one by starry-eyed ideologues is vastly premature; Europe is a very long way from being able to challenge US military supremacy - no candidate to replace it exists, or looks likely to arise. The decline of the US as a hegemon is one tendency resulting from the decline of capitalism as a whole; the accumulation of such tendencies renders the operations of the system increasingly irrational.

In any case, the core European states - indeed, most states in the world - are not in a position to transform themselves into military superpowers at present. There is, after all, an economic crisis on, and this time around the military has not escaped public sector cuts. Even in America, the scaling back of Nasa, the US space agency, is implicitly a defeat - for now - for those bellicose governments and Pentagon apparatchiks who dreamed of weaponising space.

Alas, military spending does not need to be increased - or even maintained - for the world to be a very dangerous place. There already exist enough nuclear warheads to exterminate life on Earth several times over; and the age of austerity did not stop Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama from wading into Libya. It is impossible to predict exactly how the present period of global instability will play out. The only certainty is this: unless the working class rises to impose its agenda, there will be many more Iraqs and Libyas - or worse.

james.turley@weeklyworker.org.uk