North Atlantic Council Meeting at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, 2010. Photo: Wikimedia Commons North Atlantic Council Meeting at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, 2010. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chris Nineham highlights a worrying foreign policy shift at this year’s Nato Summit that needs to be examined

This year’s Nato summit was barely noticed by the media amidst domestic turmoil here and uproar in the US. But we shouldn’t let it pass unexamined because it marks a worrying foreign policy shift by the Western powers.  It indicated that far from learning any lessons from the catastrophic interventions of the last fifteen years and more, Western powers will respond to the growing instability they have caused by trying to escalate again. In the words of Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, ‘We have launched a wholesale reinforcement of our collective defence and deterrence. The biggest since the end of the Cold War.’

The drive eastwards

With heavy symbolism, the summit was held in Warsaw, the first ever in Eastern Europe. Nato came into existence as a western military alliance aimed at challenging Soviet power and ensuring US hegemony over Europe. Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, as Europe’s crisis deepens with the Brexit vote, it is reprising this role in new conditions. ‘In good times and in bad, Europe can count on the United States,’ Barack Obama assured Nato allies. Despite the turmoil in the Middle East largely generated by western interventions, and the political turbulence in Europe caused by the EU crisis, Putin’s Russia is being cast as the main villain of the piece.

In classic Nato speak, the summit aimed to ‘project stability in to the neighbourhood’. In practice, this means the strengthening of Nato’s eastern flank by deploying four multinational battalions stationed on a rotating basis in Poland and three Baltic states: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, with command of, consecutively by the US, Germany, Canada, and the UK. Altogether, some 4,000 troops will be deployed with around 650 coming from Britain and 1,000 from the US.

This follows a 10-day military exercise earlier in the year, involving 31,000 troops and thousands of vehicles from 24 countries, which was the largest Western war game in Eastern Europe since the Cold War. It was also the biggest movement of foreign allied troops in Poland in peace time.

Even Western officials were nervous about the impact of these manoeuvres. A defence attaché at a European embassy in Warsaw said the “nightmare scenario” of the exercise, “a mishap, a miscalculation which the Russians construe, or choose to construe, as an offensive action”.

The Nato summit decisions, marking the permanent deployment of Western troops in areas long regarded as within the Russian sphere of influence, will be even more provocative. The planned deployments are the logical outcome of the process of Nato’s eastward expansion begun soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite Western assurances that it would respect neutrality in the region. Since 1991 twelve countries have joined Nato in the area. Georgia and Ukraine were promised membership at the Nato Summit in Bucharest in 2008, despite repeated warnings from the Russian government that taking Nato to the Russian border would cause a security crisis. It was only the intervention of Germany and France that forced the US to put these plans on hold.

This expansion was offensive, not reactive. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, successive Russian governments looked for co-operation with the West, even making tentative moves to join Nato. As Russian expert Richard Sakwa has detailed, early last decade Putin, and his successor Medvedev, sought engagement and accommodation with the West and tried to establish structured relationships with Nato and the EU. This approach faltered according to Sakwa, because of repeated rebuffs from the West:

“Continued conflicts in the post-Soviet space, the inability to establish genuine relations with the EU and disappointment following Russia’s positive demarche in its attempt to reboot relations with the US after 9/11 all combined to sour Putin’s new realist project”.

Despite this history, the western media are almost unanimous in regarding Russia as the aggressor, and the Russian invasion of Crimea as the precipitating factor in Nato’s push East. The Guardian for example, claimed this week that ‘If recent Nato military exercises in central Europe risk seeming provocative, it is worth remembering that Russian military exercises in neighbouring regions have involved up to three times more troops.’ What is omitted from this sentence is the fact that any such exercises have taken place on Russian soil.

A growing global role

Policy decisions about other regions are equally disturbing. In general, the summit committed itself to boosting military back up for its allies. In the Middle East and North Africa for example Stoltenberg promised more ‘stability projection’ to ‘help our partners tackle the root causes of instability. To secure their own countries. And to fight terrorism. Training local forces is often our best weapon against violent extremism.’ Hence another 560 US troops are being despatched to Iraq, taking the total to over 4,000.

Not content with proxy wars, Nato has agreed to mount a new operation in the Mediterranean – Sea Guardian – with the express and deeply un-humanitarian aim of stopping migrants from Africa getting into Europe. This operation is designed to complement and reinforce the EU’s existing military effort to keep migrants from finding refuge in Europe by crossing the Mediterranean.  Stoltenberg said Nato was committed to “work closely with the European Union’s Operation Sophia in the Central Mediterranean, building on our swift and effective cooperation with the EU to cut lines of international human trafficking in the Aegean”. Sea Guardian will also bolster attempts to embed Western influence in Libya where the EU and Nato have imposed a new government sympathetic to the Western powers.

The summit reflects a growing belief in US foreign policy circles that, as an election approaches, Obama’s administration has been too tentative and timid. That the ‘Iraq Syndrome’ needs to be overcome and the US and Western powers need to get back on the front foot in a more and more unstable world. But they face many obstacles; their own weakening economic position, military overreach, growing disenchantment with the War on Terror around the world and Western populations generally less and less happy to back their rulers’ military fantasies.

The Western elites see military action as crucial to dealing with their many-sided crisis. The popular struggle to restrain them will be one of the defining contests of the coming years.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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