NATO's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium., 2018. NATO's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium., 2018. Source: NATO - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 75th anniversary of Nato’s founding is no cause for celebration, argues Chris Bambery, amid the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Ukraine quagmire and US efforts to re-assert its global dominance

‘To condemn NATO is to condemn the guarantee of democracy and security it brings.’

Those were the words of Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, writing in The Guardian in 2022. Starmer claimed that Nato is a ‘defensive alliance that has never provoked conflict’, ignoring the fact that Nato has taken military action in Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Libya.

At the same time, it has continually expanded eastwards towards Russia, bringing its troops and military equipment to its very border. In 1999, former Warsaw Pact countries Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined Nato. In 2004, they were joined by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. All of this was in breach of a promise given to the final leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, by the

US Secretary of State, James Baker, in 1990, that Nato would ‘not expand an inch’ eastward.

At its April 2008 summit in Bucharest, Nato members agreed that Georgia and Ukraine would be allowed to join Nato in the future. They did this knowing Russian President, Vladimir Putin, had warned this was a red line for the Russians which should not be crossed; both states border Russia, both were former Soviet republics.

Encouraged by this, and by US military support and assistance, four months later Georgia launched an invasion of South Ossetia, a territory it claimed but which had declared its independence with Russian support. Russian troops intervened and drove the Georgians back, entering Georgia itself and forcing its government to convene ceasefire negotiations.

What is Nato?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), is a collective security pact that was formed 75 years ago in 1949. Nato’s founding members were the United States, Canada, and ten states of Western Europe, including the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal. The alliance’s first secretary general, Baron Hastings Ismay, described its purpose bluntly: ‘to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.’

Britain, France and Belgium had already signed a similar pact, but even together they could not match Russia or, in the future, a resurgent Germany. Each a colonial empire, these declining powers needed an alliance with the USA, post-1945, the greatest world power, in order to retain their own status as world powers.

In the immediate aftermath of victory in World War Two, they were worried also that Washington wanted to strip away their colonial empires; the wartime administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt had used anti-colonial rhetoric and made open its support for Indian independence. Two things ensured that post-war, the new US President, Harry Truman, would not follow through on that.

The first was that, through the Breton Woods Agreements, it got what it most desired: free trade (America could undercut any of its rivals). Britain, for instance, had to dismantle its Sterling Bloc, in which the UK, its Empire and Dominions and countries like Argentina had created a protected market, to the annoyance of the US. Free trade was guaranteed by new American-dominated institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and GATTs, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

The second change was the onset of the Cold War with Russia. At the Yalta and Potsdam summits in 1945, Europe had been partitioned between the US and UK on the one hand and Russia on the other. In the Far East, the USA effectively kept both Britain and Russia out of its successful war with Japan, and took control of it after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the Russians had entered the Korean peninsula and Washington had to agree to its partition.


Tensions soon grew. In 1948, the Russian dictator, Stalin, cut off road and rail access to US, UK and French-occupied West Berlin. The Western powers had to airlift in everything from flour to coal. 

One of the USA’s wartime goals had been to open up China for free trade; previously, various European powers physically controlled its coastal cities. But the 1949, the Chinese Revolution ended that. Then in 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, starting a long, bloody war involving America and its allies and, after American armies reached the border with China, the People’s Army.

In Western Europe, Communist Parties had joined coalition governments in 1945 in France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By 1947, the USA had run a successful campaign, orchestrated by the CIA, to get them out of office.

In order to prevent the supposed threat of Communist takeovers in Western Europe, Nato created, in 1949, a number of top-secret underground armies, the Gladio network, stay-behind cells which would keep fighting after a Russian invasion.

These were largely made up of far rightists who began targeting Communist Parties in countries like Italy. In the 1970s, as part of creating a ‘Strategy of Tension’ in Italy, they became involved in far-right bombings aiming at provoking a military coup. Earlier, the Greek Gladio and special-forces networks joined the 1967 Nato-backed coup that installed a military dictatorship. Meanwhile, in Malaya, Britain was fighting a vicious colonial war against Communist-led pro-independence guerrillas, as was France in Indochina.

The Truman administration became convinced Stalin was set on expanding his empire (actually he was satisfied with gaining Eastern Europe and was suspicious of the Chinese Communists). Washington also saw the British and French Empires as providing them with strategically important bases: Gibraltar, Cyprus and Diego Garcia today, for instance.

Against that background, Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary in the 1945-1951 Attlee government took the lead, sensing the shift in Washington. That government, lauded now for creating the NHS and the welfare state, was prepared to fight to maintain the Empire, and while, economically bankrupt, saw an alliance with the USA as the way to cling on to great-power status.

The US realised that it did not have a single nuclear weapon that could reach the Soviet Union. It needed nuclear bases in Europe and Turkey. The creation of Nato, reflected by the Warsaw Pact signed in 1955 between Russia and its Eastern European satellites, led to the militarisation of Western Europe. The USA already had some 50,000 troops in Germany and the huge Ramstein air base there (used today to supply Ukraine and Israel).

With the creation of Nato, Washington secured nuclear bases in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey, today home of up to 200 US B61 nuclear missiles. Britain had already signed a separate treaty granting the US nuclear bases in the UK. Today, the alliance rejects a policy of ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons. In other words, Nato would be prepared to use nuclear weapons in a first strike.

Nuclear Alliance

From the start, Nato was a nuclear alliance. At the 2018 Brussels Summit, Nato reaffirmed that the fundamental purpose of its nuclear forces is deterrence, and that, as long as nuclear weapons exist, Nato will remain a nuclear alliance.

At the Summit Declaration, Nato criticised the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), saying it ‘risks undermining the NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons), and is inconsistent with the Alliance’s nuclear deterrence policy.’ That same year, in its Nuclear Posture Review, the Trump Administration reaffirmed its commitment to have ‘nuclear weapons forward-deployed to Europe, to the defence of NATO.’

Currently, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is modernising the non-strategic warheads deployed in European Nato countries. NNSA is refurbishing and replacing components of the aging B-61-3 and B-61-4 warheads, converting them into the updated B61-12 model, which are due to be deployed this year.

The Cold War ended with fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. That same year also saw the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. But the US was determined to retain Nato.


One reason was that it wanted to maintain its military presence in Europe via Nato, and was very distrustful of talk of the European Union creating an alternative military force. George H. W. Bush told French President François Mitterrand, in April 1990, that no organisation would ‘replace NATO as the guarantor of Western security and stability’.

Key to maintaining Nato was its expansion, as outlined above. The 2008 Bucharest Nato summit held out Nato membership to Ukraine and Georgia, with American and European leaders knowing this would provoke Russia.

In 2008, the CIA Director, William Burns, wrote to the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, saying: 

‘Experts tell us that Russia is particularly worried that the strong divisions in Ukraine over NATO membership, with much of the ethnic-Russian community against membership, could lead to a major split, involving violence or at worst, civil war. In that eventuality, Russia would have to decide whether to intervene; a decision Russia does not want to have to face.’

Nato’s 2016 Warsaw Summit Communique criticised Russia’s annexation of Crimea and reiterated the deterrence role of nuclear weapons. Nato also stated that its regrets that the prospects for disarmament are ‘not favourable today’.

Reports like Extending Russia: Competing from Advantageous Ground, published in 2019 by the Rand Corporation, talked of halting Russia’s gas exports to Europe and arming Ukraine, to advancing regime change in Belarus and exacerbating tensions in the southern Caucasus. The report set out a raft of measures aimed at enforcing Western interests by coercion.

As I have argued elsewhere, the Russian invasion of Ukraine allowed the US to impose its control on the European states, forcing them to prioritise Nato as key to their defence and forcing them to increase military spending. Germany was brought to heel and the emphasis on Nato allowed Britain to resume its role as the American watch dog in Europe.

Inflection point

US president, Joe Biden, views the war as ‘an inflection point in the world’. Less than a month after the Russian invasion, he told a group of business leaders: ‘There’s going to be a new world order out there, and we’ve got to lead it’.

The US sees the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to weaken Russia, and send a signal to China. In April 2022, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin told a press conference in Kyiv, ‘We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.’ This means denying Russia ‘the capability to very quickly reproduce’ the military forces that it has lost so far.

Nato has also become a means of enforcing the global neoliberal template. On March 25, 1997, at a conference of the Euro-Atlantic Association held at Warsaw University, Joe Biden, then a senator, outlined the conditions for Poland’s accession to Nato, stating:

‘All NATO member states have free-market economies with the private sector playing a leading role’.

He then added:

‘The mass privatization plan represents a major step toward giving the Polish people a direct stake in the economic future of their country. But this is not the time to stop. I believe that large, state-owned enterprises should also be placed in the hands of private owners, so that they can be operated with economic, rather than political interests in mind … Businesses like banks, the energy sector, the state airline, the state copper producer, and the telecommunications monopoly will have to be privatized’.

At the 2022 Nato Helsinki summit, the Swedish government was warned that their country would become less attractive for foreign capital if it remained ‘the only state in Northern Europe outside of NATO’. Swedish arms manufacturers welcomed its application to join Nato, as Lilly Lynch noted:

‘Swedish defence industry giant Saab is expecting major profits from NATO membership. The company … has seen its share price nearly double since the Russian invasion. Chief Executive Micael Johansson has said that Sweden’s NATO membership will open new possibilities for Saab in the areas of missile defence and surveillance. The company is expecting dramatic gains as European countries raise their defence spending, and first quarter reports reveal that operating profits have already risen 10% over last year, to $32 million.’

The 75th anniversary of Nato’s founding is unlikely to be cause for much celebration. The withdrawal from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover was a humiliation for the US and Nato.

Today they are having to face up to the fact Ukraine cannot win against Russia, it simply does not have the manpower. Hopes of a Russian economic collapse have not just failed to materialise, but the Russian economy is performing well, and it has built up its arms industries to allow it to fight a war of attrition, in a way Ukraine and Nato cannot match.

When the war ends, we must remember it would never have occurred without Nato expansion further and further east.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.