Natopolitanism: The Atlantic Alliance since the Cold War, ed. Grey Anderson (Verso 2023), 368pp.

A collection of articles on the history of Nato offers some very useful critical views of the organisation against the relentless pro-intervention propaganda of recent times, finds Kevin Crane

We often say that things that seem threatening are most severely so when they are totally, or mostly, unknown and that they become more banal the more you understand them. Nato is one of those rare entities that becomes substantially more menacing the more you learn and understand about it. After eighteen months of a Nato-mania of sorts, since Russia invaded Ukraine and gave the organisation a renewed glow of apparent moral authority, it’s certainly not a bad time to do some of the necessary study. That’s even if you’re only doing so because, at times, it has been difficult to remain sane listening to the delusional arguments of the armchair generals for a year and a half.

Natopolitanism is a collection of essays that aims to take the critical looks at Nato that are absent from almost all media coverage. The editor has gone for a broad scope of subjects and fairly diverse range of entries, so an article by a veteran revolutionary socialist like Tariq Ali sits almost next door to an open letter written by a Gaullist foreign-policy advisor. The articles were written at quite different points in time, too, and it’s not always obvious when. This is not to say that the book doesn’t have a through-line, and the articles are grouped into sections that reflect both subject and historical period.

The first section is arguably the least interesting to anyone who’s got any familiarity with the history of the subject: it’s essentially the story of why Nato defied expectations – and crucially Russian expectations – that it would come to a natural end once the Cold War was over. If you are new to the arguments about why Nato’s continued existence through the 1990s was controversial on both sides of the former Iron Curtain, the thoroughness with which it’s covered is probably useful. If, like me, you’re fairly au fait with the arguments about this, it’s a bit skippable.

Out of area

In contrast, I found the second section absolutely captivating. It’s titled ‘Out of Area’, which is a reference to an early neocon line about how Nato could only survive through military adventurism. And what adventures they were: the stories of how Nato intervened in its three direct mobilisations in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Libya are all here in details that are literally gory. The three conflicts themselves are all very different, of course, and have had very different specific outcomes. What all three have in common is that Nato intervened in each with high-minded rhetoric about stopping violence and saving lives, but behind this was taking decisions based first and foremost on how each action would impact upon the balance of power in the wider world. The impact on civilians in the given country was an afterthought. So, you get the reckless initiation of previously inactive nationalism in Bosnia and the promotion of wildly unrepresentative political cliques in Afghanistan.

However, the most shocking chapter, certainly when the propaganda is contrasted with the reality, is probably the Libyan intervention. The author painstakingly demonstrates that behind talk of preventing genocide, Nato’s intervention in Libya in 2011 was consistently to pass the initiative to the most warlike and uncompromising elements of the country’s opposition. This ultimately turned what had been a lunatic fringe into a dominant force in the country and destabilised not just it, but several surrounding states as well. The author persuasively argues that the rise of reactionary Islamist organisations out of this process also influenced the declining situation in Syria. This piece was written in 2013, so the author doesn’t get to make the connection to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), nor to the even later Manchester Arena bomb attack. As with several other segments of the book, however, the trajectory of the horrors being described do become hauntingly clear despite the words coming to you from a past in which they hadn’t all played out.

Ukraine

The next sections are inevitably about Ukraine: one on the circumstances leading up to the conflict and one discussing the conflict. These bits are most useful, from a practical point of view, in just assembling the arguments against the mainstream narrative on the war. Much like the first chapter, I think how much you’ll take away from these parts does depend how much you’ve already read and absorbed about the situation. Given the weight of propaganda telling people that the war is entirely a product of one man’s madness, and not the result of decades of geopolitical manoeuvres, this is far from valueless.

Of particular interest, though, is an essay entitled ‘The War Through Ukrainian Eyes’ which focuses on demystifying recent Ukrainian history and the complex political geography of the country. This is helpful because both Western and Russian propaganda utterly dominates the way Ukraine is normally talked about, and a critical analysis of the pre-war political power blocs in the country is very refreshing. This is particularly the case because the author is interested in class analysis of Ukrainian society, and not the crude dichotomy of Ukrainian-speakers versus Russian-speakers to which we have become so used. This author notes that Ukraine currently appears unanimous in its embrace of a pro-Western hegemony, and that this is an ironic direct consequence of Russia invading those parts of the country where its sympathetic pillar in society was based. Conversely, he also notes that it is potentially very naïve to imagine that a wartime national unity will necessarily survive long into any post-war period.

The final section looks at where the alliance is going, and has some fascinating detours into the politics of Nato’s peripheries.  Richard Seymour has some fun laying bare some of the more ludicrous expressions of jingoism we’ve had in the Anglosphere, but it was the essays about the politics of Nato in the Scandinavian countries and inside Turkey that I really found fascinating. The author on Scandinavia argues persuasively that Natoisation is the vehicle through which their traditions of social democracy are finally being broken down for the states to be remade in America’s image. Meanwhile, in the Nato state that is most notionally hostile to the supposed values of those Nordic countries, our Turkish correspondent paints a picture of an elite that has been using Nato as vehicle to indulge in fantasies of restored imperial splendour while it serves other imperialisms.

The book concludes with an essay that sums up the key theme around which all the essays were assembled: that Nato is, and always was, far more to do with creating facts inside its member states than it ever has been about potential conflict with Russia. The centrality of ensuring Washington’s policy dominance has been the overriding priority in all Nato decision making, from setting up bizarrely shaped protectorates in the Balkans, to carving France out of submarine deals with Australia. This is an important argument, particularly in today’s Britain, where our elites use delusional propaganda about our supposed military glory to justify political and economic choices that are uniformly detrimental to the people, in the name of Nato causes.

That being said, this book does not feel like it is ending on any kind of action point, or making a genuinely powerful polemical pitch. I’m not sure who the book’s intended audience is, since parts of it are a bit too heavy going for a general audience who are unsure what to think yet, but those parts that make for fascinating reading to a very engaged audience are not enough of the overall content. I certainly recommend parts of Natopolitanism, but I feel that there is space for a much more agitational book about the myth of Nato and its horrible ‘good wars’.

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