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Imperialism and NATO at 70

Tom Leonard

December 3, 2019

April 4th, 2019 marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, through the signing of the Washington Treaty in 1949. A Google search reveals a smattering of articles noting the anniversary, but remarkably little media coverage given the significance of NATO to the geo-strategy of the U.S. and its allies, including Canada, over the last several decades. The scant media attention is doubly surprising as U.S. President Donald Trump has openly questioned the continued relevance of NATO and suggested that the U.S. may withdraw from it. So, what is NATO, and why does it matter?

NATO in its Own Words - 1949

NATO is a military and political alliance initiated by twelve founding states, including Canada. Original signatories included the United States, the U.K., and France, as well as Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Portugal. In the years since, the organization has grown to include 29 countries, including Turkey, Germany and Spain, most of the former Stalinist states of Eastern Europe such as Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, as well as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The preamble to the Washington Treaty states that NATO members “desire to live in peace with all peoples and governments” and “are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” The Treaty commits all NATO members to collective defence, and its Article 5 explicitly states that an attack against one or more member(s) in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all, obliging all members to take such action as they deem necessary “to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

NATO states very clearly that the initial focus of the alliance was the USSR, saying that the alliance aimed to “deter Soviet aggression" while simultaneously preventing the revival of European militarism and laying the groundwork for political integration.” In the words of the first NATO Secretary General Lord Ismay, the purpose of the alliance at its founding was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

A Game that Two Can Play - 1954

Given this, it is interesting that in 1954 the USSR actually proposed to join NATO. Following the death of Stalin in March 1953, the USSR spent more than two years in diplomatic efforts pursuing German reunification (Germany was at that time split between Stalinist East Germany and the U.S.-allied West Germany) and the creation of a pan-European system of collective security, a system which would include the United States and the USSR. The proposal that the USSR should join NATO was ultimately turned down by the western powers on grounds that, in historian Geoffrey Roberts’ words, “it would be incompatible with its [NATO’s] democratic and defensive aims.”

On May 6, 1955 a rearming West Germany was formally incorporated into the NATO alliance. The USSR responded a few days later on May 14 that year with the formation of the Warsaw Pact, a military and political alliance between it and seven of its satellite states in Eastern and Central Europe, including Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. For the following forty-five years, Europe would be dominated by this Cold War division.

Words vs. Reality

Two contradictions between the ideals professed in the Washington Treaty and actually existing reality were present right from NATO’s birth. The professed commitment to democracy was belied by the fact that the original signatories included Portugal, at that time ruled by the quasi-fascist police state of Antonio Salazar. Portugal did not become democratic until Salazar’s Estada Novo was overthrown by a popular revolution in 1974, twenty-five years after NATO’s founding. NATO member Greece, which joined the alliance in 1952, was ruled by a military junta from April 1967 through its overthrow in 1974, but NATO supported the junta throughout.

The commitment to peace is likewise questionable. Consider that NATO is the most powerful military organization on the planet, and has been since it was founded. NATO member countries collectively spent more US$900 billion on military expenditures in 2016 (roughly US$600 billion of which was spent by the United States), more than half of the approximately US$1.7 trillion spent globally on the military that year. Even in its founding year 1949, the twelve NATO members collectively spent an estimated US$116 billion (in year 2000 US$) on military expenditures, compared with the estimated US$84 billion spent by their principal opponent the USSR. From these figures, it is clear that NATO has enjoyed military superiority over its rivals since its inception.

When one adds to this the approximately US$218 billion spent collectively on the military by close NATO allies Saudi Arabia, India, Japan and South Korea in 2016, the military dominance of the alliance becomes even clearer. NATO members and these four countries accounted for two-thirds of global military spending in 2016, compared with the US$66 billion spent by Russia (approximately 4% of the global total). To put Russia’s military spending into perspective, NATO member the U.K., hardly a great power any longer and completely incapable of launching a war on its own, spent more than US$60 billion on its military that year, which is 90% of the Russian figure. The U.K. is one of 29 NATO members and not the largest military spender in the alliance, by an order of magnitude.  There is simply no comparison between the military capacity of NATO and the military capacity of Russia. China comes closer, but the US$228 billion spent by China (approximately 13% of global military spending) is still dwarfed by the amounts spent collectively by NATO members. Even if the massive spending of the United States is removed from the equation, NATO members still collectively spent substantially more than China did on its military in 2016, and approximately four times what Russia did.

What, then, is the objective of this overwhelming superiority? It is clearly not defensive, as there is no power on Earth that is even close to being a peer competitor.


A clue to this question can be found in the basic structure of NATO. Overall command of all NATO forces rests with the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), who has always been a U.S. general. The SACEUR is appointed by the U.S. President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate before being approved by the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest decision-making body. The SACEUR is concurrently head of U.S. European Command, the U.S. military organization responsible for U.S. military forces and operations within the European region (including Russia and Greenland). This means he not only commands NATO forces in Europe, but all U.S. forces as well. The SACUER is therefore directly responsible to the U.S. President, not just the NATO Secretary General. This structure clearly demonstrates that U.S. preponderance is built right into the basic functioning of the alliance.

A Decisive Shift – 1990s

A further clue can be found in the history of NATO since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites from 1989 through 1991. With that collapse the principal target of NATO’s force posture, and the first part of Lord Ismay’s troika, disappeared. In July 1990 a second aspect of Ismay’s troika likewise disappeared when West Germany, a NATO member since 1955, reunified with East Germany. NATO appeared to have run out of opponents but the world had not yet run out of NATO.

In April 1993 NATO members launched Operation Deny Flight, the enforcement of a United Nations-mandated no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina, part of the former Yugoslavia and at that time engulfed in a major war. This was the first time that NATO forces had conducted operations outside the territory of a NATO member state, and an air battle in February 1994 marked the first time NATO forces engaged in active combat. NATO further intervened in the Bosnian War in August 1995 with Operation Deliberate Force, a sustained campaign of airstrikes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the first explicitly combat mission undertaken by the alliance, and a decisive intervention into the affairs of a non-member state. By doing so, NATO had established the precedent of being willing to engage in “out of area” operations, that is, military action outside the boundaries of its own territory.

This precedent was reinforced and amplified in 1999 with Operation Allied Force, a 78-day bombing campaign over Serbia and Kosovo which NATO conducted entirely in its own name, without the authorization of the UN. The air strikes destroyed substantial infrastructure within Serbia, including the headquarters of Serb Radio and Television in the capital Belgrade, as well as seven bridges that had no military function, and killed an estimated 500 civilians, according to Human Rights Watch.

Also in 1999, NATO formally added new members Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, all of which were previously members of the Warsaw Pact. This was described by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as “definitely a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made to us in 1990,” alluding to remarks made that year by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker that if a reunified Germany were to join NATO “not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction.” In 2004, NATO added a further seven former members of the Warsaw Pact, including the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (previously part of the USSR), which border directly on Russia.

So NATO’s response to the demise of its main adversary in the early 1990s was not to retreat or dissolve, but the reverse. NATO used the historic collapse of the USSR and the Stalinist bloc to establish a more aggressive and interventionist military policy targeting other countries, and to grow.


NATO is committed to a policy of enlargement, stating explicitly that membership is open to “any other European state in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.” As noted, NATO membership has grown from an initial twelve to a present 29 states, with two others – Bosnia & Herzegovina and North Macedonia – currently participating in Membership Action Plans aimed at preparing them for membership, and both Ukraine and Georgia openly discussing the possibility of joining.

The alliance now directly touches Russia’s borders in the Baltic, and if Ukraine and Georgia were to join, would add thousands of kilometres of shared border in Russia’s west and south. This at a time when the Russian state probably controls less territory than at any point in history since the reign of Catherine the Great. As has been noted elsewhere, NATO has now achieved what neither Hitler nor Napoleon were able to – the encirclement of a territorially reduced Russia by a hostile military alliance.

Inter-Imperial Rivalry

This policy of enlargement is not an accident, but rather a reflection of the wider dynamic of competition in the international state system. In a capitalist economy, individual firms compete with each other for greater shares of a given market, and thus greater profits. The dynamic of competition in the economy compels individual firms – units of capital – to constantly seek technological innovations so as to produce their goods more cheaply and undercut their competitors. Those firms that fail to innovate go bankrupt, with their assets bought up by other firms. So there is a tendency in a competitive economy for individual firms to become smaller in number but greater in size over time. Eventually, a given market becomes dominated by a small number of very large firms. Think about internet search, for instance – after proliferation of different search engines in the 1990s, a very small number of firms dominate today, with one of them, Google, being preponderant.

This market ‘maturation’ compels firms to seek out new markets elsewhere as they can no longer grow their profits in their home market. So successful firms tend to grow beyond the borders of the state in which they’re based. This brings them into competition with firms (capitals) based in other states, internationalizing the economic competition between units of capital and compelling national states to compete with each other, each defending the interests, markets and profits of their ‘own’ firms. So, the economic competition between capitalist firms tends to become political competition between capitalist states. This political aspect of capitalist competition is conducted with all the means at a state’s disposal - trade deals and regulations, tariffs, alliances both economic and military, and the threat of or actual use of military force.

The expansion of NATO is best understood through this lens. Russia and China are capitalist societies, just as are the United States and its allies, including Canada, and the other states mentioned here, such as Saudi Arabia and India. All of them are locked in a system of competitive rivalry as each tries to out-maneuver the other to gain a strategic advantage. There may very well be differences of approach between this or that state, different conceptions of what the ‘national interest’ is and how best to pursue it at a given moment, and different conceptions of the ideal end-state to which they all strive. But all of them are locked in a competitive system of imperialism, ultimately driven by the dynamics of capitalist competition.

In some respects, the system is similar to a yard of school children dominated by a small number of very big kids - smaller weaker states frequently see their own interests as being served through alliance with one of the bigger states, just as smaller weaker children often ally with one of the schoolyard bullies for protection from the others and the opportunity to enjoy some share of the spoils of their own bully’s behaviour. This was exactly the impetus that first drove the founding members of NATO, as Lord Ismay alluded to when he stressed the necessity of ‘keeping the United States in.’ So, far from being an alliance the primary purpose of which was to defend democracy, NATO can be better understood as an expression of the competitive dynamics of a capitalist economy and imperialist global state system.

Donald Trump and What Next for NATO?

Which brings this discussion back to the United States and President Trump. The anniversary of NATO’s founding occurs at a time when Trump has openly demanded NATO members contribute more resources to the alliance and bear more of the direct costs of their own defence. This has been interpreted in some quarters as yet another indication of the malfeasance of the U.S. President and his unfitness for office. However, seen through the lens above, there is a logic to Trump’s argument.

Russia is not a peer competitor of NATO or the United States, nor will it be, likely for generations to come. The same cannot be said of China, which may not yet be a peer competitor of the U.S. but could grow to become one. According to the World Bank, the Chinese economy is now considered the largest single economy in the world by some measures, and was growing at three times the rate of the U.S. economy until 2016. Where economic competition occurs, military competition tends to follow, and the Chinese state is already extending the reach of its military well beyond its own borders. China has built artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea, on which aircraft facilities and runways are being constructed. These have the potential to give the Chinese state the capacity to project military power deep into the Southeast Asian region and Indonesia, which is bringing it into increasing conflict with the United States.

The Trump administration (and many other observers) considers China the main threat to American dominance. Given that U.S. resources are not infinite, and that Russia is no substantial threat to the United States or Europe, the logic of inter-imperial competition dictates Trump’s desire to disengage from Europe and NATO, to allow a focus of U.S. resources and effort on containing China. In all this, ordinary people in China, the United States and the rest of the world are the losers, as vast resources are diverted from useful ends like housing, healthcare and education into a wasteful and dangerous game of chicken played between rival ruling classes. What all this means for the future of NATO is currently unclear, but nobody should bet on the alliance lasting another seventy years.

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