Justin Trudeau at the NATO summit in Brussels this month. Image credit: The Office of the Prime Minister

Former French Ambassador to the U.S. Gérard Araud described the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a hammer looking for a nail. This was diplomatic language for saying NATO — the military alliance between 30 European and North American countries — had no reason to exist.

Originally conceived to block Soviet expansionism, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant the collective security alliance was no longer needed.

Yet, decades later, the U.S. proclaims international security requires military readiness on the part of the NATO membership.

The most recent NATO summit in Brussels saw the U.S. calling for each member state to devote the equivalent of two per cent of its GDP to military spending. Currently 11 of the 30 NATO members spend more than 2 per cent on the military. The U.S. spends over $800 billion on “defence,” amounting to 3.52 per cent of GDP.

Arms expenditures by member states are directed to NATO approved weaponry, the speciality of American arms merchants.

NATO is useful to the entire military industrial complex that plays such a key role in the American political economy. Senators and key congressional figures receive funds for re-election campaigns from the main military armaments manufacturers. This makes them supporters of NATO.

The expansion of NATO to former Warsaw Pact countries — an eastern block of countries including the Soviet Union established during the Cold War to counter NATO — was triggered by arms makers seeing a decline in their business. This occurred despite a solemn undertaking to Russia by former U.S. president George H.W. Bush that there would be no such expansion following the reunification of Germany.

Arms manufacturers convinced U.S. president Bill Clinton to break the American pledge to Russia. Of course, the move heightened tensions with Moscow, making Russia look like more of a threat than before.

NATO took on new members formerly in the Russian sphere of influence: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999; Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004; Albania and Croatia in 2009; Montenegro in 2017; and, North Macedonia in 2020.

Russians naturally interpreted the expansion of NATO as threatening its security. President Vladimir Putin was able to exploit growing anxieties among Russians to consolidate power.

Currently, in what amounts to a direct provocation of Russia, NATO recognizes three aspiring members: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Ukraine.

Over the years NATO has been useful to U.S. presidents, not for any particular military purpose, but as the incarnation of American hegemony — with all the influence over international affairs that implies. 

America’s nuclear capacity was brandished as a guarantee of European security, but it doubled as an instrument of persuasion with European leaders in international institutions, and bilaterally on a host of issues such as trade, commerce, and investment. 

Survey data shows large numbers of Europeans — like other citizens around the world — see the U.S. as the biggest threat to world peace. However, European leaders prefer not to publicly criticize U.S. foreign policy, much less denounce the U.S. for unnecessary military spending.

The Obama administration undertook a much publicized “pivot to China” having decided that China’s stellar economic performance constituted a threat to American hegemony.

The result was that China moved to establish closer relations with Russia, signing long-term contracts for the delivery of Russian gas and the construction of pipelines between the two countries.

China has doubled down in its efforts to improve economic relations with emerging market economies through the belt and road initiative, committing some $4.2 trillion in infrastructure lending. 

The response by the Biden administration was unveiled at the recent G7 meeting: the “Build Back a Better World” or B3W programme to promote co-operation on infrastructure projects.

Beginning in the 1960s, discussions on international affairs have turned around the idea that concerted action on common security issues needed to supplant military spending for national security.

NATO has been a major obstacle to moving beyond military spending, and instead attacking climate change, the deteriorating environment, social and global inequalities and health issues.

While now making symbolic moves to recognize the reality of climate change, the role of NATO remains the same: act as an instrument of American foreign policy, promote the American arms industry, and leave the U.S. dominating its allies in international policy.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Image credit: The Office of the Prime Minister

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...