Is NATO obsolete?

What does ex-president Donald Trump think about NATO? Twice during his campaigning, he rubbished it publicly, saying it was “obsolete”. Three years ago the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said NATO was “brain-dead.

Is it obsolete or brain-dead or both?

NATO’s job, as the British secretary-general, Lord Ismay, said in 1967 was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. It certainly had success with the latter two. The first was unnecessary.

There are some- a few- influential people- much wiser than Trump or Macron- who have argued that NATO is indeed obsolete. One of these was William Pfaff, the late, much esteemed, columnist for the International Herald Tribune. Another is Paul Hockenos who set out his views in a seminal article in World Policy Journal. Their words fell on deaf ears.

President George H.W. Bush (Senior), who presided over the end of the Cold War, wanted to see the Soviet Union more involved in NATO’s day to day work. He travelled to Kiev and told Ukrainians in a public speech that they should keep their country as part of the Soviet Union. Bush preferred stability.

His successor, President Bill Clinton, had totally another agenda- and one that turned out to be dangerous one, triggering over time Russia’s present-day hostility towards the West- incorporating one by one Russia’s former east European allies, the so-called “expansion of NATO” eastwards. His successors continued that approach with President Barack Obama at one time raising a red rag to a bull by calling for the entry into NATO Ukraine and Georgia.

NATO thought that it had a “peacekeeping” role after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989 and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. It led to “humanitarian” interventions in Bosnia in 1995, against Serbia in 1999 and in Kosovo later in 1999. But the latter two were done without the authority of the UN Security Council, thus breaking international law. Russia and Spain voted against the intervention in Kosovo in the UN Security Council. (Ironically, if Russia had got its way it would have set a precedent that would have made it very difficult for Russia later to justify its occupation of Crimea and Ukraine.) Some observers say that the final settlement made by the warring parties in ex-Yugoslavia is unlikely to last. In a number of quarters the ugly nationalism of the wars still lives on.

In 2001 NATO countries led by the US started to bomb Afghanistan and later sent in troops. The war lasted 19 years and ended with NATO’s defeat. In 2003 NATO attacked Iraq and quickly overthrew its government but caused so much damage that the country is still struggling to get back on its feet. (Before that it was the most prosperous of all Arab countries.)

In Afghanistan, the main legacy of the NATO occupation has been the rapid growth of the poppy crop which provides ever more heroin to subvert the youth of Europe and Asia. It is difficult to believe that otherwise sensible men and women in NATO countries believe they should have stayed on in Afghanistan after their original target time of a few months. In that period, Al Qaeda, the source of the terrorist act against New York’s World Trade Centre was quickly driven out of its refuge in Afghanistan and dealt a severe body blow. To stay on after that was not covered by a UN mandate. It led to America’s longest war. It was a fruitless cause to stay on and attempt to defeat the home-grown Taliban by military means. NATO countries should have limited themselves to building schools, hospitals, clinics, water supplies, sanitation systems and roads.

Let’s return to the founding of NATO in 1949, meant “to keep the Russians out”. A majority (yes, a sizeable majority) of top historians who have examined the evidence are convinced that Stalin had no intention of invading Western Europe. The Second World War was won. The Soviet Union, perhaps understandably a bit neurotic after Napoleon and Hitler’s attempts to invade it, reaching within striking distance of Moscow, had at last a ring of friends around its borders, and Germany was divided. The allies had been an invaluable helpmate during the war and the Soviet Union did not feel threatened by its former comrades-in-arms. It did not need to fight them for more territory. Thorough searches by Western historians through the Soviet archives- they were opened during the years of President Boris Yeltsin- have revealed that Moscow had no plans to invade Europe.

Despite its joint deployments in the former ex-Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, NATO is not a truly multilateral institution of equals. The Europeans do not initiate military action (with the exception of the invasion Libya that led to the overthrow and killing of President Muammar Gadhafi in 2001, followed by chaos that still lives on). It is the Americans who do that and the Europeans, whatever their reservations, invariably follow.

NATO has no relevance to the problems that truly occupy Europe and the US today. Its hands are tied in Ukraine because of the fear of nuclear war if they start to fight the Russians. It cannot help in dealing with the fact, as a European Union study concluded, that there will be an increase in tensions over declining water supplies in the Middle East that will affect Europe’s security and economic interests. Nor can it do anything to contribute to the fight against global warming, in the long run the most severe threat that confronts humanity.

To turn to the present crisis, we have the reassurance that President Joe Biden will not agree to sending NATO planes or troops into Ukraine, whatever the provocation. It might well lead to World War 3 between two nuclear-armed powers, he and his generals say.

But Biden has decided to reinforce American troops in Poland, another example of the US breaking its promise to Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, not to expand its troops and planes eastward. What’s the reinforcement for? For NATO to do what Biden has just said it won’t do? But it’s one more provocation to Russia.

At last, from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, we have had some clarification of how he sees things after days of war. He told ABC News three days ago: “Regarding joining NATO, I have cooled down regarding this question, after we understood that NATO is not prepared to accept Ukraine.”

All Biden must do now is to say he agrees with Zelensky. He should say: “Zelensky is right. We stand fully behind his statement.” That will draw most of Putin’s sting and he should withdraw his troops from Ukraine.

That leaves the question of Donbas, the eastern Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, and Crimea. If an UN-organised referendum in Donbas decides its people want to join Russia let them. Russia will inherit a near shattered economy with rust-belt factories, a low tax-take and with hardly any money for hospitals, schools and social services, but that will be Russia’s problem. Second, on who possesses Crimea. Let there be another referendum in this Russian-speaking province but this time with UN supervision. The result will probably be more or less the same as the last, Russian-organised, one. Crimea will stay Russian, as its history suggests it should.

To improve the future climate between Russia and the US, not NATO, which itself doesn’t possess nuclear weapons, the US should continue to propose that it is willing to launch a new nuclear arms reduction process and to enter into agreements on medium-range missiles in Europe, specifically on the stationing of US Tomahawk cruise missiles in eastern Europe.

Since the time of President Bill Clinton, the US has set out, according to elder statesman Henry Kissinger, to achieve the goal of “breaking Russia”. This attitude must change 180 degrees.

Not only should the US forget about admitting Ukraine to NATO, but it should also roll back some of the more provocative aspects of its expansion.

There is an opportunity for peace. If it arrives we still have to face the fact that it took a tragedy to create the peace that should- and could- have arrived at the end of the Cold War.