Making the Left Case for NATO (or Alliances, At Least)


In an excellent recent piece on a Left foreign policy, Aziz Rana describes the post Cold War potential of the structure extant in NATO:

For Havel and Gorbachev after the fall of the Soviet Union, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact were outdated Cold War holdovers. The hope was to create new and inclusive multilateral regional and international institutions, premised on mutual disarmament and shared decision-making. But given their commitment to American hegemony, this was not the path that Republican and Democratic officials pursued. And as the US instead promoted privatization and the starving of state institutions in Europe and elsewhere, policies like NATO expansion funneled money yet again back into defense.

Getting to the heart of the matter, Rana asks, “can NATO in some revised form be repurposed to serve Havel’s and Gorbachev’s old hope, or does the US need new multilateral and regional arrangements?”

The question is a vital one, and finding an answer will help to determine the future of international security in a broad sense. The obvious answer is that security must be as multilateral a construct as possible. But more specifically, is NATO – or some altered version of it – the vehicle through which that can be achieved?

Many veterans of the anti-imperialist, anti-nuclear campaigns of the 1970s and 80s maintain a healthy skepticism of NATO and other institutions of its ilk, and often the reasons for that skepticism are very much justified. On the whole, building multilateral structures and institutions is a worthy project. Part of the problem, though, is that institutions are frequently more beholden to contemporary ruling regimes and ideologies, rather than a consistent worldview. Even when one swims against the current, such as the IMF’s recent (long overdue) critique of neoliberalism, that often isn’t enough to undo its own previous decisions. In other words, is NATO too much NATO to ever be reformed?

The other issue with NATO, in particular, seems to be representation – by virtue of its origins, NATO’s membership is geographically limited, and this inherently limits its broader appeal. Phenomena like NATO-African Union cooperation are a step in the right direction, but a more inclusive structure would be better – it’s hard, at this stage, to envision how this might come about without devolving into the same sort of paralysis that plagues UN peacekeeping operations and contributions, but this is a necessary prerequisite.

But in addition to addressing NATO itself, it is perhaps worth examining the utility and moral quality of alliances more generally. It seems as if the main objection to a permanent standing alliance structure – as opposed to the ad hoc, shifting alliances of pre-1815 Europe – is that having a “squad at your back” might drive unnecessary interventionism. There is undoubtedly some truth to that, but as recent history has shown, when a country is truly committed to embarking on some foolish misadventure, the choice of partners won’t dissuade it. For every Franco-German-led NATO “Je refuse,” there’s a Coalition of the Willing.

On the other hand, it might be possible to use an alliance as a constraint, if it’s structured in such a way as to only operate on an integrated basis. The 2010 Lisbon Capabilities Commitments, for instance, committed certain countries and sub-groupings of alliance members to developing particular capabilities, but if these were made almost mutually exclusive they might have a deterrent effect against adventurism. If they really specialize, so instead of say, Germany focusing on heavy lift aircraft, only Germany does heavy lift and nobody else has that capability, it becomes even more difficult to operate outside the framework of the alliance.

The broader question, of course, is the purpose of an alliance. Is it meant to counter a specific threat? To reinforce a particular set of prevalent norms? In the European example, for much of history all alliances were those of convenience, made in an attempt to enforce balance in central Europe, or to forestall the rise of a potentially dominant power, or even just to bolster one’s territorial integrity by presenting a mutually defensive front. Only in the postwar era (and some would say only since 1991) has the concept of an alliance with not just interests but ideals been an enduring one. Returning to the earlier instrumental model would require us to define not only what counts as a “threat,” but to determine whether there are enough security challenges in the world to justify some alignment against them. This is the real struggle for the left. There are threats but few of them are as realistic or dangerous as all the damage the west has done to itself and the degree to which modern neoliberal-inflected western governance has ignored anything resembling public goods or regulation.

It will be a challenge to expand the concept of collective defense and mutual idealism without falling into a McCain-esque “league of democracies” or other inherently elitist project. But determining where these lines might be drawn will be critical if it is to succeed and if its success is meant to be of universal benefit. While mutual membership an defensive umbrella is no guarantee against internecine conflict (see: Greece and Turkey), it is at the very least an important normative argument against it (see: the rest of NATO).

These are just a few preliminary thoughts, but at the end of the day, a genuinely cooperative mutual defense project, structured around an alliance, strikes me as a useful tool for dampening conflict and restraining military adventurism. How it might come about, however, and whether NATO is a vehicle for doing so, is a topic worthy of much more in-depth study.


The four constituent nations of the "Visergrád Four."

Apparently, this alliance exists, and as of May, now includes a military component. I like it. As a bloc in the EU and NATO of otherwise somewhat ignored countries, it allows for a little more interdependence without relying on the “big boys.” The history behind the group, which dates back to 1335(!) is just awesome, and I believe was designed for the sole purpose of fascinating me.

Originally a meeting between the King of Bohemia, the King of Poland, and the King of Hungary and Croatia, the “Visegrád Three” (so-named for the Hungarian castle town in which the meeting was held) was intended to create new routes of commerce, bypassing what was then the center of European commerce, Vienna. Replace “Vienna” with “Berlin and Paris” – and possible even “Moscow” – and one gets a decent idea of what the Visegrád revival is all about. Of course, as post-Communist countries, the Visegrád Four (with the split of Slovakia and the Czech Republic) were concerned with maintaining their own sphere of influence without Russian interference.

As for the Visegrád Battlegroup, it is expected to become fully operational by 2016. It is intended to be a separate force from NATO, though elements will begin exercising with the NATO Ready Response Force. Poland is taking the lead militarily, as befits its size and spending relative to the other members.

Aside from the practical nature of the undertaking, the symbolism of this alliance is not to be underestimated. The four countries involved are all European Union members, but not in the Euro-zone (they are the westernmost non-former Yugoslav countries to not adopt the Euro). They represent a strange hybrid between EU membership and existing outside it, and with the Euro looking shakier every day, actual entrance into the common currency may be an increasingly remote possibility. This would solidify the status of the Visegrád Four as, if not second-class member-states, then at least as junior members in an IGO whose legitimacy is derived from the equal status of its constituent nations.

On its own, the Visegrad Group is not particularly powerful or a threat to European unity, but when seen as part of the larger pattern of sub-regionalization it becomes indicative of a larger trend. Even where formal ties do not exist, developments like the emerging German leadership of the EU or the newly-signed Anglo-French defense treaty point to a Europe losing coherence. And in Eastern Europe these new subregions are gaining prominence and a sort of global autonomy. The customs union between Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia that came into being in 2010 harkens back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, when a similar union (with the addition of Ukraine) was seen as a means to preserve much of the structure of the USSR while maintaining the multinational state. That customs union has abolished border controls as of this month, creating another subnational and even subregional entity.

There seems to be growing disenchantment not just with the universal United Nations, but even with the regional variants: the European Union, UNASUR, African Union, SCO, ASEAN, etc. In a world where nations themselves are tending towards autonomy and fragmentation, it should not come as a surprise that some countries would turn to a more specific alternative than the grand regional frameworks that attempt to address an incredible array of problems and cooperative issues.

Also, the conflation of military and economic drivers of an alliance like Visegrád should not be overlooked as a key development. While the two are often treated as completely separate realms – NAFTA certainly does not include a military component, NATO’s economic requirement is that members adhere to capitalism, more or less, and the EU’s EDC unified European military force has been discussed for sixty years without ever coming to fruition. Military power and the economy, however, are inextricable, and it is perhaps for this reason that these microalliances are coming into being. For a group of four, maybe it’s just more manageable that way.

In general, though, keep an eye out for these subregional and some day soon even subnational alliances. The New England Six? The League of Extraordinary PIGS? Flanders? Coming soon to a world map near you.

Lesser Nobility of the Seas

Depressing developments out of Britain (new motto: “Good, not Great”), where David Cameron has announced the extent of massive budget cuts.  They’re not only targeted at the much-reviled ‘quangos’ and other sundry domestic spending, but significantly cut down on the size of the Royal Navy.

And I do mean significant. HMS Ark Royal is to be scrapped immediately, and while the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers will still be built, one will be commissioned pre-mothballed, while neither will be fully operational until 2036 (a rather expensive “jobs program“). One of the two helicopter carriers will be decommissioned. A total of 5,000 personnel cut. And the surface fleet reduced to 19 ships. As many have pointed out, that’s smaller than the task force sent to retake the Falkland Islands.

Obviously, this represents a real threat to British power projection capabilities. But it’s worth asking to what extent they’re still needed. The Guardian, true to form, heralds the cuts as rendering Britain incapable of launching “military operations like Iraq.” Which may be well and good; after all, today’s generals prepare to fight yesterday’s wars, and hopefully there won’t be any more Iraqs or Afghanistans in the near future.

All the same, is this a force capable of defending Britain? Again, the question is what Britain needs defending from. It can’t be the French, with whom the Royal Navy has entered into a sort of timeshare arrangement for the use of aircraft carriers (though hopefully their deployments go better than that of Charles de Gaulle). If anything is to be secure for Britain, though, it must be the sealanes. Britain is an island, and as Patrick Porter reminds us, “for heavy importing island states like Britain, strategy puts food on the table.”

Either way, it’s a huge blow to British prestige both around the world and within NATO. The worst part is that this may be a sign of things to come. As David Betz at Kings of War says:

The thing to grasp is that this is not Year Zero for the UK military, it’s worse than that. It’s more like Year -5 or -10 because that’s what it’s going to take to move all the accumulated bad decisions, and even worse non-decisions, through the system. It will be years before we get to zero and can start to work on building the armed forces we want and need.

Practical considerations aside – and they’re hugely important to consider – it’s almost akin to the death of the battleship, that great “monarch of the sea.” Once the British cuts are complete, the United States will be the only navy in the world operating more than one carrier. Last time the U.S. had to bail out her Anglophone cousin, the Royal Navy had been placed in a similar situation.

By 1939, Britain could not afford the navy that was necessary to ensure security across the globe. While the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty appeared to favor the United States and the United Kingdom, the scattered nature of the British Empire left it without overwhelming strength in any given theater, despite the superiority in absolute tonnage. In the early days of World War II – at least to protect Far East territories and India – the Royal Navy had to rely on the strength of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the South African coastal forces, and the British-controlled Royal Indian Navy.

We all know what happened next: Singapore and Malaya fell, the Japanese preponderance of carrier-based aviation left the entire Eastern Fleet sorely outgunned, and at the Battle of the Java Sea, the entire Allied fleet was wiped out in the largest naval battle since Jutland in 1916. Britain was stretched too thinly.

Obviously, the empire is no more and concerns closer to home are keeping the Ministry of Defence busy, but even so – there is a floor to the minimum amount of required naval force, even for a tiny island like Great Britain. With these cuts, I fear that the UK may have just crashed through it.

Trouble in Paradise

And by paradise, I of course mean NATO. Turkey has called an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in order to discuss the recent Israeli attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla. It’s a fairly routine response to such an event, except for what it might actually mean for the alliance and for Israel. As a refresher, Article Five of the treaty:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Now, consider Article Six – and keep in mind that one of the flotilla ships, the MV Mavi Mamara, is Turkish-flagged:

For the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack:


  • on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer [emphasis mine].

There is a whole world of possibility here, virtually none of it good. Whatever the justification is for Israel’s actions, it’s clear there are going to be consequences, the severity of which have yet to be determined.

Unfortunately, I cannot recall the exact source I saw this in (if you know it, remind me), but if there was an “international aid flotilla” steaming for Turkey with its supplies bound for the Kurds, would Ankara act much differently? It’s a good point – but the current membership of NATO renders such a hypothetical mostly irrelevant.

This could very well mean the beginning of the end for the Atlantic alliance. It will at least pose a serious dilemma in terms of composition. After all, who right now is more aligned with policy and public sentiment in Europe: Turkey, or America?


Daniel Korski’s new article in Foreign Policy, “Partners in Decline,” calls for a renewed US-European relationship, as a way of staving off marginalization at least for a while. It’s kind of hard to discern his point – clearly at this point, Europe needs the US far more than the US needs Europe. True, NATO is a force of legitimacy right now, but if the demographic trends Korski points to as signs of decline continue, won’t it begin to lose that legitimacy as it becomes less and less representative of any significant proportion of global population?

Korski also misinterprets history. He asks us to

Imagine if the United States had in the past chosen its allies exclusively on whether they were willing to fight alongside the 82nd Airborne. That would have meant abandoning an alliance with Britain in 1966 after then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to send British troops to the Vietnam War.

Is there some sort of treaty or piece of paper we would have torn up? Aside from the (predominantly cultural) Special Relationship – which certainly was damaged for most of the 70s until the Reagan-Thatcher revival – Britain’s refusal to commit troops to Vietnam was no more than a disagreement between longtime global partners. There was no real ‘alliance’ to end as a response but even that informal alliance was seriously damaged.

I wouldn’t go so far as to advocate an American withdrawal from NATO (as Andrew Bacevich does), but at the same time it is perhaps on an even steeper path to irrelevancy than Europe and the United States themselves. Korski’s argument is in itself contradictory, as his prescription for waning influence just reemphasizes the extent of Western decline. And like all other nation-states, it is an inevitable collapse.


Lance Cpls. Keith B. Lawson and Spence G. Press, scout snipers attached to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, work together to identify targets as Taliban fighters approached from Marjeh toward their position at the “Five Points” intersection Feb. 9, 2010.

Last night, the American, British, and Afghan assault on Marjah began. 6,000 soldiers were in the initial wave, and another 15,000 have been committed to rooting out Taliban-aligned elements operating in the area. Early reports have five Taliban fighters and one British soldier killed.

Resistance has been “light.”

In the run-up to the attack, there was no shortage of criticism over the advance warning given, the stated objectives, and even the target of Marjah itself. It was certainly well-founded. Registan argued that the strategic value of Marjah was limited at best and that the amount of opium production in the area was overstated, while Wired characterized the Coalition heads-up as asking residents to “please, please, pretty please don’t leave the warzone.” But everyone may be wrong about the purpose (or at least the timescale) of fighting in Marjah altogether. From Free Range International:

When the Marines crossed the line of departure today, the battle for Marjah had already been won.

Like a master magician General Nicholson mesmerized the press with flashy hand movements to draw attention away from what was important.  The press then focused on the less important aspects of the coming fight.  Just like a magic show the action occurred right in front of the press in plain view yet remained out of sight.

In an unparalleled combination of regular and special forces units, the real conflict over Marjah was conducted mostly behind the scenes. It’s too early to say for sure, but the FRI analysis sure does raise some interesting points. If the goal was to convince the Taliban (and not the civilian inhabitants of Marjah) to leave, doesn’t that just allow them to escape and regroup? (i.e., what’s the point?) Obviously avoiding civilian casualties is of huge concern, but there still seems to be a disconnect over goals and methods.

Conversely, even if everything is going as planned and the Taliban bugs out, “somebody has to do the hold and build – it is not fair or smart to put that burden on the 2nd MEB.” Absolutely. I can’t help but wonder how thoroughly the post-battle plan was thought out.

Either way, at this point nothing to do but play the waiting game. Now let’s see how this plays out.