Saturday, February 4, 2017

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Are we better off with or without NATO?

Donald Trump caused quite a stir when he intimated during his election campaign that he would not necessarily honour the US’s commitment to the NATO alliance should a member be attacked. In an interview with The Times and Bild newspapers just a few days before his taking office, he referred to NATO as “an obsolete organisation”.
Trump’s indifferent attitude towards NATO raises interesting questions: what is its role in the post-Soviet world, and do we still need the alliance – or would we possibly be better off without it?

NATO through Kremlin eyes: an encroaching menace

NATO was formed to counter the further expansion of the Soviet Empire after Churchill and Roosevelt had handed Stalin a large portion of Europe on a silver platter. The Western Europeans were keen as they could not have taken the Soviets on by themselves, and needed American military muscle behind them – and the reassurance of the American nuclear umbrella.

NATO and the USSR never actually came to blows. Then the Soviet Union disintegrated and NATO’s bogeyman became the Russian Federation. A much weakened Russia now saw NATO as a threat in much the same way that a much weakened Europe had seen the USSR as a threat. That fear has not abated. The Times reported last year that Putin had said he felt threatened by NATO extending its missile shield in Eastern Europe, and Russia was responding in kind by ramping up its own missile defences in Kaliningrad. Last month, the Americans deployed an additional 3,500 troops plus tanks in Poland supposedly to ‘counter Russian aggression’. The Russian rejoinder was that it threatened their national security. This is the stuff of vicious cycles.

Moscow’s by now crystal-clear forward-defence strategy is to create a buffer zone of satellite ‘people’s republics’ between themselves and the Western alliance and their friends. These are declared by ethnic Russians living in adjoining states, currently Moldova and the Ukraine. Their armed forces are militias (including the odd out-of-uniform Russian army unit) equipped with military hardware (plus ‘advisors’) supplied by Moscow.

 The 'Republic’ of Transnistria (on Moldovan soil)  even has its own currency – the Transnistrian Rouble, convertible only to and from Russian Roubles. (This bill is actually a Soviet-era banknote turned into a Transnistrian one by adding a postage stamp!)

There is growing concern that Moscow is eyeing the Baltic states (Estonia, Lithuania,  Latvia) for a repeat performance of what has so far been a fairly successful stratagem. But unlike Moldova and the Ukraine which are not NATO members, the Baltic states are.  

So what would NATO do? There will not have been an ‘attack’ as such, so the treaty proviso of  “An attack on one is an attack on all” would not be invoked. However, the government(s) of the Baltic state(s)  affected would be fully within their rights in international law to request assistance from their NATO allies to quell an insurrection. Would they respond to the call?

NATO would be placed in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ position. If the alliance were to send forces in to ‘invade’ the new (by now recognised by Russia) ‘republic(s)’,  Moscow would almost certainly send the Russian army in to defend their protégés. Direct confrontation would follow, which could well spell WW3. But if NATO were to not lift a finger, it would mean that the alliance is a toothless tiger in the face of the kind of threat that it was created to deal with, in which event there seems little point in maintaining it.

Perhaps the real question is whether Moscow would be more, or less, likely to throw down the gauntlet in the Baltics if there were no NATO. My tentative answer is ‘less’. Rightly or wrongly, the Russians feel menaced by NATO. Remove the menace and there will be nothing for them to throw down the gauntlet about.

Has NATO outlived its usefulness? The American/European united front that NATO ostensibly represents is of questionable validity in today’s world. When there was still a Soviet Union, there was the perception of a direct threat to member countries on both sides of the Atlantic from that common adversary. In the bipolar world that emerged after WW2, it was ‘them’ against ‘us’ as two opposing camps. Western Europe and the US were reading from the same page.

That world has changed. The USSR is gone, and Russia no longer seeks to invade and occupy Europe. The bipolar world has been fading rapidly, and the geopolitical perspective of the Europeans has been diverging from that of the Americans accordingly. We are seeing this most clearly with regard to US and European objectives in the Middle East, especially Syria. Closer to home, the Europeans can coexist with the Russian Federation, but the accommodation becomes all the more difficult if they are allied to a hawkish, Moscow-hostile US. Thank goodness that we did not get a Clinton administration out of the last US presidential election – Donald Trump, a post-USSR strategist, is far more inclined towards cordial US-Russia relations.


It’s not often we see Vlad smile! I wonder what sweet nothings The Don is whispering in his ear… “Hey man, d’ya wanna do a deal to get NATO off your back?”

The demise of NATO would be an immense – if not terminal – blow to American ‘leadership’ of the Western world. It would, in effect, be the definitive end of the ‘bipolar world’ era which NATO is a relic of. This would be in keeping with the emergence of a multinucleate world made up of regional blocs that come to various arrangements with other blocs. Western Europe and North America (with the UK in the latter camp, methinks) will remain mates, but they have their own agendae, especially when it comes to their own regions, and need not always work in tandem.

I believe that NATO is past its use-by date. It was an important alliance in the decades following WW2 when the whole world became a gladiatorial arena for opposing camps headed by the USA and the USSR respectively. But with that world now behind us, NATO has become an anachronism and indeed a liability: what its continuing existence does is raise the spectacle of reigniting those old ‘bipolar world’ animosities with Europe as the meat in the sandwich, and that is something we can well do without. Let us bury NATO with full military honours, but while so doing consign its mindset to history.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at 


Brian said...
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NATO. Here today, gone tomorrow?

After reading Barend’s “Are we better off with or without NATO”? I would suggest that if NATO disappears from the defence scene, it will primarily be due to President Trump; unlike his predecessors he will find it impossible for the United States to shoulder the increasing major costs of keeping NATO functional.

For years other Western Nations have refused point blank to accept that they have to increase their financial commitments to keep a European defence i.e.NATO. There is a similar situation down here in the South Pacific. Since ANZUS folded up, elected New Zealand Governments have, due mainly to our left wing Peace Brigade Activists reduced our own commitments to a proper and effective defence force.

There is no better baby to throw out with the water than to reduce the political internal costs of running a Nation by such headlines as “Reduction of Armed forces spending helps Welfare costs Plight”! A winner headline for any party in an election!

World War 11 has faded into distant memory, only a few are left who can recall or indeed have read, that the non intervention appeasement policies of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s produced fertile ground for Hitler, and later for Communism. The present policies of the West in the Middle East show, if they show anything at all, that “Politicians like Ostriches, are still inclined to bury their heads in the sand rather than face the facts of reality while in office” !

One can still but be amazed, at the logic used by Western Nations in their recent vote in the Security Council against the State of Israel, while continuing to avoid the outbursts and terrorists acts emanating from Iran and Islam, intent on the total elimination (read holocaust) of the Jewish race!

What will succeed NATO is the question? Or indeed, our now defunct ANZUS? For as we all know Nature abhors a vacuum?

Anonymous said...
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Russia proverb: "It takes a Russia a long time to saddle his horse".

Russia/USSR invaded Eastern Europe in 1944, drove out the Germans (and German allies) from Poland, Romania, Hungary, Norway, etc, and captured Vienna and Berlin. Russia crushed Japanese armies in Manchuria, Kurile Islands and North Korea [and were set to invade Hokkaido when the bombs were dropped]. Churchill and Roosevelt gave them nothing.

Transdnestre is properly part of Odessa oblast. In spite of best efforts of Romania and U.S., Moldovans are reluctant to massacre their Russian bothers in Bessarabia, or the Gagauz Turks who want to be part of Russia.

What does Putin see? Japan invaded Russia in 1917, 1938 and 1939, and are now rearming. US has missiles in Korea, Japan and Okinawa. US has installed short and medium range nuclear capable "defensive" missiles in Poland, Romania, Turkey, etc, with nuclear war heads in Germany (some given to a German air force squadron) and Romania.

Russians in Estonia, Latvia and Ukraine are treated badly, and some beg Russia for help.
Alan Davidson

Poland is a menace, with powerful military and dreams of an empire "from sea to sea". Romania and Turkey are also strong countries.

EU alone has 6 times the population of Russia, spends 10 times as much on "defence", and has 20 times the GDP. Then add US and Japan.

paul scott said...
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I agree with Brian, word for word, and he corrected my typing.
Anonymous this is not 1944. it is 2017. Russia is more an ally than an enemy.
Zip over to the South China Sea to watch the real action coming.

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