Why, if NATO was built to contain Soviet aggression, does the military alliance continue to exist more than 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
No one at the summit is really going to pose that question (other than rhetorically) when NATO leaders meet in Chicago this week. But it’s a good, and frankly scary, question to ask. The irony here is that the conflict that birthed NATO — the Cold War — ended non-violently. But the military alliance that came from it is not only alive and kicking but bigger and badder than ever.
NATO survived, first, by establishing itself as a unifying and stabilizing force to the former members of the Warsaw Pact — the original commie response to NATO. Membership thus expanded to include the newly unified Germany, Poland, Hungary and the like. But NATO hasn’t stopped expanding since then. It now has a whole series of membership levels: the Mediterranean Dialogue, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, the Partnership for Peace and a series of contact countries that are allied without full integration. This is why, for example, Malaysia will have a rep here.
Its job has gone from containing the Soviet Union’s brand of communism to policing the world. Though it works in concert with the United Nations, it isn’t a part of the world organization and can make its own decisions, as was the case with its air strikes against Serbia in 1999. In practice, NATO has given a way for the U.S. to act unilaterally while taking cover behind an international organization. It has become the way the U.S. gets around the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have permanent membership and are in position to veto NATO actions.
Besides Serbia, NATO forces have also been involved in Libya, Iraq, Somalia and, of course, Afghanistan — all areas of U.S. interest quite far from NATO’s original European charter territory.
In fact, though NATO’s membership and reach is bigger than ever, the U.S. pays for nearly a quarter of its expenditures (the next biggest benefactor is the United Kingdom at about 12 percent, exactly half what the U.S. puts in). For the U.S., that’s more than $700 million dollars, before you even factor in deployments of soldiers or training personnel. Total costs easily exceed $1 billion.
The protests here this week cover a myriad things but they come down to two essentials:
1) The very nature of NATO as a U.S. dominated military force without any real global oversight (NATO makes the UN look democratic, frankly), and
2) The vast amounts of money going into NATO operations — Afghanistan alone exceeded $4 billion — that could be put to greater global use via education, health and development programs.
One of the principal goals for the Chicago summit is to pep-talk NATO members into keeping up their military expenditures — in spite of the fact that Greece, Portugal and Spain are all on the brink of collapse, and both the U.S. and Europe are going through a historic economic crisis.
The teach-ins, demonstrations, protests and direct actions aren’t meant to be merely disruptive to the leaders’ agendas while they’re here. They’re meant to conceive of other ways to achieve security and long-term prosperity. They’re supposed to be disruptive to NATO's schedule but, more importantly, to its obsolete ways of thinking.