We live in an age of imperialism. The mess into which the US and Britain have got themselves in Iraq is unlikely to change this.
Take the case of Nato—the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation—which holds its summit in Riga, the capital of Latvia, this week. Nato was founded in 1949, supposedly as a defensive military alliance against the Soviet Union, in reality as a means of maintaining the US as the dominant power in postwar western Europe.
This is why Nato wasn’t scrapped at the end of the Cold War. Instead of disappearing, it expanded to incorporate eastern and central Europe, drawing close to Russia’s borders. Latvia was part of the Soviet Union until 1991.
But Nato doesn’t just help the US to encircle Russia. At its relaunch summit in Washington in April 1999 the alliance adopted a new mission statement that committed it to “out of area” operations. European forces would act as junior partners of US imperialism globally.
To judge by the “comprehensive political guidance”, a document for the Riga summit that appeared in the Financial Times last week, Nato now wants to take this further. “Large-scale conventional aggression against the alliance will continue to be highly unlikely,” the document says, but “future attacks may originate from outside the Euro-Atlantic area and involve unconventional forms of assault”.
Hence the importance of enhancing Nato’s “ability to deter, disrupt, defend and protect against terrorism”. To that end, Nato should be able to conduct more than one big operation at a time, as well as a number of small-scale tasks. Some 40 percent of the alliance’s land forces should be able to undertake overseas missions.
It’s hard to know how seriously to take all this. Nato was, notoriously, given the bum’s rush by Donald Rumsfeld after 11 September 2001. The US relied on his “coalitions of the willing” in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Subsequently, however, an increasingly beleaguered George Bush has become keener on support from US allies. One of the first things he did after being re-elected was to visit Nato’s headquarters in Brussels.
France and Germany blocked serious Nato involvement in Iraq. But Nato has become increasingly involved in Afghanistan, where it has recently taken over the International Security Assistance Force occupying the country.
Afghanistan is hardly a shop window for Nato. US, British, and Canadian troops have been involved in very tough fighting with a resurgent Taliban in southern Afghanistan, while the 2,700 German troops based in the north have rules of engagement that stop them from leaving their bases for any offensive operation.
An article in last week’s Financial Times predicts that discontent against Hamid Karzai’s government could spread to the north. The US defeated the Taliban in 2001 through a combination of airpower and huge amounts of money that was used, as the intelligence website Stratfor put it, to “rent” the forces of the Northern Alliance.
But now Northern Alliance leaders excluded and squeezed by Karzai are scenting his weakness, stockpiling weapons, and rebuilding their militias.
Angela Merkel’s coalition government in Germany recently approved a defence White Paper calling for Germany’s armed forces to play a more active international role, for the usual reasons—terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
The White Paper also says, “Germany, whose economic prosperity depends on access to raw materials, goods, and ideas, has an elementary interest in peaceful competition.”
These are the kind of reasoning used for the past century by the US’s rulers to justify projecting their power globally. Now it seems as if the rulers of Germany, today the world’s biggest exporting economy, are beginning to think in the same terms.
It would mark a real shift if the most powerful state in the “Old Europe” that opposed the Iraq war began to look at the world through the eyes of an imperial power.