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Nato’s role in promoting Western imperialism

This article is over 15 years, 3 months old
As leaders gather for Nato's 60th anniversary summit, Lindsey German looks at the organisation's history and explains why it has never been the 'defensive' body it claims to be
Issue 2145

Anti-war activists from around the world will converge on the city of Strasbourg in France this week to protest at the summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), the military alliance headed by the US. Nato was formed 60 years ago on 4 April 1949.

‘Nato is an increasing obstacle to achieving world peace,’ the organisers of the demonstration declare. ‘Since the end of the Cold War, Nato has reinvented itself as a tool for military action by the ‘international community’, including the promotion of the so-called ‘war on terror’.

‘In reality it is a vehicle for US-led use of force with military bases on all continents. It has waged seven years of brutal war in Afghanistan, where the tragic situation is escalating and the war has expanded into Pakistan.’

Anyone who opposes war has reason to be concerned by Nato’s recent actions. The Strasbourg summit will discuss a $500 billion expansion programme to bring up to six new members into Nato, including Ukraine and Georgia, which are both on Russia’s borders.

Nato has also taken on the mantle of leading over 80,000 foreign troops in the military occupation of Afghanistan.


This comes as the war in Afghanistan descends even further into bloody chaos. Some 152 British troops have been killed there since 2001, while 155 US troops died in Afghanistan last year alone. Despite all this, Nato still dominates over less than half of the country.

The occupation of Afghanistan was sold as a ‘humanitarian’ mission, yet for ordinary Afghans life continues to worsen. Last year around 2,000 Afghans were killed or injured in fighting that relies on indiscriminate aerial strikes by Nato forces, often using notoriously imprecise unmanned ‘drone’ aircraft.

All the country’s development indicators are in decline. Drug production is rocketing. There is barely any law enforcement or social services.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission recently concluded that the lot of Afghan women is worsening in most of the country.

Now polls are finding that for the first time since the 2001 invasion, more Afghans view the foreign military presence as ‘unfavourable’ than ‘favourable’. In the villages the war against Nato is increasingly being fought by locals without any direct connection to the Taliban or Al Qaida.

The fact that Nato is today openly engaged in aggressive military conquest and occupation jars with the organisation’s purported aims.

It was formed in 1949 as a military alliance that claimed to be defending Western Europe from attacks by the Warsaw Pact, the rival alliance that brought together Russia and its Eastern bloc satellites.

But in truth Nato has always served other purposes. For starters, it was designed to ensure that the US’s European allies were kept in a subordinate military position. The senior military commander in Nato has always been a US officer.

France’s post-war leader General Charles de Gaulle refused to accept this subordination, which is why he refused to let France become part of Nato’s military structure. France’s current president, Nicolas Sarkozy, plans to reverse this policy at the summit.

Moreover, from its earliest days Nato explicitly reserved the right to act against ‘communism’ or any other ‘subversion’ within its member countries.

At the time this provision was especially meant to apply to Greece, which was emerging from a bitter civil war between left wing partisans and the right wing army. But it also had wider applicability.

Lord Ismay, the first Nato secretary general, famously stated these aims from the British point of view when he said that the alliance’s goal was ‘to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down’.


Nato persisted in this form throughout the Cold War until 1991 when the Warsaw Pact was dismantled. This meant the alleged reason for Nato’s existence also disappeared. But, far from going away, Nato started a process of expansion that continues to the present day.

The organisation has developed a nuclear first strike policy – which tears apart any claim that it is merely a defensive alliance.

And it has adopted an ‘out of area’ strategy which argues that instability in any part of Europe constitutes a threat to its members.

It was on this basis that Nato acted as an independent military force during the Balkan wars of the 1990s and coordinated an 11-week bombing campaign on Serbia and Kosovo in 1999.

These attacks, which were never given the legal basis of authorisation by the UN Security Council, constituted the turning point in Nato’s mutation into an nakedly imperialist force.

Nato’s war on Serbia prefigured many now familiar aspects of the ‘war on terror’. It involved the major bombardment of civilians, all under the very detailed control of the US, yet was dressed up as a ‘humanitarian intervention’. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was labelled the ‘new Hitler’.

While opposition to the Kosovo war was much smaller than the opposition to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was nevertheless important.

Opposition was based among people who understood that this was not a ‘humanitarian intervention’ at all, but marked a new phase in the history of imperialism.

The end of the Cold War and the spread of ‘globalisation’ in the 1990s had ushered in a new imperialism, one that saw the US determined to use its military might to secure its economic interests in a world where it faced growing competition.

That year also saw the encroachment of US interests eastwards. It was little noticed at the time, but the same month the bombing of Belgrade began, Nato admitted three former Warsaw Pact countries – Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic – into its membership.

The expansion of Nato eastwards was a major goal of Western imperialism. It was one of the sources of the war between Russia and Georgia last summer.

So the need to oppose Nato as part of a wider struggle against imperialism remains as pressing as ever. Nowhere is this more true than the war in Afghanistan. Barack Obama has just committed 17,000 more US troops to that conflict, taking the US total to about 55,000, in the second longest military engagement in US history.

The US is also putting heavy pressure on other Nato member states to follow its example and also commit more troops.


The combined total of Nato troops now stands at just over 80,000. But realistic independent estimates of the number of troops required to exert military control over Afghanistan come in much higher, at around 500,000.

Nato therefore simply cannot ‘win’ in Afghanistan. But the likelihood of failure will not stop the US from wasting tens of thousands more lives.

There will be no developmental progress in Afghanistan because occupation by foreign powers is anathema to democracy and peaceful development.

The Afghan war is not a ‘good’ war in contrast to the ‘bad’ war in Iraq. They are both disastrous wars that must end so that we can turn our attention to the real threats that face us – climate change, mass poverty and the shockingly unsustainable economic practices that have brought the world into recession.

Challenging Nato is a crucial aspect of that wider fight to change the world – which is why I hope to see as many of you as possible in Strasbourg this week.

Lindsey German is national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition. She writes here in a personal capacity. For more on the mobilisation against Nato in Strasbourg, 2-5 April, go to »

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