Whether it’s against corrupt Russia, authoritarian China or “backward” Islamism, the West and its supporters have one story to justify and comfort themselves with. It’s that the West—for all its shortcomings, mistakes and excesses—has been the spearhead of progress, democracy and freedom in a hostile world.
And Nato, the US’s military alliance, is the defensive force that preserves peace and protects this freedom from the malign forces that would destroy it. That’s the story Labour leader Keir Starmer told in his devotional article on Labour’s support for Nato a few weeks ago. But it’s one that people who might otherwise oppose war can find themselves accepting too.
When a reactionary, authoritarian regime in Russia invades a country friendly to the West, it can be tempting to try and decide which is the “lesser evil.” Former left wing writer Paul Mason posed the war in Ukraine that way in an article for the New Statesman magazine arguing for support for Nato. “We are in a global conflict between systems—democracy, science and the rule of law versus dictatorship, disinformation and armed anarchy,” he wrote.
In fact, the version of capitalism adopted by most of the West didn’t come from any particularly enlightened thinking. Instead it was to do with sheer economic interest on behalf of the US—and profit for American industry. The job of Nato in all this wasn’t to defend democracy. It was to impose the US’s will on the rest of the world after the Second World War—whether the world liked it or not. After the war, the US emerged as the biggest global military, economic and political power.
It wanted markets to be dominated by US multinationals. But it couldn’t do this by invading and occupying other countries, as the dying European empires had done before it. Instead, it wanted to create new “free markets” built around US trade and industry, which it did through loans to European countries and by funding pro-US parties.
But it also faced a challenge from Russia, which saw its own industry best served by state control of economies in eastern Europe and across Asia. So the ideological clash between the West and Russia was not about progressive democracy against reactionary authoritarianism. It represented two competing visions for how capitalism should work.
The US propped its vision up by projecting its military power across Europe—and setting up Nato was a crucial part of this. The idea was that this would not only stop Russia but also prevent Germany from re-emerging as a power in Europe that could challenge the US. As Nato’s first secretary general, the British officer Lord Ismay, put it, the point was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.”
The supposed peace Nato’s supporters claim this brought was actually the large scale militarisation of Europe. US military power meant building an extensive network of bases across the continent—including one for nuclear armed bombers in Britain.
The Labour government at the time—now feted by Starmer and his supporters—allowed this without even any agreement on how or when they would be used. It didn’t mean democracy or freedom either. For Britain and France, joining Nato and supporting the US was a way of clinging on to their empires’ colonies. No sooner had the Second World War ended than France began a bloody nine-year campaign to retake control of Indochina—now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
France fought to crush Vietnam’s anti-colonial insurgents with the same bloody methods that the US did in the 1960s and 70s—carpet bombings and massacres. It did it for the same reason too—to stop the growth of China as a challenge to the West’s power. That’s why in 1952 a Nato resolution declared its “wholehearted admiration for the valiant and long continued struggle by the French forces” in Indochina. “The campaign waged by the French Union forces in Indochina deserves continuing support from the Nato governments.”
In practice that meant, thanks to Nato, the US practically funded the whole colonial war. Then, when France faced defeat, the US got ready to intervene—and even considered offering France two atomic bombs. For Britain’s Labour government, Nato membership was at first about desperately trying to keep Britain as a power on a par with the US.
But even Nato members have to give in to the will of the US. When Britain and France invaded Egypt in 1956 against the anti-colonial government, the US was outraged that they acted without its permission. It wanted France and Britain as its subordinates—and demanded they retreat. After that, Britain accepted its role as the US’s junior partner within Nato.
Every Nato member must submit to the project of US dominance. That—not democracy—is the key criteria for membership. Nato proved this from its outset when it welcomed the dictatorship of Portugal into its fold in 1949. And Nato had no qualms about interfering—in dirty and violent ways—in its own members to see that this stayed the case.
Nato set up and supported a collection of secret underground armies in most of its members between 1949 and 1990. It only admitted this in 1990—and said these “Gladio” networks were dormant “stay behind” forces designed to keep fighting after a Russian invasion. Yet many of these had links to—or were made up of—Nazi and far right organisations and also targeted Communist parties and the left. In Italy, the Gladio included several far right groups that carried out bombings and massacres.
The Greek Gladio and special forces networks joined the 1967 coup that installed a military dictatorship, which Nato then supported. Nato’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 probably did the most to expose what the alliance is really about. Although, as ever, Nato used the fig leaves of “democracy” and “humanitarian intervention”, the war was nakedly about reasserting US control.
What’s more, Nato’s original reason for being—“protection” from Russia—had disappeared a decade earlier with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rather than disband, Nato reinvented itself. No longer was it simply about defending US power but projecting it further. It adopted a policy of “out of area operations” to do just that.
For the first time, Nato forces were actively involved in bombing and invading other countries, starting almost immediately in the Balkans. Nato said its series of bombing raids and “no-fly zones” on warring Balkan countries throughout the 1990s were about stopping ethnic cleansing. In reality, most of these were directed against Serb forces. That wasn’t because the Serb governments were any worse than other groups. The US had decided backing the Serbs’ opponents was the best way to extend its influence into a part of the world left open by the collapse of Russia.
A supposed deal proposed by the US between Albanian Kosovans and Serbs in 1999 demanded that Nato forces be allowed free run of Serbia and its resources. As a US aide said at the time, “We intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. They need some bombing, and that’s what they’re going to get.” Nato’s eleven week bombing campaign killed many hundreds of civilians, including with cluster bombs that spread out over vast areas.
Some of the people Nato killed were those it claimed to protect. One Nato airstrike on a refugee convoy killed 60 people. Its interventions in the Balkans fuelled and encouraged waves of ethnic cleansing between Serbs and Albanians. But they were a step towards Nato’s expansion into eastern Europe that has led to the war in Ukraine today. Just as when Nato was founded, its clash with Russia is one of two powers competing for markets and political control in eastern Europe.
Nato’s role in that competition hasn’t brought peace or democracy—but war. Any true socialist should stand up and oppose Nato and the system of imperialist rivalries that it represents.
Keir Starmer's Thatcher praising speech
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