Photo: (public domain)
Photo: (public domain)

As the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ‘celebrates’ its 75th anniversary this year, CHRISTINE THOMAS looks at the conditions that led to the formation of this capitalist military alliance and how NATO’s role has evolved as the global economic and political order itself has changed.

The signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, between the US, Canada and Western European powers in April 1949, can only be understood as one more brick being laid in the overall construction, in the post-war capitalist world, of a US-dominated economic and geopolitical architecture.

US imperialism had emerged as an economic colossus from the ravages of the second world war, with more than 50% of the world’s manufacturing production, holding two-thirds of gold internationally, and boasting a GDP three times that of the Soviet Union, and five times greater than Britain. As the war was drawing to an end, debates began to take place within the US ruling class about how best it could take advantage of its overwhelming economic supremacy amongst the capitalist powers to secure stability and maximum access for US corporations to markets and raw materials globally. Economic reconstruction of a devastated Europe was not initially a post-war aim, and aid was limited, mainly through loans with stringent conditions. But from 1947 US policy shifted towards a massive injection of economic assistance, beginning with the Marshall Plan, alongside of the utilisation of multilateral US-dominated institutions like the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the World Bank etc, to promote international free trade and the interests of US capitalism and the global capitalist order.

This about-turn in foreign policy was conditioned by the other major change in the post-war global balance of forces – a Soviet Union that had expanded its sphere of influence into the Baltic states, east Germany and Eastern Europe and increased its global prestige, having defeated the Nazis – with the sacrifice of 20 million deaths. Despite the brutal pre-war army purges carried out by Josef Stalin, and the stranglehold of a stifling totalitarian bureaucracy, the advantages of a state-owned, organised, and planned economy had been clearly central to achieving that victory.

Face to face globally with a strengthened Soviet regime, based on an alternative social system to capitalism, in the words of US foreign policy adviser George F Kennan, the main fear of US imperialism was not of immediate military aggression but “political conquest”. Hunger and acute shortages were stalking Europe, homelessness was rife, with a lack of 16 million homes due to bombing. There were eight million refugees in Berlin alone. Economic suffering and hardship combined with expectations of a better future after years of war were a combustible cocktail that could erupt into social revolution at any time.

There were particular capitalist concerns about France and Italy, where the Communist Parties had grown numerically, due both to the role their members had played in the resistance movements against Nazi occupation and the increased standing and prestige of the post-war Soviet Union. In Italy the party’s membership exploded from 5,000 in 1943, when the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini fell, to 1.7 million at the end of 1945.

So economic reconstruction and the development of capitalist markets in Western Europe, including in the part of Germany controlled by the West, and financed by the US, was primarily a tool for staving off revolution – part of the creation of a world balance of forces that paved the way for the unprecedented post-war world economic boom (see The Causes Of The Post-War Boom).

Enter the US

The initiative for a military defensive alliance in Western Europe initially came from the British Labour Party foreign minister Ernest Bevin, who argued that economic aid on its own was not sufficient to prevent revolution in Europe or deter Soviet influence; it needed to be backed up by the projection of military might. The result was the signing of the Brussels Treaty in 1948 by Britain, France and the Benelux countries. Bevin’s thinking was reinforced that year by the Communist Party coming to power in Czechoslovakia in the ‘Prague coup’, Finland signing a security and defence agreement with the Soviet Union (and the fear that Norway was about to do the same), and the Soviet economic blockade of Berlin.

The Western European capitalist powers wanted the US on board, with its economic and military force, but there were doubts within the US state department as to whether a new security treaty was necessary, and tensions within the administration reflecting a war-weary public mood in opposition to any measures that would lead to increased military spending on Europe at a time when the social budget was being constrained.

Very few of the capitalist strategists expected an imminent military Soviet invasion into Western Europe. The Soviet Union was also exhausted by war. Unlike the US, Stalin had no long-range air force, no surface fleet, and no atomic bomb. In 1944 he had agreed with then British prime minister Winston Churchill at a conference in Moscow to divide post-war Europe into ‘spheres of influence’, allocating the Soviet Union much of Eastern Europe, and Greece to Britain. The major concern of Stalin and the bureaucratic elite he headed was defence of the privileges, power and prestige that accrued to them from the non-capitalist planned economy.

Above all the bureaucracy desired stability in the Soviet Union and its own ‘backyard’ in Eastern Europe, where regimes in its own image were eventually installed. It was seeking accommodation with the Western imperialist powers, not military confrontation, and certainly had no wish to encourage revolutions that could result in the establishment of healthy, democratic socialist regimes in Europe, with the potential to fuel political revolution in the Soviet Union and undermine or destroy its own position at home. In France and Italy Stalin advised the Communist Parties to enter post-war coalitions with bourgeois parties (from which they were later unceremoniously booted out) thus derailing the revolutionary situations that war had provoked in both of those countries.

In this context, the eventual signing by the US of the North Atlantic Treaty was mainly a symbolic, psychological measure that would, according to Kennan, operate to “stiffen the self-confidence of Western Europeans in the face of Soviet pressures”. ‘Military affairs’ were secondary. The US was motivated by a desire to reassure the Western European capitalist governments that they ‘had their back’ in order to keep them on board with their plans for Europe.

This was especially the case for France, which was resisting the now US-promoted idea of an economically integrated Europe that would also include German capitalism which, if revived, could pose a threat to the power and influence of France. The other main European power, Britain, retaining the illusion of re-establishing its pre-war international role based on the empire and its ‘special relationship’ with the US, had rejected participation in a European economic alliance. From US imperialism’s thinking, the North Atlantic Treaty would also be a means of binding Britain closer to Europe in a US-dominated capitalist economic order.

Military alliance

For the first year of its life the North Atlantic Treaty remained effectively just that – an agreement on paper, comprised of 14 articles, which pledged the signatories to “collective” and “continuous” action to improve military and non-military cooperation, including the infamous Article Five. This commits members to taking collective action “including through the use of armed force” if one of their members were to be attacked, but leaving it up to individual governments to decide what kind of action they would take in the event of military aggression. At its birth NATO had no military command system, no troops, just meetings of ministers and top army brass.

The shift to a slightly more structured alliance was spurred on by the detonation of the first Soviet atomic bomb in August 1949, and then the invasion of South Korea the following year by the bureaucratic totalitarian workers’ state in North Korea, supported by China, where the revolution had just overturned capitalism and landlordism and established a bureaucratic regime under Mao Tse Tung. The Korean War was the trigger for a massive increase in defence spending, a strengthening of conventional forces, and the stockpiling of atomic weapons, as well as the rearming of what was to become the Federal Republic of Germany, and its entry into NATO in 1955 – albeit under strict conditions that limited the type of armaments it could build.

The alliance itself moved towards a more integrated command structure – although its forces remained, and still remain today, national – headed by a Supreme Commander in Europe (SACEUR), who has always been American since the first one, General Dwight Eisenhower, was appointed in 1950. It got a ‘general secretary’ and a council of ‘permanent representatives’ – a kind of parliament made up of delegates from the alliance members which is nominally the body that takes the day-to-day decisions, arrived at through consensus. In reality, NATO was from day one dominated by the post-war economic and military hegemon amongst the capitalist countries of the West, the United States. The main decisions were, and still are, stitched up behind the scenes by the main imperialist powers, with the US in supreme position. As NATO official Jamie Shea, who began his career in NATO in 1980, put it, “ideally you only call a meeting when you already know what decision will be made”.

When NATO members France and Britain invaded Egypt in 1956 for their own imperialist interests after Gamel Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal – a move clashing with the global interests of US imperialism – the US’s economic muscle and dominance of post-war global capitalist institutions was clearly displayed as it threatened to deny Britain access to the IMF unless it withdrew its troops from Egypt.

  • Conflicting interests

That doesn’t mean, however, that there weren’t tensions and divisions regarding NATO, both within different sections of the US state and amongst the imperialist powers as they sought, where possible, to defend and promote their own national interests. There were constant clashes over how much the European members, and the US, should be spending on the defence of Europe, as governments came under pressure from working and middle-class people demanding more spending on public services. There were divided positions over the installation of nuclear weapons in Europe, with massive protests erupting in the 1950s and, in particular, the early to mid-1980s, in many NATO member countries. In response to mass anti-war protests at home, no other NATO member state sent troops to support the US in its war against the national liberation movement in Vietnam.

French President Charles de Gaulle had for several years been pushing for NATO to expand its global role beyond Europe, linked to defending French imperialism’s colonial interests, especially in North Africa. But he also had fought for national control of any nuclear arsenal on French soil and withdrew France from NATO’s integrated military command in 1966, although still remaining a member of the alliance.

So the existence of the Soviet bloc didn’t eliminate national divisions between the imperialist countries in the alliance, but it did serve to contain them. As the US State Department graphically put it, it was the “cement of fear” holding NATO together. After Suez the German foreign minister Heinrich von Brentano declared that “NATO is temporarily dead”. Within days Soviet troops had invaded Hungary to brutally crush the uprising of workers and students there – the beginnings of a political revolution with the potential to overthrow the bureaucracy in Hungary and threaten the privileged power of the bureaucratic elite in the Soviet Union itself. But it also had the effect of pushing the NATO powers together again after the Suez rift.

The post-war, bipolar global order, dominated by two nuclear-armed superpowers, with the capacity for ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’, and using the threat from each other to hold on to their power and keep their working classes in check, created a relatively stable world balance of forces: a ‘Cold War’, within which for 50 years NATO wasn’t involved in a single military conflict.

This didn’t mean, of course, that the post-war period was free of war; on the contrary. As well as direct military interventions, as by US imperialism in Vietnam and Korea, the competition between the two main powers was also played out in the colonial and ex-colonial world via proxy forces – in Angola and Mozambique, for example. But although the world appeared to come close in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, a direct ‘hot war’ between the two main powers was averted, and potential clashes flowing from the different national interests of the imperialist countries reined in. (See The Nuclear Threat in the New Era, Socialism Today issue No.261, October 2022)

New world order

With the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later – due to the inherent contradictions of a top-down bureaucratic regime and the need to develop a more technically sophisticated economy – the ‘cement’ that had bound the Western imperialist powers together against a common enemy crumbled, unleashing centrifugal forces, clashes of competing national interests, and a volatile, unstable international ‘disorder’ in which the US was now the sole, and for a period, unchallenged superpower.

In this new context, US imperialism exploited its economic and military pre-eminence to reshape the post-war international framework into a ‘New World Order’, promoting the unrestrained extension of capitalism – the ‘victor’ of the ideological Cold War – throughout the globe, ensuring its own privileged access to world markets, backed up by military might. Multilateral institutions were remoulded – GATT transformed into the World Trade Organisation, for example, and the G7 group of major capitalist powers becoming the G8, in order to incorporate Russia, and then the G20. NATO’s role within this post-Stalinist, refashioned, international ‘rules-based’ system was also transformed – military deployment extending ‘out of area’, first to Eastern and central Europe and then far beyond the continent to Afghanistan.

The first Gulf war, which began in 1990 after Iraqi president Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait – threatening oil supplies and US imperialism’s interests in the region – was not waged under the banner of NATO but through a US-led 42-country coalition, after President George H W Bush had secured a UN resolution ‘legitimising’ military force.

The rapid retreat and defeat of Saddam’s forces strengthened the global standing of US imperialism. However, just a few years after Bush had declared a new world order, the bloody wars which broke out in the Balkans – most notably in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1991-95) and Kosova (1999) – brutally exposed its limitations. All the ethnic and national divisions that had been relatively contained under Stalinist Yugoslavia erupted to the surface as the country broke up, fomented and exploited by national bureaucrats and would-be capitalists, as well as the Western capitalist powers manoeuvring in pursuit of markets and profits.

A United Nations intervention force proved totally incapable of stemming the massacres and horrific ethnic cleansing unleashed by the different national forces. The first fault-lines in the relative unity displayed by the various NATO members at the time of the Gulf war now emerged as national interests over markets, prestige and fears of wider geopolitical instability influenced the debates about whether or not to intervene militarily. These were the real interests that lay behind what the imperialist powers dubbed the oxymoron ‘humanitarian wars’.

By the time the NATO-organised bombing of Serbia began – the first war in Europe under the NATO badge – as many as 200,000 lives had already been lost and three million people displaced. The ensuing Dayton peace plan, enforced on the ground by 60,000 troops from different NATO countries, effectively legitimised the ethnic and national carve up of Bosnia between Serbs and a Muslim-Croat federation – an unstable arrangement that has lasted almost 30 years but could erupt into further ethnic conflict at any time. Brutal bombing of Serbia in the Kosovan war in 1999 failed to coerce Serb nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic into signing the Rabouillet peace accord, but instead resulted in an escalation of bloodshed and suffering on the ground in Kosova as one million Kosovars were driven from their homes and around 10,000 murdered.

In the Balkans conflicts, Russia under Boris Yeltsin also began tentatively to assert its own imperialist ambitions in what had been historically part of its sphere of influence; although Yeltsin eventually fell behind the other Western powers, desperate for investment to avert economic catastrophe after the disintegration of the Stalinist regime and the transition to what became oligarchical, gangster capitalism.

Initially the ‘New World Order’ was intended to embrace an emergent capitalist Russia, an expected lucrative source of capitalist markets and raw materials in the form of oil and gas for the Western powers to exploit. Various liaison bodies and programmes were established to draw the former Warsaw Pact members, including Russia, into NATO’s orbit. In 1994 US Defence Secretary Warren Christopher was still not ruling out future Russian membership of the alliance.

But the impetus towards the former Stalinist countries in Eastern and central Europe joining NATO came mainly from the ruling elites of the various states themselves. US administrations and alliance members were divided about expansion, many, like Colin Powell, secretary of state to George W Bush, fearful of ‘unknown repercussions’, especially the response of Russia. Discussions were so prolonged over entry into NATO and the EU, that Czech President Vaclav Havel was prompted to declare that Europe had a ‘do not disturb sign’ on the door. It wasn’t until 1999 that the first ex-Stalinist countries – Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic – became NATO members, ten years after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.

Unipolar world

The al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 marked a pivotal moment in world relations. It was a massive blow to US imperialism’s prestige, but one that it seized on to reassert its global dominance and shape international relations in its own favour. After 9/11, NATO invoked Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty for the first time in its history. The subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, in October 2001, however, was waged not by NATO but a US-led ‘ad-hoc’ coalition, with the US, the overwhelmingly dominant military power, looking to bypass the confusion and clash of national interests evident during war in the Balkans. NATO was only called on later to lead the bloody occupation that followed.

Russia, now under Vladimir Putin, also gave its backing to the war – although it didn’t send troops – exploiting the so-called ‘war on terror’ as cover for its own campaign in Chechnya.

Two months later Bush declared ‘victory’ in Afghanistan as the Taliban fell. The ‘hawks’ in the US administration were emboldened, strengthened in their conviction that overwhelming military power, including ‘pre-emptive strikes’, could deal with ‘rogue states’ which threatened their interests, and project US power unchallenged around the globe. But the push to move directly from Afghanistan to unleash war against Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein, under the pretext of his unfounded possession of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, shattered the fragile international military coalition forged by Bush following 9/11.

Even before the first bombs were dropped, the drums of war triggered the biggest global anti-war protests since Vietnam: on just one day, 15 February 2003, around 30 million people demonstrated in 600 countries internationally to oppose what was clearly viewed as a ‘war for oil’ and to strengthen US power and influence in the region. The governments that made up the NATO alliance were under immense pressure. At the North Atlantic Council meeting in January, French, German and Belgian representatives used their vetoes to block military assistance to Turkey – a NATO member which was expected to host US troops and planes to be deployed against Iraq. In the end the Turkish parliament itself voted not to allow its territory to be used.

The European Union and NATO were riven by splits. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was demanding that the US launch immediate military strikes against Iraq, condemned what he contemptuously dubbed “old Europe” – mainly France and Germany – which under pressure from their own ‘public opinion’, and fearing inflaming the whole region and the Muslim world, took a more cautious stand, while most of the ‘new-entrant’ Eastern European countries backed the US ‘hawks’.

However, Bush felt compelled to go through the motions of ‘diplomacy’ and seek the legal cover of a United Nations resolution for war. When a second resolution to authorise military action was defeated in the UN Security Council, with France and Russia opposed, the US went ahead regardless. Britain under Tony Blair was the only major NATO power in ‘old Europe’ to unconditionally back Bush’s war.

Limits of power

Despite the inter-imperialist divisions that the Iraq war ignited, a second swift victory appeared to vindicate the idea that US imperialism could intervene militarily almost at will around the globe and that its hegemony was unchallenged. In reality, war and occupation, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, opened what the chairman of the Arab League called “the gates of hell”.

The bombing of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, torture, repressive military occupation, the propping up of corrupt regimes and the total inability to provide security or basic services for the masses in those countries, fuelled guerilla resistance, the growth of right-wing Islam, terrorism, sectarian conflict and regional instability.

The limits of US power were underlined when US President Barak Obama felt compelled to back off from intervening directly in Syria after President Assad inflicted chemical weapons on the Syrian people who had risen up against his regime – one of several uprisings against dictatorial regimes in the area during the ‘Arab spring’ that began in 2011 – despite this crossing Obama’s ‘red lines’.

The fall of Kabul, the Afghan capital, in 2021, the chaotic exodus of what remained of US troops, and the return of the Taliban symbolised the utter disaster of NATO’s longest war. The decision to rush for the exit was taken unilaterally by US President Joe Biden, without any reference to the NATO ‘allies’ who felt they had no choice but to follow, given their dependence on US forces.

Catastrophic military intervention and occupation of both Afghanistan and Iraq, compounded by the break-up of Libya into warring factions after Western intervention there in 2012, gravely damaged the global standing of both the US and NATO, and clearly exposed the limits of US imperialism’s ability to project its power around the world.

The US’s prestige was also undermined by the 2007-2009 financial crash, the biggest in history, and the subsequent surge in poverty, inequality and austerity that fed a mistrust and rejection of capitalist institutions around the world. The US still remains by far and away the strongest economic and military power, but its pre-eminence is no longer unrivalled, challenged in particular by the rapid rise of China as an economic force in an increasingly ‘multi-polar’ world. The disastrous intervention in Iraq also strengthened regional powers such as Iran and Turkey, who scrambled to fill the partial vacuum left by US imperialism in the Middle East. In Syria, in 2015, Russia launched its first military intervention beyond its ‘near abroad’, in defence of Assad and its own strategic interests.

Undoubtedly the ignominious retreat from Afghanistan by US imperialism and NATO forces was one factor influencing Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022. Although globally Russia is a third-rate economic power, totally dependent on the export of oil and gas, it has nonetheless increasingly asserted its own imperialist ambitions, in Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, and now in the whole of Ukraine.

A Ukraine turning point?

It can appear, superficially, that NATO has been strengthened since Putin’s invasion. Membership has extended to Sweden and Finland, and member countries have been mostly united in giving their backing to the Ukrainian government against Russian military aggression. It has also created what German chancellor Olaf Scholz described as a ‘Zeitenwende’ (watershed moment) driving the capitalist powers in Europe to boost military expenditure. From the collapse of Stalinism until 2012 the European countries share of total defence spending amongst NATO members fell from 34% to 21% – a ‘peace dividend’ for Europe that is now disappearing, with the German government pledging a €100 billion fund to massively ramp up military spending. Since 2014 defence spending in Europe has grown faster than in the US. But the US still accounts for 70% of the military expenditure by NATO member countries.

However, fear that war in Ukraine could escalate places limits on the amount and type of military support that NATO countries are prepared to offer the Ukrainian government; and even the minimal aid agreed has been delayed by domestic and national political interests in the US, and within the EU. In an increasingly unstable ‘multi-polar’ world of multiple crises – economic, environmental, geopolitical – such cracks are likely to widen. Attempts to massively increase military spending while governments are imposing drastic austerity on public services will be a further factor fuelling working and middle-class anger and opposition, and escalating tensions and divisions within the Western imperialist powers. At the same time, in the former colonial countries in particular, rage has grown at the hypocrisy of those powers sending military supplies to the government in Ukraine, for their own economic and geopolitical interests, but doing nothing to prevent the slaughter of more than 30,000 Palestinian civilians in Gaza by the Israeli regime.

As the working class and poor masses of the world search for an alternative to a systemic crisis of capitalism that breeds poverty, oppression, war and environmental destruction, the Western imperialist powers will make use of whatever instruments they can to defend their interests – which at times will converge and at others will come into conflict. Whether they can make use of them or not depends on the balance of world and class forces. NATO is just one of those instruments. Not a cohesive behemoth that can intervene wherever it chooses around the world but a military alliance of nation states, with their own defence forces, financed by their own budgets, and with their own strategic interests. Marxists give no support whatsoever to capitalist military alliances – including the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – but withdrawal from NATO by one or more countries would change nothing. It would still leave those military forces intact, under the control of the ruling national capitalist classes, pursuing their own class interests.

The foundation for ending militarism, war and the apparatuses that promote them can only be created through an international struggle to overthrow the capitalist system itself, placing economic and state power in the hands of the working-class and preparing the way for a democratically planned socialist world, organised on the basis of cooperation and solidarity. Globally the prospect is one of growing capitalist economic crisis, inter-imperialist competition, conflict, instability and war – an explosive mix that can lead to the leaps in political consciousness required for the building and strengthening of the working-class organisations necessary for such a socialist transformation.