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What Is the Point of NATO? Historian Grey Anderson on How U.S. Has Used Alliance to Strengthen Power

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This week’s NATO summit in Lithuania ended with the military alliance agreeing to extend membership to Ukraine at some point in the future but declining to give a firm timeline. Meanwhile, Sweden is set to become the newest member, bringing the alliance to 32 countries, after it started in 1949 with just 12 founding members. Historian Grey Anderson says that while NATO is officially about common defense, its true purpose has always been more about giving the United States a dominant role in European affairs. He adds that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has “remarkably strengthened” both NATO and U.S. power on the continent.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Nermeen Shaikh.

We turn now to look more at this week’s major NATO summit in Lithuania, where the military alliance agreed to invite Ukraine into NATO at some point, once conditions are met. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky blasted the lack of a timeline as “absurd.”

This comes as NATO is moving closer to expanding once again. Earlier this week, Turkey dropped its opposition to inviting Sweden into NATO. Once formally approved, Sweden will become the 32nd nation in NATO, which began in 1949 with 12 founding members.

We’re joined now by Grey Anderson. He’s the editor of the new book Natopolitanism: The Atlantic Alliance Since the Cold War. He co-authored a recent piece for The New York Times titled ”NATO Isn’t What It Says It Is.”

Grey Anderson, welcome to Democracy Now! If you could first respond to what happened at the NATO summit in Vilnius this week?

GREY ANDERSON: Yeah. Thank you for having me on.

I suppose the two big news items, which you’ve just mentioned, consist in Turkey’s abandonment of opposition to Swedish accession to the alliance and the refusal to grant Ukraine more kind of concrete guarantees concerning the timeline for its own eventual membership. I don’t think either of these developments is terribly surprising to anyone who’s been following the story as it has unfolded.

At the same time, one can understand, I think, why the government in Kyiv was disappointed not to receive more substantial guarantees. Stephen Wertheim was on this show recently, and he rightly invoked the precedent of another summit 15 years ago in Bucharest, at which the alliance, on the initiative of George W. Bush, made the fateful decision to promise not just Ukraine but Georgia eventual membership in the alliance. And I think although the role of NATO and NATO expansion in triggering this conflict has been very controversial, today most, I think, people would agree that this 2008 decision was a fiasco. It was neither fish nor fowl. The promise of membership one day, without a timeline or any more precise notion of when it might occur, was sufficiently strong to provoke Russia, as many warned at the time, including in the State Department and the administration, without offering Ukraine security guarantees substantial enough to deter eventual Russian aggression. So I think one can perfectly well understand why the Ukrainian leadership today is extremely sensitive to any sign that American and NATO support might be waning.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Grey Anderson, could you speak specifically about the significance of Finland joining? Finland, of course, shares an 830-mile border with Russia.

GREY ANDERSON: I think, to an extent, Finland’s membership and what looks to be Sweden’s membership don’t change a lot. Both have been very active in the alliance for some time, including on the military side, participating in joint maneuvers and what have you. The prospect of actually creating a plan to defend, as you say, this extraordinarily long frontier with Russia does underscore the element of irrealism, I suppose, in alliance military planning.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And so, explain, Grey Anderson. Your piece, co-authored with Thomas Meaney, in The New York Times is headlined ”NATO Isn’t What It Says It Is.” Explain what you mean by that. And what is NATO?

GREY ANDERSON: Well, NATO, historically, has claimed to be, I think, three things, really. The first is a collective defense organization, a military alliance; the second, an alliance of values; the third, an alliance of democracies.

And so, to take these three claims in reverse order, it’s quite clear from the history of the alliance that the democratic character of member states was open to negotiation or perhaps observed more in the breach. Salazar’s Portugal, of course, was a founding member. Greece, under the Colonels, remained on good terms with the alliance. And today I don’t think anyone would argue that Turkey, Poland, say, Hungary are great advertisements for the sort of liberal democracy touted by the alliance commanders.

And on the question of values, I think much the same thing can be said. And it bears mentioning, I suppose, as well, that when voters in member states or potential member states have shown signs of disapproving of membership or a lack of eagerness in enlisting in this American-led military organization, their voices have most often simply been dispensed with.

On the specifically defense or security-aggregating side of the equation, throughout the Cold War, NATO’s claims to mount a conventional defense of Europe were always rather far-fetched, and, I think, recognized as such. Since the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, one could, in fact, argue that far from strengthening European security, NATO, by precluding the creation of any more kind of coordinated autonomous European defense, has actually weakened the member states that compose it.

So, I think on all three of those points, one can say that NATO indeed isn’t what it has professed to be.

On the other hand, if you look at the history of U.S. debates around the alliance and its function, really from its inception, when the pact turned into an organization at the turn of the 1950s, there was quite self-conscious recognition of the fact that this was an excellent vehicle for defending U.S. interests in Europe and preventing the emergence of any rival power that might threaten to hegemonize the continent. So, in that respect, one has to say that there are deep continuities in NATO’s functioning, and it has been a quite remarkable success.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you write in The New York Times piece, quote, ”NATO is working exactly as it was designed by postwar U.S. planners, drawing Europe into a dependency on American power that reduces its room for maneuver. Far from a costly charity program, NATO secures American influence in Europe on the cheap.” So, if you could explain how precisely is it that NATO’s presence in Europe enables the U.S. to defend its own interests in Europe by weakening the capacity of sovereign European states to pursue their own defense objectives, and economic, as you say?

GREY ANDERSON: Well, in a very concrete way, NATO, by imposing a regime theorized by Madeleine Albright in the ’90s, on the eve of the first big wave of post-Cold War expansion, described as the “three Ds” — that is to say, NATO, in its relationship to Europe, forbids any duplication of American capabilities by Europeans, any delinking of European security from American interests, American objectives, and any discrimination on the part of Europeans against non-EU NATO members. And one effect of that is, in a very kind of concrete way, to make Europeans dependent upon American doctrine, upon Americans materiel, weapon systems, leadership, command. So, those are all ways, I suppose, in which this relationship of dependency is quite visible.

There are less visible ways in which European dependence on the U.S. for security gives America leverage over other types of decision. So, we might get to this in a minute, but if one looks at Europe’s relationship to China currently in the context of Sino-American tensions, when the U.S. decided to impose, effectively, an embargo on certain types of technology, microchip technology, going to China, one really is struck by how quickly the Europeans fell in line — in particular, the Dutch, who accepted, I think, just a couple months ago these restrictions. So, that’s sort of the tip of the iceberg, as it were, and what’s most easily seen and quantified.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And finally, Grey Anderson, you quote in your piece French President Emmanuel Macron on the eve of a NATO summit four years ago, effectively saying that NATO was undergoing nothing short of, quote, “brain death.” In other words, the alliance was extremely weak. That was four years ago. So, is it because of Russia’s invasion that the alliance has now been not only resuscitated, but, in fact, strengthened?

GREY ANDERSON: Yeah, I think it’s in part due to the invasion, although one might be tempted to look even further back. Since 2014, with the crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, one has seen greater outlays on defense on the part of Europeans and a kind of reassertion of America’s role on the continent. This has gone through ups and downs. NATO, throughout its history, has famously been plagued by crises of one sort or another. But I think there’s no arguing that over the past year or so, it has been dramatically strengthened, and America’s hand in Europe quite remarkably strengthened, as well.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, we want to thank you so much for joining us. Grey Anderson is the editor of Natopolitanism: The Atlantic Alliance Since the Cold War. We’ll link to your recent New York Times article, ”NATO Isn’t What It Says It Is.”

Coming up, we look at the catastrophic rise of global hunger.

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