by Ludo De Brabander, March 2021
Last year a 10 member-group of “experts” published the report, ‘NATO 2030: United for a New Era’ on the request of NATO-Secretary-General Stoltenberg. He tasked them to reflect on NATO’s future and its challenges after French President Macron called the military alliance “brain dead” on the eve of the NATO summit in London (3 and 4 December 2019). The ‘experts’ put forward 138 recommendations on how NATO should adapt for the next decade. This also includes proposals to overcome internal divisions and improve decision-making. It is written in a language very reminiscent of the Cold War period steeped in enemy images in a very threatening world.
According to the NATO 2030 report, the military alliance faces multiple threats as can be read in the introductory part of the report: two ‘systemic rivals’, Russia and China, the persistent threat of terrorism, instability along NATO’s southern periphery, a dramatically changing technological landscape, numerous so called non-state threats and both human and natural hazards.
Since 2014, NATO Summit declarations have devoted entire pages to the Russian danger, as if the Cold War is in full swing again. Although Russia is a nuclear armed state, it has a defense budget that is barely 7 percent of that of the NATO member states. Nevertheless, NATO cultivates exaggerated perceptions of Russian military threats. The NATO report is therefore primarily an exercise in formulating reasons for existence, essentially based on a whipped up oversimplified enemy image. It’s the mechanism of arms race as we could witness during the Cold War: arming yourself against a propagated threat will also effectively manifest itself as a threat through the response of the targeted entity. In other words: self-fulfilling prophecy.
In such an ideological framework, there is little room for criticism of NATO’s own behaviour, nor for insights that try to understand why a stated opponent reacts in a specific way. This applies, for example, to the territorial expansion of NATO towards Russian borders, declarations that Ukraine and Georgia (two former Soviet states) could eventually become NATO members, the development of a missile shield, the deployment of NATO troops in Poland and the Baltic states on a rotational basis, … to name a few. In other words, while the report regularly warns explicitly against disinformation campaigns by Russia and China, it – unsurprisingly – does not provide any interpretation, nor does it understand the Russian perspective on the security context in Europe.
Crimea as an alibi
The aggression that would emanate from Russia and China and to which NATO would be a victim has been cultivated for a number of years to legitimize a drastic increase in military budgets. A few months after Russia annexed Crimea in April 2014, NATO government and state leaders agreed at the summit in Wales NATO to a guideline of spending no less than 2% of national GDP on defense. Crimea was a turning. Sanctions have been imposed following the Russian annexation of Crimea. The language addressed to Russia hardened with little understanding of the Russian perspective and the somewhat more complex (historical) context of the Crimean story. After a protest movement forced the Ukrainian government of Yanukovich to resign, it caused unrest among the large Russian minority in the southeast of the country. In fact, in Crimea Russians even are by far the vast majority (almost two thirds of the population is Russian) with less than a quarter of Ukrainian descent. Historically, Crimea also belonged to Russia for a long time (until 1954), after which the peninsula was classified as Ukraine, though the population wanted to separate from Ukraine in a referendum in 1991. In 2014, a large majority of the Crimean population voted for joining Russia, even though the legality of the referendum was disputed and circumstances under which this vote took place controversial (Russian troops had already intervened militarily). Even if there are many questions that can be asked about the validity of the subsequent Russian annexation and military action, this does not alter the fact that there are many parallels to be drawn with the Kosovo crisis, which broke out as a result of a NATO intervention of Serbia of which Kosovo subsequently separated (The United Nations Development Program conducted a series of seven polls between 2009 and 2011 in which two third of the Crimean population expressed the desire of leaving Ukraine and joining Russia). The NATO report highlights several times the “illegal” and “illegitimate” invasion and annexation of Crimea as if it were a black-and-white story. ‘Invasion’ is not a term NATO ever used for the war the Alliance waged against Serbia in 1999.
According to the authors of the NATO report, Russia “is likely to remain a chief threat facing NATO over the coming decade” and consequently this legitimises further military build-ups and increased military spending for years to come.
New is the prominent place given to China in NATO’s security doctrine. While China does not pose an immediate military threat to the Euro-Atlantic space, as the report itself states, “it is expanding its military reach into the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Arctic, deepening defence ties with Russia, and developing long-range missiles and aircraft, aircraft carriers, and nuclear-attack submarines with global reach, extensive space-based capabilities, and a larger nuclear arsenal.” That is why China became a “full spectrum systemic rival”. You can read the reality and nature of Chinese foreign and military policy – again – in a more nuanced way. Unlike the US, China is militarily not a global player at all. The country has only one overseas military base. The US has hundreds of them. The US has 21 aircraft carriers patrolling around the world, including the South China Sea. China has 2 of them. For the time being they only operate in the regional environment of China. China is also the first (since 1964) and so far only nuclear armed state to adopt a nuclear posture of ‘no first-use’ (i.e. China is not the first to deploy nuclear weapons under any circumstances), unlike the US, France and the United Kingdom. NATO blames China for renewing its nuclear arsenal, but the US has by far the largest nuclear modernisation program underway (worth $ 1,200 billion over 30 years, or 1,700 billion after inflation). China’s nuclear arsenal is 20 times smaller than that of the US. To the US, China is a nuclear dwarf: the US has around 6,000 nuclear weapons compared to 300 for China. Beijing has invested heavily in recent years to modernize its military apparatus, but so have most NATO member states. China’s defense budget is one third of the US and less than a quarter of that of NATO. China has experienced a number of border conflicts in recent decades, some of which have a military dimension, but far from on a geographic and intensity scale like the violent conflicts involving the US and other NATO member states (and NATO itself). The report portrays China in terms of aggression, but it is primarily about expanding economic and trade activities, and unlike NATO’s and its member states global military interventions. NATO appears to want to prevent China from claiming the dominant (economic and trade) position of the US and Europe in the world. In other words, China is not allowed to do what NATO member states have been doing for decades. A Chinese newspaper reacted contemptuously: “victim paranoia”.
No nuclear disarmament
Under the title “Arms Control and Nuclear Deterrence”, we read again how Russia and China pose “serious risks to international security”. For example, Russia is unilaterally blamed for the failure of the INF agreement after a long dispute over the Russian deployment of 9M729 (In NATO language, SSC-8) missiles. According to the US, these are in violation of the 1987 INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty that banned short and medium-range land-based missiles. According to the Pentagon, the Russian 9M729 missiles have a range of around 2,500 km. Moscow denies this, saying its range is below 500 km. The fact that Moscow has long concealed the existence of the missiles does not, of course, argue for Russian credibility. On the other hand, the other side of the story is being concealed in NATO circles. For example, Russia accuses the US of violating the INF agreement with installations for the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System in Romania and Poland that, according to Russia, could easily be used to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles. According to Russia, other American weapon systems such as long-range drones are also not in line with the INF. In short, both superpowers seems to have violated the INF Treaty, but that does not fit in with the propagandistic objectives of the NATO 2030 report, which must be able to justify the militaristic course of the alliance on the basis of clear oversimplified enemy images. The INF agreement is one of the many international treaties from which President Trump has withdrawn (only then did the Kremlin denounced the INF agreement). This caused great dissatisfaction in the diplomatic corridors of his European allies, fearing that Russia thus completely could escape the imposed restrictions and blaming Trump of not having played all diplomatic cards to save it. Incidentally, the American president was keen to let the INF agreement fail. For the White House, the Russian missiles were a good pretext for targeting China that was not party to the INF agreement. “We’re going to have to develop those weapons,” Trump said, “unless Russia comes to us and China comes to us and they all come to us and say, ‘Let’s really get smart, and let’s none of us develop those weapons.’”
The report also shatters the illusion that NATO is serious about nuclear disarmament. While we can read that arms control plays an important role in today’s security environment, “we also underline that NATO continues to have a critical role to play in maintaining both conventional and nuclear deterrence and defense through Allied [nuclear] arsenals and via U.S. forward deployments [of nuclear weapons] in Europe” the report added.
That is somewhat violating the truth. Initially nuclear responsibility rested with individual NATO nuclear weapon states. This gradually evolved into a collective responsibility. It was not until 2010 that NATO defined itself a “nuclear alliance”. From then on, political responsibility for nuclear weapons was officially shared with non-nuclear weapon states of the alliance as a means of countering growing anti-nuclear international sentiment and justifying investment and nuclear sharing as a form of solidarity within NATO. Consequently, any resistance to nuclear weapons can since be dismissed as a renunciation of NATO solidarity.
The position on nuclear disarmament has traditionally been ambiguous and contradictory. In recent years, NATO member states have remarkably often expressed their support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In the NATO report: “NATO Allies and partners should reaffirm their full commitment to the provisions of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and emphasise the need for full implementation of the treaty in all its aspects,…”. That “full implementation” must be met with large scepticism. While there is lip service to arms control, nuclear disarmament will be out of the question for decades to come: “it is critical to sustain nuclear deterrence and conventional defence capabilities in the 21st century as the bedrock of NATO security.” Nonetheless, according to Article 6 of the NPT, now more than half a century old and ratified by all NATO members, the parties commit to the “cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament…”. In reality, all nuclear weapon states are fully engaged in renewing their nuclear weapon arsenals with billions of investments.
In that same Article 6 of the NPT, the parties also undertake to negotiate “a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” Nevertheless, NATO fiercely opposed a proposal by coalition of countries (the “New Agenda Coalition”) in 2014 to start negotiations on a treaty to translate Article 6 of the NPT into concrete action. The negotiations that ended up in a ‘Treaty for a Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons’ (TPNW) in July 2017, have been boycotted by the NATO member states, falsely stating that the TPNW would undermine the NPT, although it implements the nuclear disarmament provision of the NPT.
The ‘experts’ are undoubtedly concerned about the impact of the TPNW on NATO’s nuclear posture. With reason. If only one member state would accede the treaty, this could end the self-proclaimed nuclear solidarity of the alliance and erode the legitimacy of nuclear weapons possession by the alliance’s nuclear weapon states. In the report, the experts argue that all members “should recall their position on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (Ban Treaty), namely that it will never contribute to practical disarmament, nor will it affect international law. “
The recommendations in the report leave nothing to be desired in terms of nuclear clarity. This also applies to the policy of “nuclear sharing” within NATO. The US is the only nuclear power in the world with nuclear arms deployed in host countries. There are currently an estimated 150 B61 atomic bombs on military bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. With the exception of Turkey, their fighter jets are designed to transport and eventually to drop these nuclear bombs in wartime. While the NATO report calls for its “full implementation” the NPT prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapon states nor the direct or indirect control of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear weapon states. In spite of the NPT treaty text, the report disagrees without substantiating it, stating: “nuclear sharing is in compliance with the NPT”. While paying lip service to the NPT and to nuclear arms control, the report boldly states that “NATO should continue and revitalise the nuclear-sharing arrangements that constitute a critical element of NATO’s deterrence policy…”After all, nuclear sharing “ensures political cohesion of all states”. And: “the political value of this commitment is as important as the military value it brings.” A clear message to the host countries of US nuclear weapons, in case they plan to dispose nuclear weapons.
As mentioned, NATO is concerned about the effects that the Treaty for a Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons may have on the nuclear posture of the alliance as well as the perception this could have to the population. The report therefore also recommends: “NATO should better communicate on the key role of its nuclear deterrence policy in ensuring the security of Allies and their populations (…) so as to effectively counter hostile efforts to undermine this vital policy.” Therefore, NATO “should systematically reach out to, and seek to inform, the expert community and civil society, including on the content of Russia’s nuclear doctrine and its capabilities.”
With no intention to work towards nuclear disarmament, NATO depicts opponents like Russia as hostile as possible to help legitimize nuclear weapons and the general military strategy of the alliance.
NATO propagates itself as an alliance of democratic constitutional states
Finally, NATO’s ‘experts’ aims to improve the alliance’s decision-making and political cohesion. The report is very vague about the internal tensions NATO had to deal with in recent years. NATO traditionally wants to avoid hanging dirty laundry outside. So it happens indirectly. According to the experts, NATO should reassert its core identity as an Alliance rooted in the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. This is needed to help strengthen political cohesion and to “draw a clear political and moral distinction between democracy and the autocratic forms of government that characterise NATO’s systemic rivals.”
In NATO’s history, upholding this principles is precisely what has gone wrong. Just think of the colonel regime in Greece (1967-1974), the various military coups d’état in Turkey (in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1997), the Portuguese military dictatorship under Salazar and his successors (1926-1974). In addition, the 1980 coup in Turkey was supported by the US, a constant practice in US foreign policy during the Cold War. Several NATO member states have a long history of destabilising other countries, supporting and arming dictatorships and imposing regime changes. To date, it is quite difficult to distinguish the authoritarian style of government in countries such as Hungary, Poland, Turkey and yes also in the US of President Trump from that of so-called “systemic rivals”.