By Radhika Desai / CounterPunch
The proxy war on Russia is the centre piece of Biden’s foreign policy of uniting the world’s ‘democracies’ against ‘autocracies’, particularly China and Russia. He boasts repeatedly of uniting US allies, most in NATO, as never before. Though the real unity is spotty at best, until recently, the rhetoric seemed to work. No longer. At its recent Vilnius Summit, NATO’s disunity bubbled over, though not for the reasons most discussed in the press. The real reasons are rooted in developments that threaten to unravel not only Biden’s strategy, but also NATO.
Discordant strains were amply discussed in the run up to the summit. Members could not decide on any successor for Jens Stoltenberg. While the leaders of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea attended the summit for the second year, and while the final communique reiterated NATO’s concerns about ‘the systemic challenges posed by the PRC to Euro-Atlantic security’ and its commitment to ‘boosting … shared awareness, enhancing … resilience and preparedness, and protecting against the PRC’s coercive tactics and efforts to divide the Alliance’, President Macron led (a not inconsiderable) opposition to establishing a permanent NATO presence in the East Asian region with an office in Tokyo. Though Finish membership was approved, President Erdoğan opposed Sweden’s membership until Biden offered him not only F-16s but also an IMF loan from aboard Air Force One.
Most spectacularly, while members once again promised to increase defence expenditure and production, and while the alliance made various commitments to supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia, not only did the clamour to induct Ukraine into NATO fail, but NATO proved unwilling even to commit to a timetable for entry. President Zelensky called this ‘absurd’ and the US administration called him ungrateful in return.
Though this serious spat ended in Zelensky’s expressions of gratitude, a sense of foreboding could not be avoided. Atlanticist commentators still worried about the prospect of a disengagement between the US and Europe in case of a Trump victory or disagreements over China. However, even these worries don’t suspect how close such a disengagement is today or the reason for it: that Biden is about to lose his military wager in Ukraine. That is bound to end Biden’s project of uniting US allies, the closest thing there has been to a Biden Doctrine.
Always a work-in-progress, NATO unity has got more difficult as US power has declined. In recent decades, its chief glue has been US military power. If it too ceases to bind – as is clear from the string of military failures culminating in the humiliating exit from Afghanistan – then the self-sacrifice Biden has demanded, and some extent received, from the Europeans on Ukraine – is the dime on which the future of US leadership over what remains of its allies and of its chief instrument, NATO, will turn.
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The Weak Ties that Bind NATO
Understanding such imminent fundamental change requires a return to fundamentals beneath the appearance of NATO unity.
The much-vaunted Article 5 may state, famously, that ‘an armed attack against one … shall be considered an attack against … all’. However, if you think this obliges all members to rush to the defence of attacked members with all they’ve got, think again. The article specifies further that each ally will ‘will assist … by taking forthwith … such action as it deems necessary [emphasis added]’. So, allied solidarity turns out to be a moveable feast, meaning only what each member country ‘deems necessary’.
On the matter of the US commitment to Europe, which NATO is held to powerfully instantiate, even the early Cold War commitment to defend Western Europe against the big bad Soviet Union, amounted, practically, to schemes that were ‘always far-fetched and recognised as such’.
If you are shocked, consider this: the US ‘aided’ Europe during the two World Wars on a more or less commercial basis, vastly increasing its economic and financial clout at the expense of ‘allies’. Ruinously for them, it demanded repayment of its war loans after the First World War and, equally ruinously, demanded policy alignment after the Second.
Europe can thank its stars that the critical aid and immense sacrifices of Soviet and Chinese forces ensured victory in the Second World War, and that the alleged threat of an imminent Soviet attack on Western Europe was little more than a figment of the very hysterical US imagination that has kept its military industrial complex is such fine fettle down the decades.
What the US Wants from NATO
Some argue that NATO was primarily directed against the ‘enemy at home’, left and popular forces and NATO certainly sports a disingenuous record of this. However, it leaves out the international dimension.
Long and hard as US leaders wished to dominate a capitalist world, history unfortunately gave them the opportunity to attempt it just when such domination had become impossible: with the rise of Germany, the US itself and Japan, the capitalist world had already become multipolar by the early twentieth century. No single power could dominate it. Worse, the Russian Revolution, soon followed by the Chinese, took vast swaths of the world out of the capitalist world entirely.
Undaunted, the US persisted, using NATO in attempts to dominate Europe. In the apocryphal words of its first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, it aimed ‘to keep the Americans in, the Germans down and the Russians out’ of Europe.
During the Cold War, the US was reasonably successful, though not without considerable European stroppiness: the Europeans demanded gold over dollars throughout the 1960s, eventually forcing the US to break the dollar-gold link in 197; De Gaulle removed France from NATO’s integrated command in 1966; and Brandt engaged in his Ostpolitik of better relations with the Eastern Bloc. Though many think inter-imperialist rivalry died after the Second World War, it seems to live on such European behaviour.
The Cold War ended neither in unipolarity not in any ‘peace dividend’. US economic decline became visible soon thereafter and the US sought to compensate for economic decline with military aggression. In the circumstances, Europe proved increasingly open to creating autonomous security structures which, inevitably, involved improved economic and security relations with Russia.
With its aims unchanged even as its capacities declined, the US had to thwart such European impulses. It succeeded with its military intervention in Yugoslavia, chiefly by demonstrating the effectiveness of its superior air power and this success ensured that henceforth eastward EU expansion would normally be accompanied by NATO expansion. However, this was no stable arrangement.
Why the US can’t get it
No mere ‘realist’ assertion, the European impulse towards autonomy stemmed from historical differences between the continental European and the Anglo-American economies, the one productively rather than financially oriented the other financially and commercially rather than productively orientated. Four decades of neoliberalism found the latter productively emaciated and more reliant on predatory and speculative finance than ever.
These differences had already made NATO unity hard to contrive and US economic decline only made it more so. As it lost economic attractiveness for Europe (while, moreover, China and Russia gained it), as the US relied on military projection only to fail more and more spectacularly, European impulses towards autonomy were re-surfacing, with President Macron calling NATO brain dead at the alliance’s 2019 summit.
This was the context in which Biden wagered on winning the proxy war in Ukraine as a prelude to then waging one on China. Knowing that Europe, already reluctant to go to war with Russia, would be even more reluctant (for sound economic reasons) to join any anti-Chinese venture, Biden sought so resolutely and completely to sunder Europe from Russia and bind it to the US through the Ukraine war that it would have no choice but to go along with the US on China later.
However, this enterprise got off to an unpromising start and is now unravelling.
Marshalling unity even against Russia was hard, involving as it did inflicting a great deal of economic pain on Europe. Even with the Biden Administration’s historical luck of having astonishingly compliant leaderships in so many capitals, pre-eminently Berlin, NATO unity over Ukraine conflict has been more a show than a reality, with a minimum of real and maximum of show compliance. Sanctions have generally been confined those that hurt the least, leaving so many western companies still operating in Russia one wonders what the fuss is all about. Weapons supplies have focused on those that are easiest to spare, often obsolete, leaving Ukraine with a ‘Big Zoo of NATO equipment’ that is hard to deploy or repair efficiently.
Why Defeat in Ukraine will Unravel NATO, and Biden
Both prongs of Biden’s strategy – sanctions and military action by proxy – were, it is now clear, delusional. The first, famously expecting to reduce the ruble to rubble and to push the Russian economy ‘back to the stone age’, had become a manifest failure by the end of 2022 if not earlier. As for the second, despite the billions in military assistance, despite exhausting Western weapons stockpiles, despite discovering the quantitative and qualitative limits to Western weapons production capacities notwithstanding astronomically expensive military industrial complexes, despite ever more deadly weapons now including cluster bombs, despite reliance on neo-Nazi battalions, despite US and Ukrainian willingness to incur macabre levels of Ukrainian and mercenary casualties, it has been clear for some time that Ukraine is losing and has no prospect of winning.
President Biden acknowledged this in his turnaround on offering Ukraine membership of NATO or even giving it a timetable for the same and his new-found insistence that not only should things not be made easy for Ukraine to join, not only should Ukraine demonstrate progress on requisite reforms, but it should conclude a peace treaty with Russia before it can join NATO, a point repeated more than one by Jens Stoltenberg at Vilnius.
This is the Biden administration’s off-ramp from the Ukraine conflict, one he also needs thanks to the unpopularity of war at home amid an election campaign about to do into full swing.
In the face of this military defeat, patching up no other differences in NATO will matter. The US has only military might to offer allies. So, Biden’s impending military failure in Ukraine is likely to prove the effective undoing of NATO. If the US cannot ensure military victory, its utility to Europe can only be limited. And if Biden’s has failed in this intermediate Russian stage, it can hardly go onto its final, Chinese one.
Radhika Desai is a professor in the Department of Political Studies and director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group at the University of Manitoba. She is the convenor of the International Manifesto Group and the author of several books, most recently “Capitalism, Coronavirus and War: A Geopolitical Economy”.