As NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe goes on, sometimes taking on the aura of melodrama, sometimes of farce, there has been little attempt by to explain to Americans what NATO was and is all about. Perhaps history from the early cold war and before can be a guide.
Established in 1949 as a military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was the capstone of a policy, led and funded by the United States, to contain/encircle Soviet and Communist power in Eastern Europe, prevent powerful Communist parties in France and Italy from winning out and secure and eventually re-arm the new West German state -which was brought into the alliance in the mid-1950s, leading the Soviets to counter with their own formal military alliance, the Warsaw Treaty. In the 1950s, NATO extended the encirclement of the Soviets by including Turkey, neither a North Atlantic state nor a liberal democracy. For the American people, NATO was the first peacetime U.S. commitment to fight abroad as part of a coordinated multinational alliance and a major user of the multi-trillion dollar U.S. defense expenditures in the post war period.
When one looks back before 1945, NATO may also be seen as a continuation of the loose alliances after World War I that France established, and England backed, with anti-Communist East European states to “quarantine” the Soviet revolution, a policy known as the “cordon sanitaire.” After World War II, the line of quarantine was drawn in central Europe, not at the Soviets’ Western borders as in the aftermath of World War I.
What has all of this ancient history to do with the topsy-turvy world of 1997, when the Soviet Union and its allies are no more, and the most anti-Communist government among the old Warsaw Treaty states appears to be the Russian government of Boris Yeltsin?
One might answer that Russia, however anti-Communist and feeble its government may be today, remains both the second major nuclear power in the world and, in so far as it develops a capitalist industrial economy, an unaligned rival of the NATO states for foreign markets, spheres of influence and raw materials. Great power efforts to thwart such Russian ambitions go back far into the nineteenth century.
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation and those committed to fighting foreign economic penetration and reconstituting some version of the old Soviet Union remain a powerful force in the country today. Creating a NATO that reaches to the Russian border may provide an international military arm to the international economic campaign to guarantee privatization and open economies in the former Soviet republics and former Warsaw Treaty states.
It is important to remember that the “end of the cold war” has not brought about in the United States its rational concomitant, the end of cold-war military budgets, but rather a plateauing of those expenditures, as occurred after the Korean and Vietnam wars. Today, the Republican congressional majority, while hailing the “death of Communism” as proof that the future belongs to media-savvy versions of Herbert Spencer and Adam Smith, has loudly called for expanding present military budgets, which are at least twice as great as they should be in any real post-cold war setting.
In challenging what became NATO in the late 1940s, former Vice President Henry Wallace called the idea a “WPA with guns,” or an attempt to prevent future depressions through long term military spending. Although a generation of stagnating wages and living standards suggests that this policy has ceased to work, the corporate, military and political classes who make up what sociologist C. Wright Mills called in the 1950s the Power Elite continue to view such expenditures as entitlements. NATO expansion can provide those elites with new justifications for expanding military budgets and new markets for military exports.
The last major component of the cold war was the struggle for what became known in the 1950s as the “Third World,” the Asian, African, Latin American majority of the world’s people that was neither industrialized nor part of the NATO-Warsaw Pact blocs. Absorbing much of the former Warsaw Pact into NATO may function as a way to provide a military arm to undertake “police actions” for both the United Nations (whose “peacekeeping” activities are severely limited) and the International Monetary Fund-World Bank campaign for free markets in the Third World, a globalized gunboat diplomacy to augment and protect a globalized dollar-Euro diplomacy.
In all of these ways, NATO expansion may be seen not as the beginning of a new era, but as the continuation of cold war policies and relationships. If the cold war were really over, that is, if there were no continuing conflicts between capitalism and socialism for the hearts and minds of the world’s people, no need to maintain military expenditures as corporate subsidies, and no need to wield a global big stick against Third World nations, there would be little need for NATO, much less NATO expansion.
Norman Markowitz is a member of the history faculty at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and a writer for the History News Service.