The Golden Hammer: What’s Wrong with NATO?

Twenty years ago, on March 24, 1999, NATO aircraft dropped the first bombs on Yugoslavia, a sovereign and independent country. The air attacks were preceded by the absolutely symbolic negotiations at Rambouillet that resulted in the US and the UK putting forward a demand that 30,000 NATO troops be deployed in Kosovo, which amounted to Belgrade’s actual loss of control over that territory. Henry Kissinger wrote that the “Rambouillet text, which called on Serbia to admit NATO troops throughout Yugoslavia, was a provocation, an excuse to start bombing. Rambouillet is not a document that an angelic Serb could have accepted. It was a terrible diplomatic document that should never have been presented in that form.”

The nearest analogy is the ultimatum, with which Austro-Hungary presented Serbia in the summer of 1914. But at that period of time, Serbia was backed by Russia and France. The question, who is to blame for the Kosovo crisis assuming the scale it did, is a rhetorical one. The hard fact is that NATO, for the first time in its history, launched a massive military operation without a UN Security Council sanction, targeting a peaceful European state that threatened not a single NATO member.

The NATO aggression against Yugoslavia was one of the most memorable episodes of that historical period that followed hard on the USSR’s defeat in the Cold War and the collapse of the contemporary world order. The other episodes are the invasion of Iraq (2003), the intervention in Libya (2011), and certain other lesser pranks. Regrettably, it was also force that put an end to these outrages rather than Law, international law, embodied in the UN Security Council. The Russian interference in Syria both dispelled all dreams of a “caliphate” and made it clear to the US and its allies that they no longer had the sole authority to punish or pardon anyone. Two years before that, in the spring of 2014, Russia stripped the US of its monopoly on handling international law as it pleased in cases where human lives were at stake.

Russia in the Middle East: Missiles and Olive Branches (VIDEOGRAPHICS)
Today, the Middle East is one of the most turbulent regions in the world. It became a “testing ground” for contemporary politics: here, new alliances are formed, and the old ones are tested. In addition, the ways to fight terrorism and to cope with humanitarian crises are invented. Since 2014, one of the most important actors in the region is Russia, which has made a significant contribution both to the victory over the terrorists in Syria, and to the political process.

But let us go back 20 years. After the collapse of the USSR, Western countries and primarily their military arm, NATO, came to face a difficult dilemma. There were no formal reasons for preserving the bloc’s military organization, because the potential adversary had vanished into thin air and was in no way dangerous for the US or its allies in Europe. But it would have been odd to disband NATO too. First of all, it was a unique military and political organism with rules and procedures of its own and well-oiled mechanisms of military interaction. Secondly, no one was sure that the Central and East European countries would maintain a non-bloc status for long. And, finally, it was clear to the wisest Western analysts that Russia, despite its current geostrategic irrelevance, would need a mere few years to reassert its claim to independence in world and European affairs. So, it was necessary to insulate the “Russian bear” as fast as possible both institutionally and in the physical sense, making its revival, at the very least, painful.
Did Europe Die in Pristina?
Rein Müllerson
It was exactly 20 years ago (the NATO bombardment started 24 March 1999) that for the first time after the Second World War somebody, in complete disrespect of international law, used massive military force in the very centre of Europe. This aggression, covered by the fig leaf of a humanitarian intervention, quite an oxymoron, opened the door wide to further unprincipled use of force in other places.

But for the time being, the West was enjoying its best time ever. Internal wars were over and done with. The threat of an outside aggression had receded and seemed nonexistent. China was “gathering strength in the shadows.” Russia was wallowing in the blood and dirt of the North Caucasian separatist uprisings.
Thanks to all that, NATO was having the “golden hammer” syndrome, a psychological state, where any problem is treated like hitting a nail.

This explains the uniqueness of NATO’s transformation as an international institution or an organization for collective defense. The latter had waived certain important operational elements, such as a discussion leading to decision-making. All decisions were suggested by the pushy US diplomacy on instructions from Washington and it was left to other NATO countries just to rubber-stamp them. No wonder that since the mid-1990s, all NATO secretaries-general were either politicians from small North European countries notorious for their absolute loyalty to the US, or people like Javier Solana, who were energetically opposing Spain’s accession into NATO in the 1980s.

After the Cold War, there was no one to defend from. So, NATO’s operation against Yugoslavia was an act of aggression made possible by the self-will of Western powers as well as Belgrade’s technological backwardness and its lack of allies. Russia was openly siding with Belgrade but was unable to assist it because Romania and Bulgaria had closed their airspace to Russian transport aircraft.

What shocked Russia the most in 1999 was the West’s unity: Europe that had been viewed by Moscow as an alternative to the “evil” United States all of a sudden joined their overseas ally. Russia realized for the first time that “West is West,” and, all fine words notwithstanding, France or Italy were closer to the US as parties to its global military dominance. By the way, in terms of combat sorties the French air force was second only to the US and far ahead of the UK or Germany. A thing to note: this was before France rejoined the NATO military organization under President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008.

The Future of War
The Future of NATO: Trade-Offs and Possible Scenarios
Igor Istomin, Irina Bolgova
Ever since the Alliance was formed, its image has been subject to many distortions and contradictions. Some of these myths originate from NATO itself as it claimed to deliver security and stability not only to its members but also globally. In reality though, it is above all an instrument for furthering various and sometimes competing interests of its participants in military and political domains.

Bled white by NATO bombing, Yugoslavia capitulated in June 1999, with Russia mediating the deal. A Russian armored unit’s bold redeployment to the Pristina airport went down in history as an example of devil-may-care bravery typical of Russian soldiers but failed to lead to any important political consequences.

Starting from the Yugoslav operation, NATO has consistently evolved into a combination of a cultural phenomenon and a strictly controlled military bloc. As a cultural phenomenon, NATO is an elite club. Being one of its members is a matter of prestige and a sign of belonging to a high caste. An eternal feature, the caste organization of the international community grew even more pronounced after the Cold War, but with a greater mobility between the castes. The states, which were willing to join the ruling crust even on highly restricted terms, could do that. But they had to pay a price by renouncing any claims to independent thinking or moves.

This system, which in theory could have become long-lived and efficient, was tottering on the verge of collapse several years after its emergence. The reason was that the hegemon, as distinct from the 1947-1991 Cold War period, no longer needs it. The West European allies of the United States are too weak and hesitant. Russia and China are not united or inspired enough to jointly challenge the US domination of most world affairs. America’s new policy vis-à-vis NATO is scaring its European allies. But there is no way of preserving the bloc other than doing Washington’s bidding. After all, it is only NATO that provides at least some guarantees of security.

Prospectively, NATO will be leaving the European and global military-political stage as an independent player. To maintain its leadership, the US has little need of institutions. It is the EU that will attempt to revitalize NATO. But in all evidence, a more or less interesting history of this entity is over, its integrity being dissolved in its numerous member-countries whose contribution to common security is sliding below what is minimally needed, while its main contributor, the US, will do away with even a semblance of democracy within its ranks, for which it has no use. What does this mean for Russia? In any case, it should not seek to restart a political dialogue with NATO. This dialogue is only legitimizing the alliance and giving it a sense of purpose. But NATO itself is already a historical relic.

New Cold War: NATO Washes the Car
Anatol Lieven
Why the current Western hysteria? Of course, as with all national hostilities, this builds to some extent on older foundations: the Cold War, around which western security institutions and western ideological propaganda were organised for two generations, and which created NATO itself; and the much older national hatred for Russia (sometimes of course justified) on the part of Poles, Balts, Jews and some Ukrainians.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.