Friday, May 20, 2022

Wherefore Nato?

We have all heard the news. It seems to be the new conventional wisdom. By all appearances, the Russian war in Ukraine has revived Nato as an effective military alliance. Hallelujah!

When we see a consensus forming, we do best to begin by shedding some doubt on it. So, we turn to economics professor and prolific commentator Adam Tooze. We will agree with some of what he says and disagree with other aspects. And yet, his is the first essay suggesting that our hopes for a revived Nato are a wee bit too optimistic.

Tooze begins with a bit of history:

What was still a compact, anti-Soviet alliance in the 1980s had, thanks to expansion in the 1990s and 2000s, grown into a sprawling and aimless organisation. As west European defence spending dwindled, the alliance relied ever more on America’s huge military budgets and eager new east European recruits. The failures of Nato intervention in Afghanistan from 2001 and Libya in 2011 were demoralising, something that in 2021 would be underlined by another unilateral American withdrawal – this time from Afghanistan on the orders of Joe Biden.

But then, Vladimir Putin stepped in and gave Nato a reason for being:

Now, in the spring of 2022, and thanks to Putin’s ill-judged assault on Ukraine, the picture is transformed. All eyes are on Europe and Nato. Sweden and Finland are applying for membership. For the first time in its history, the Nato Response Force has been deployed as part of a collective-defence mission. Even Germany’s government has agreed to increase its military spending. From Berlin the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has publicly affirmed the “deep cooperation and coordination that is at the heart” of the alliance.

But still, Tooze asks whether we are not perhaps not seeing too clearly:

It is hardly surprising that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has helped to revive Nato. But is this a sign of true mental reactivation? Does Nato have a new vision? Or is the reaction to the war in Ukraine more in the manner of a knee-jerk, an involuntary spasm induced by Putin’s hammer blow?

Now, for a little contrary thinking. The Russian invasion, Tooze suggests, tells us that Nato has failed as a deterrent. 

The Atlanticist jubilation is so loud that people seem to have forgotten that if Nato’s aim was to deter Russian aggression and keep the peace in Europe, it has failed. Whether or not the talk of Ukraine joining the alliance can really be said to have triggered Putin’s invasion, it certainly encouraged nationalist opinion in Kyiv to take a hard line against Moscow, and also fuelled Russian propaganda. And for all the assistance and training that Ukrainian forces had received up to that point from the US, UK and Canada, Moscow clearly assumed that it had military superiority. Western threats of economic sanctions were brushed aside.

Apparently, Western intelligence agencies had imagined that Russia would quickly overpower the weaker Ukrainian forces. In that they have been wrong. In fact, the interest in Sweden and Finland to join Nato is a sign of Russian weakness, nothing else:

If things had gone as most Western intelligence agencies appear to have expected, Russia would have rolled over Ukraine. That would have terrified its neighbours to the West and given existing Nato members every reason to reinforce their defences.

But whether Sweden and Finland would then have rushed to join Nato is far from obvious. Would they have risked provoking Moscow if the Russian army was rampant? Moldova, for one, has no intention of applying. Even now, it would be far too risky.

So, credit due to the Ukrainians, for holding off Russia, mostly. On the other side, Russia is systematically destroying Ukraine, so we remain skeptical about that nation’s efforts. At the least, we should recognize that Ukraine does not belong to Nato and that Nato is not supporting it:

What has created Nato’s moment – it cannot be emphasised too often – is what was least expected: Ukraine’s effective and sustained armed resistance. Despite Nato forces’ long interaction with Ukraine’s military – Ukraine deployed troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan – that resistance has been a total surprise, which is hardly a testament to the closeness of those operations.

In terms of military intelligence about Ukraine, Macron’s assessment of Nato “brain death” seems not too inaccurate. Ahead of the war we had no real understanding of the true military balance between Russia and Ukraine.

So, Nato had no real military intelligence. Hmm. 

Once war began and Ukraine endured, Nato members rallied. But talk of a Nato response to Putin’s war is the kind of smoke-and-mirrors operation that is the organisation’s forte. In fact, while Nato has issued declarations in support of Ukraine, the aid is being supplied by the individual member states. And that aid follows an all too familiar pattern.

Nato member states are supporting Ukraine, while the organization itself has not:

If anything, the crisis has confirmed the imbalances that have increasingly discredited Nato. Nor is Washington embarrassed to advertise that reality. From the American side the rhetoric is redolent not of the collective commitments of the Cold War, but the hub-and-spokes model of Lend-Lease, under which between 1941 and 1945 the US supplied allied nations with food, fuel and materiel, and cemented its role as the arsenal of democracy. But, if the US is leading the way, does Washington have a real plan?

Tooze is far more generous toward the Biden administration than we are. In truth, his administration seems to have no coherent policy, beyond damaging Russia. 

On strategy, Washington has not one but several brains. Biden himself sounds bullish. His rhetoric towards Putin smacks of regime change. The defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, speaks openly of exhausting Russia. The CIA is more cautious, warning of the risks of further escalation. Using Ukraine to humiliate Russia is one thing that America’s warring parties in Congress seem to be able to agree on. The Ukraine Lend-Lease Act, which gives Biden the powers to accelerate further deliveries, passed easily through both chambers. Agreeing the additional aid packages proposed by the Democrats – an extra $40bn in additional military, humanitarian and economic support – will require horse-trading. Assuming they do pass, the question remains: is the US developing a new grand strategy for Europe and Nato or is grinding down Russia an end in itself – a project that plays well with the American electorate, while freeing the Pentagon to focus on China?

While finding some good in the Biden incoherence, we must note that the invasion happened on Joe’s watch. When the big, bad Trump was around, Putin was not invading Ukraine or taking over Crimea.

On that, Tooze seems clearly to be wrong:

Then there is the US itself. If Nato was facing an existential crisis in 2019, it was largely due to Trump’s erratic attacks on America’s European partners. The competent leadership from the Biden team during the Ukraine crisis – unlike over Afghanistan – has been reassuring. 

And now, Tooze sees a few problems in the conventional analysis.

The first is, what if Russia feels that it is losing in Ukraine. How far will it go in its escalation? And besides, one Russian reaction to Western sanctions is apparently to produce a worldwide famine. Of course, we are concerned about nuclear weapons, but a massive famine does not feel like a good outcome. See this article from the Economist. Link here.

The first and most important is the war in Ukraine itself. If Ukraine prevails and manages not only to stop but to roll back Russia’s offensives, do we really believe that Moscow can tolerate that outcome? If not, shouldn’t we expect Russia to escalate asymmetrically? The US director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, has recently warned of the risk that Putin may be “moving along an unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory”. If Putin reaches for his nuclear arsenal then what we have experienced so far is merely a prelude, a phoney war. The real test for Nato lies ahead.

And the, Tooze continues, what if the war in Ukraine drags on without any clear resolution? Can Europe live with that?

If the war drags on, with America providing substantial aid, but Russia proving able to stop Ukraine’s counteroffensives, does Europe want the equivalent of another Afghanistan on its doorstep – a decades-long conflict with a devastating humanitarian fallout? That might suit Washington, but can Europe live with it? The dialogues between Olaf Scholz, Macron and Moscow in recent weeks suggest that Paris and Berlin are still looking to offer Putin a way out. If the Ukraine crisis extends into the distant future, what will be the impact on the front-line states, above all Poland? If Afghanistan is the analogy, we should be concerned that eastern Europe does not suffer the fate of Pakistan, where America’s anti-Soviet campaign helped to strengthen the deep state and stoke popular radicalisation.

And then there is the China question. It is not as clear as many would like? Sanctioning Russia is one thing. Cutting off China is quite another:

But in other respects it takes a pretty fervid imagination to see France’s sprinkling of colonial possessions in the Indo-Pacific as equivalent to America’s stake in the glacis that consists of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Germany, for its part, continues to maintain close economic relations with China. As Herbert Diess, the CEO of Volkswagen, has frankly remarked: “If we would constrain our business to only established democracies, which account for about 7 to 9 per cent of world population, and this is shrinking, then clearly there would not be any viable business model for an auto manufacturer… If you are not in China, you have a problem. If you are in China, you have a chance.”

In short, expecting European nations to align with America over China feels largely unrealistic.

It would be vain to imagine that the Western powers will dictate the course of future relations with China – we ought to have learned the limits of our agency in Ukraine. In December 2020 Brussels, Paris and Berlin, to the horror of the Biden team, offered an economic olive branch with the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments, which Beijing spurned. That made it easier for Europe and the US to align on China during Biden’s first year in office than many expected. In the summer of 2021 Nato for the first time issued a statement on the security challenge posed by China. But then in January 2022 came the storm over Lithuania upgrading Taiwan’s diplomatic recognition. Faced with Beijing’s threats, the Baltics lined up with the US, presumably with a view to anchoring American support against Russia. Meanwhile, Berlin and much of the rest of the EU distanced themselves, refusing to get drawn into a clash with Beijing. For all the talk of partnership it is far from clear how Europe and the US align on China in the long term.


370H55V said...

"The competent leadership from the Biden team during the Ukraine crisis – unlike over Afghanistan – has been reassuring."

Anyone who says something like that cannot be taken seriously.

Anonymous said...

Yes let's continue expanding an organization that should have been disbanded right after the Warsaw Pact went out of business.

IamDevo said...

Regarding NATO, one observes the pungent accuracy of Eric Hoffer's observation: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
We were well into the racket stage when Trump had the temerity to proclaim it out loud, which disturbed those who had been taking advantage of it for decades. How dare he point out the truth? How uncouth!