Nearly three quarters of a century after Nato’s founding, Britain has slid down its league table of political and military power: from a near-peer ally of the United States to more or less open vassalage. To witness the conquered mindset of the British establishment, one need only read a recent article deliberating on what is to be done with the British Army, plummeting in numbers, capability and international esteem. It proposes to reshape our land forces as a collection of Special Forces units at America’s disposal: “we are likely to fight as part of a coalition in future, so why not be the sharpened tip of the American spear?”
On the one hand, the very idea of formalising Britain’s role as Washington’s most loyal and reckless auxiliary, without even the hint that Britain may have vital strategic interests of its own, strikes the reader as a shameful metric of national decline. Yet on the other, it is merely a frank acceptance of Britain’s true role in the world.
Just as the Five Eyes alliance, promoted as a valuable forum to share secret intelligence, can be more accurately viewed as a means to ensure the Anglophone intelligence establishment orientate themselves towards serving US foreign policy goals, the Nato alliance is as much a Cold War means of organising satellite states to serve imperial interests as was the Warsaw Pact. The distinction between Moscow’s loyal network of European generals, securocrats and pet politicians and those of present-day Washington is barely perceptible. Yet, in recent years, the value of the Nato alliance has declined markedly, both to Washington insiders increasingly disgruntled that the United States finds itself subsidising the defence of rich but feckless European states, and to some European leaders such as Macron, who famously termed the Cold War relic “brain dead”. The alliance’s most recent adventures, in Afghanistan and Libya, were disasters both to the countries fated to host its intervention, and to the European states who suddenly found themselves hosting the unwanted human floods that followed.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, then, came as a godsend to the faltering alliance. Once again, Nato could focus on its core purpose: the American-led defence of Europe from an aggressive Moscow. Summarising an emergent strand of thought on both the Left and Right of European politics, Wolfgang Streeck, writing in Natopolitanism, Verso’s collection of essays from the New Left Review, remarks that by “restoring the West, the war neutralised the various fault lines where the EU was crumbling… while catapulting the United States into a position of renewed hegemony over Western Europe, including its regional organisation, the European Union”. This precise critique, that a war-revived “Turbo-America” has consolidated its wavering hold on our home continent, grasping us ever more suffocatingly to the imperial bosom, is now commonplace in discussions of geopolitics following the Ukraine war: but is it true?
The authors in Natopolitanism robustly make the case that, as the writer Thomas Meaney observes, “in practice, Nato is above all a political arrangement that guarantees US primacy in determining answers to European questions“ and “administers US power in Eurasia, as a regional satrapy and launchpad for excursions elsewhere”. In essays spanning decades, which aim to “stand in contrast to the pieties and propaganda that saturate the Natopolitan scene”, the writers outline Washington’s strategy of “convincing potential competitors” such as Europe “that they need not aspire to a greater role”, while accounting “sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership”. As Europe’s leadership shows, this plan was entirely successful, so that “what was once presumed to be an artefact of the Cold War order sits so comfortably at the heart of the Western system that it is frequently mistaken for a natural feature in the geopolitical landscape”.
The book reminds us of the fearful warnings of US defence establishment giants such as William J. Burns that the decision to expand Nato eastwards, enfolding the Baltic and Central European states while leaving Ukraine and Georgia in their current, fateful ante-room to membership, was an act of monumental hubris which. It would, he wrote, “cross the brightest of Russia’s red lines” by “indulging the Ukrainians and Georgians in hopes of Nato membership on which we were unlikely to deliver, while reinforcing Putin’s sense that we were determined to pursue a course he saw as an existential threat”.
Indeed, Natopolitanism’s essential thrust — and the limitations of its analysis — can be summarised by the title of Realist theorist John Mearsheimer’s contribution: “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin.” It captures a strain of thinking common to European strategic autonomists who regret that the alliance has kept the continent subordinate to Washington, Left-wing anti-imperialists keen to highlight the hypocrisy of the alliance’s newfound commitment to the inviolability of national borders, and to the American anti-interventionists whose stance is, at least in liberal interventionist eyes, now indistinguishable from “IR Realism” Outlining viewpoints mocked by American neoconservative broadsheet columnists and boisterous cartoon dogs on Twitter alike, the collection is perhaps the most sustained and articulate critique so far of Washington’s hubristic attitudes towards Russia.
And yet, much of its argument can be refuted by observation of the Ukraine war’s progress until now. The purported “last chance for peace” lamented by contributors, Russia’s eve-of-invasion request to rule out the alliance’s further eastward expansion, also included a demand to withdraw Nato infrastructure from the Central European and Baltic countries welcomed into the alliance a generation ago: a politically absurd demand made in the full knowledge it was impossible to grant. Far from the United States forcing European states into a stance of radical and self-defeating hostility to Russia, it is European states that have consistently pushed a reluctant Biden administration into delivering ever-more deadly and sophisticated weapons systems to Kyiv. The pattern of hawkish European states browbeating their cautious and reluctant overlord into greater escalation echoes the dynamic of the Libya intervention, where the bright-eyed and idealistic Cameron and Sarkozy pairing cajoled Obama’s intervention in what he later termed the Libyan “shitshow” against his better judgment. If anything, Nato displays the European tail wagging the American dog: instead of keeping Europe subordinate, weak but ambitious European states use the Nato alliance to advance their own foreign policy ends — that these ends would, in Libya, prove disastrous is a European failing rather than an American one.
No wonder that American defence thinkers, such as the Realist strategist Elbridge Colby, dispassionately debate the idea of cutting the Baltic countries loose as a strategic burden a declining US can no longer afford. Yet the sceptical attitude to the alliance displayed by the American Right, and particularly Trump, points to another potential outcome from the war. While Streeck asserts that “the war also seems to have dealt a death blow to the French dream of turning the liberal empire of the European Union into a strategically sovereign global force, credibly rivalling both a rising China and a declining United States”, dwindling American political support for a war in which the EU has fully committed itself leaves Europe forced to assume a position of power, almost against its own will.
Ultimately, Europe’s future defence strategy will be written in the straits and islets of the Western Pacific: either the US will be forced to concentrate on the threat from China, forcing Europe to finally take up the burden of its own defence, or Washington will abandon its role as global hegemon, taking Europe tighter into its embrace as a rich and easily assimilable core empire. Either outcome is possible, and the decision will only come at the time of China’s choosing. But if the first eventuality comes to pass, with a giant and hostile neighbour to its east, and an imperial sponsor distracted from by its own great challenge on the other side of the world, Europe will be forced to extract itself from the position of helpless dependence its role in the Nato alliance has fostered.
For Left-wing writers such as Meaney, such an autonomous Europe is hardly a more appealing outcome than subordinate membership in the American alliance: “considering what the European Union is today, if it ever did succeed in taking a more militarised form, this would hardly be a rosy prospect,” he writes. “A competent EU army patrolling the Mediterranean littoral for migrants, enforcing an elaborate repatriation system, and forcing regimes in Africa and Asia to serve in perpetuity as extraction points for its resources and receptacles of its trash would only clinch the status of ‘Fortress Europe’.” European conservatives, accustomed by habit if not self-interest to look longingly for Washington’s approval, may yet come to welcome this new dispensation.
Certainly, the most recent iteration of Nato as a heavily armed liberal NGO would not survive this shift. As noted in Natopolitanism, Poland’s hawkish attitude to the Ukraine war has led Washington to forget its until-recently-held doubts about the strength of the country’s democratic institutions, just as concerns over Meloni’s purported fascism evaporated once she committed herself to the war. So, Streeck warns, controversies over the “‘rule of law’ will become increasingly obsolete as cultural conflicts between “liberal” and “illiberal” democracy will be eclipsed by the geostrategic objectives of Nato and the United States,” while “a shift in political power inside the EU may be imminent in favour of the Union’s eastern front states”. Poland’s massive programme of rearmament, plus the planned incorporation within the EU of whatever iteration of the Ukrainian state follows the war, already promises a shift in Europe’s gravity from the post-national liberalism of the continent’s northwest to the resurgent, militarised nationalisms of the eastern frontier. As long as the new Europe’s defence posture alleviates the burden on the United States, Washington voices which once promoted Nato as an engine for liberal idealism will no more protest Europe’s Rightward political experimentation than their equivalents of past decades did the pliant authoritarian regimes of member states Portugal, Greece and Turkey.
Far from ensuring Europe’s political and economic subordination, America’s retrenchment towards simultaneously managing both a great struggle with China and its own internal political conflict is very likely to leave Europe functionally autonomous. American voters and politicians may already be tiring of what will be a long and bloody war: Ukraine has, it seems, already reached the high-watermark of Pentagon support. Yet committed as Europe now is, with expanding Russian armies on its doorstep, disengagement is a luxury European leaders cannot afford. Perhaps things might have been otherwise, if different decisions had been made at the zenith of American power: but there is no rewriting history, no going back, and we are forced to make the best we can of the cards our masters dealt us.
In all this, the Sixth Form Third Worldist anti-imperialism of Nato sceptics such as Corbyn has been superseded by events. The idea that Corbyn could ever have extracted Britain from Nato was fanciful. As Meaney observes of Central Europe, “were any political leadership in Poland, Romania, Hungary, or any other Eastern European state to become intolerable for Washington, it would have an open, exploitable channel to that country’s military, greased by years of mutual exchanges, including stints at Nato headquarters, bevies of Nato conferences, retreats, and ceremonies, as well as wars fought together in the Middle East”. Precisely the same is true, with the inclusion of securocrats and wonks as loyal devotees, for us Western European countries. As the desperate wheedling for an American pat on their head from Britain’s defence establishment makes clear, the idea of Britain pursuing strategic ends distinct from those of its imperial master is literally incomprehensible to our governing class. Updating this strategic calculus is more likely to result from a sudden external shock than dispassionate consideration of Britain’s interests.
Yet Macron’s sudden pivot from Nato-scepticism towards a full-throated commitment to the alliance’s eastward expansion reminds us that other outcomes are possible. In our current turbulent period of interregnum between American supremacy and retreat from global hegemony, the Nato alliance may provide the framework within which a future, sovereign Europe can establish itself, through the creation of a notionally subordinate European defence pillar ready to take up the burden of the continent’s security from its faltering sponsor. There is no political utility in railing against Nato, given the unshakeable attachment of European elites to their sinecures as loyal auxiliaries. Yet by working within Nato structures, to establish Europe as an equal partner within the alliance rather than a collection of weak and disunited supplicants, our home continent may still quietly prepare itself for the withdrawal of America’s protective shield, and the contested multipolar order already bloodily dawning on its borders. Just as Rome’s successor states, once the legions left, still proudly wore imperial titles, Nato’s ghostly form may yet outlast the empire itself.