Defending democratic states

A visit to NATO by Ukraine president Volodomyr Zelenskiy in December 2021 (photo: NATO (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

Don Flynn argues solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance is essential but we should recognise the problem with NATO and the Armageddon strategy

As bombs and artillery continue to rain down on the heads of Ukrainian civilians and an army that is organising an ad hoc defence against the Russian invasion, this might not be the best of times to insist on a proper understanding of the role of NATO in maintaining division between the east and west of Europe. At this moment, the priority is the need to support the resistance to the onslaught, and many will feel that if this can best be done by imagining a progressive role for the US-led military alliance, then so be it.

But in taking this pragmatic stance, people willing to see a role for NATO have to acknowledge that it is an organisation that is not well suited to the task of the moment, which is the defence of a democratic form of government in danger of being overwhelmed by an authoritarian adversary. Much has been said in recent days about the alliance being defensive and not threatening in its basic stance on the affairs of the world, but this obscures the one thing everyone used to know about its strategy, which is the fact that it is based on the idea of the deterrence of warfare, achieved through the mutual assurance of nuclear destruction (MAD).

We say ‘used to know’ because the generation of activists who participated as adults in the mass peace movements of the 1980s are now in the 60-plus age group, and the eclipse of mass left-wing social movements since that day has meant that the lessons of that period have not been transmitted into the contemporary political mainstream. Because of this it seems plausible to assert, as the leaders of all the main political parties have done, that NATO is a voluntary association of countries with a democratic form of government who intend it to work only for the purpose of the protection of liberal values. Sir Keir Starmer has even gone so far as to proclaim that its formation, back in 1947, counts as one of the great achievements of a Labour government, alongside the establishment of the NHS.

Yet the current situation in Ukraine is furnishing us with good reasons for doubting the value of NATO as a reliable means to defend democracy. On the contrary, it is the very fact that its involvement in even a minimal manner in the current fight can be interpreted as an unacceptable provocation by the belligerent Putin government as a step on the road to an exchange of nuclear weapons that has produced near paralysis in the stance taken by the NATO governments, with a limited provision of anti-tank munitions and helmets mixed with cheering from the sidelines.

The difficulty that the Western powers have created for themselves is that extreme caution about their involvement in the resistance is perfectly rational given the far from negligible risk that supply on a larger scale, not to mention the declaration of a no-fly zone, would lead in rapid order to a nuclear conflagration. We have to be grateful that the bumptious enthusiasm for Putin’s bluff to be called by politicians like the ever-ready military expert Tobias Ellwood MP, for everything up to and including ‘boots on the ground’, is being held in check.

NATO has fallen back on the legalistic argument that its direct intervention is not called for because Ukraine is not a member of the alliance and is therefore not covered by its ‘an attack on one is an attack on all’ mantra. It would be more accurate to say that the fate of the country is too remote from the interests of the core nations of the military alliance – situated much further to the west and even leaping over the Atlantic Ocean – to merit a protected status. It is capitalist interests in maintaining a functioning global market that is much closer to the concerns of the NATO governments, rather than abstractions like parliamentary democracy and liberal values.

But critics of the ‘Stop the War’ kind are also some way off the mark in seeing ‘NATO aggression’ as the driving force that has led to the current predicament. It would be more accurate to see the expansion to the borders of Russia in recent decades, bringing in the former Soviet republics in the Baltic region and the old Warsaw Pact nations into its fold, as the almost unintended consequences of decisions made after 1990 when the Soviet Union was dismantled. At that point, the senior George Bush, as president of the US, gave the hapless leader of the disintegrating Russian state, President Gorbachev, the assurance that NATO did not intend to expand its membership.

The reasons why the West did not keep this promise arise from a number of factors, and the wish to maintain a belligerent stance towards Russia was not exactly among the most prominent. A great deal of it simply came from the organisational inertia of a structure which consisted of a vast military-bureaucratic-political complex, enjoying a vast budget and the elevated careers of tens of thousands of functionaries, which simply could not think its way towards a steady dissolution as the threat that had once been bound up in the ideological confrontations engendered by the Cold War ceased to exist.

For a lengthy period, NATO became a club which the countries formerly aligned to the Soviet Union were now keen to join because, like the European Union or the Eurovision Song Contest, it was part of the modern world of markets and consumerism which was the only game in town. The new Russian Federation saw itself at one point as a candidate, and worked hard to secure the support of NATO as it pummelled the Chechen Republic and its capital city of Grozny. After the 9/11 attack on New York and Washington, NATO’s repurposing as an instrument in the War on Terror provided a few roles for Putin and his clique, providing torture sites and staging posts for the US-led invasion of Afghanistan during the heady days of the New World Order.

Whatever might have been with regard to Russia and its relationship with NATO became strained when global politics shifted to successive crises in the Middle East and the erosion of its influence in states in that region. The final dashing of hope that some division of labour could be worked as to the roles of gendarmes in troubled parts of the world came with the onset of the civil war in Syria, which finally drew Putin into full military support for the Assad regime as it was being abandoned by other powers. The deployment of Russian military to the Syrian cause, and its disparagement in this role by Western governments, became the point when Putin began to envision a role for Russia that would cast it adrift from the inconsistent and hypocritical liberals who made up the governments of the West and to map out a future which depended on its hegemony in its own ‘near neighbourhood’.

Russia’s war on Ukraine is a grim anticipation of the way in which tensions between states will be dealt with in the future. The East versus West binary has broken down with the end of the ideological conflict between the two main power blocs. What stands in its place is the varied responses between the governments of nations which believe they have a special right to be respected in the hierarchies of imperial power to situations in which they feel slighted and placed at a disadvantage. It is not the case that NATO has taken an especially aggressive stance in the increasingly ungoverned spaces of international politics – its advances to the borders of Russia seem more the product of an unreflected commitment to a path chosen back in 1947 which very few have had the vision and foresight to want to get free from. But as they often say nowadays – whatever and it is what it is. The people of Ukraine are paying a terrible price for the illusion that the American-led military alliance is a shield and protector for democracy in Europe, and one that other countries in the region seem to be adding to by recommitting themselves to sheltering under its nuclear umbrella.

Here is a thought experiment to end on: suppose President George H.W. Bush had been true to the word he had given to Mikhail Gorbachev back in the early 1990s and the NATO alliance has come to terms with the fact that its raison d’être of rallying the ‘free’ West in the cause of protecting democracy from Soviet authoritarianism had vanished. Imagine if the steps towards nuclear disarmament taken by the newly independent government of Ukraine – soon followed by post-apartheid South Africa – had led to the multilateral disarmament we had long been promised between the main holders of nuclear arsenals. What would this have meant if a situation like the present conflict between Russia and Ukraine had continued to occur? Isn’t it the case that it would present itself far more purely as a case of what it claims to be – namely a situation where a people who want to be governed by a system of representative democracy is fighting against the unwarranted aggression of an authoritarian neighbour?

In these circumstances it would surely be the case that countries which claim to be reliable democracies themselves could rally to the support of the oppressed nation, pledging whatever munitions and personnel who want to volunteer to join the good fight. The nuclear shield provided by NATO is an obstacle to this sort of solidarity, having the effect of deflecting decisions about what to offer the Ukrainian people into a grimmer calculation about the point at which the missiles start flying.

Two things must come out of the present imbroglio which characterises the West’s in-out approach. One of these is that every means must be found to support Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion, of necessity picking a careful path through the evasions and double-binds that come from the obvious fact that Putin must not be pushed to the point when conventional weaponry tips over into strategic nuclear, and then, no doubt, an emptying of the full arsenal of rocketry and bombs as the conflict escalates.

The second it that we have to look at the legacy which NATO has left us as we prepare to deal with the tensions of the 21st century. Sir Keir Starmer tells us that it is much like that of the wonderful NHS, a product of a Labour government which was striving in the post-World War Two days to secure a permanent peace across the planet. The peace once undergirded by a balance of nuclear terror was never that complete in any event, as countless proxy wars were waged across the poorer parts of the world, but at least a lid was placed on the horrors that might have come if war returned to the continent of Europe.

Ukraine is likely to be the first of a number of wars waged not because of ideology, but through a return to the crude imperial ambitions of nations and blocs of nations that was the world before 1914. If these are not to lead to the mass extermination of human life, we should be working hard to ensure that when they have to be waged they will be on the basis of the mobilisation of free people acting in defence of democracy, rather than empty slogans committing nations to the act of mass suicide on the grounds that ‘every inch’ of territory will be defended by the use of weapons that threaten the end of everything.

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