Seth Farris has recently written an interesting and insightful piece for The Duran discussing NATO policy towards Russia.
In it he argues that the confrontational line NATO is taking towards Russia is driven by NATO’s need to justify its existence. Since the USSR collapsed, the argument goes, NATO has lapsed into pointlessness and therefore seeks a confrontation with its old Cold War enemy Russia to persuade the European public of the need for its continued existence.
In making this argument Seth Farris makes strong and valid points. However this argument in my opinion suffers from the fundamental flaw of all arguments that look for rational and pragmatic explanations for US and Western policies. This is that there is in fact little about the policies that is either pragmatic or rational, and that on the contrary the facts point to current Western ideology providing the reason for the West’s actions.
The starting point in any discussion of Western policy should be what Western leaders actually say. This point should be obvious but it is too often overlooked. If one takes this approach then it becomes immediately obvious that US and Western leaders never say anything even in private or to each other that even remotely hints at the essentially bureaucratic reasons for their actions that Seth Farris discusses.
Is there anything else to suggest Western leaders are nonetheless motivated by the sort of concerns Seth Farris discusses even though they never express them?
I have to say that the answer seems to me to be no. I get no sense Western leaders are worried about NATO or that they feel they have a need to justify its existence to the European public. To the extent the European public worries about NATO, it has always seemed to me that those worries get fanned by a NATO confrontation with Russia rather than by a policy of friendly co-existence with it.
That has been the consistent pattern since the Second World War, for example during the Berlin crisis of 1961, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, in response to NATO plans to deploy cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe in the 1980s, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, and most recently during the Ukrainian crisis when European opinion opposed the sending of arms supplies by the US and NATO during the fighting in the winter of 2014-2015.
Recent opinion polls – which have caused great alarm in NATO circles – tend to bear this out. They show majorities in most European countries opposing their countries going to war with Russia to defend other NATO partners, with the majority opposed in Germany (the key state) being as high as 57%.
That points to a policy of calming tensions in Europe as the best way to perpetuate NATO, rather than one of cranking them up.
It is NATO’s doubts about the unity of the European public’s support for NATO in the event of a confrontation with Russia rather than a plan to mobilise European opinion behind NATO by conjuring up a threat from Russia such as Seth Farris discusses that in my opinion explains the current hysteria over the Baltic States.
The Baltic States present NATO with an insoluble problem. By admitting them into NATO NATO committed itself to defending them in case of invasion by Russia. Tiny and unable to defend themselves, their location on the Russian border and at the very edge of NATO’s eastern fringe where Russian power is overwhelming they are however militarily undefendable. To compound the trouble the relentlessly anti Russian policies of their governments and their discriminatory policies towards their own Russian speaking populations not only provokes Russia but make NATO’s defence of them potentially unattractive.
Realistically, if Russia were to invade the Baltic States there would be nothing NATO militarily could do short of threatening Russia with a world war to defend them. A world war with Russia to defend another NATO country is however precisely what opinion polls show the European public is most adamantly opposed to. Abandoning the Baltic States to their fate would however cancel NATO’s treaty commitment to defend its members, threatening the whole alliance with collapse.
The hysteria over the Baltic States is not therefore because NATO leaders want to whip up fears of Russian aggression. It is because they know the guarantee NATO has given them is a bluff, and one which as relations with Russia deteriorate they increasingly fear might be called. The ineffective steps they have taken, which Seth Farris discusses, merely emphasise the point.
If maintaining good relations with Russia, not seeking confrontation with Russia, is the best way to preserve NATO, why do US and Western leaders constantly seek confrontation with it? Why have they pursued so relentlessly policies of NATO and EU expansion which can only provoke Russia?
The answer is to be found in what Western leaders – especially US leaders – say and in the vast literature their media and think-tanks produce.
Time and again when Western leaders talk about Russia they explain the West’s dispute with Russia in terms of “values”. Supposedly it is because Russia does not share the West’s “values” that the West is in confrontation with it.
As to what those “values” are, Western leaders – especially US leaders – are never shy about that: they are the set of ideas that taken together form the liberal Atlanticist late capitalist consensus that now rules the West.
These ideas combine post modern post Christian anti religious ultra liberal social ideas and policies of a sort rejected by most people in the West just a generation ago – but which the West now insists are mandatory for all its members – with a set of economic ideas and policies which are sometimes called “laissez faire” or “neo-classical” or even “neo-liberal” but which in reality are best described as essentially oligarchic.
A key point to understand about these “values” is that the West simultaneously considers them its property and demands they be accepted by everyone else as universal. The West and especially the US thereby give themselves the right to impose them on everyone else.
What that means in practice is – since the US is by far the most powerful Western state – that when Western leaders talk about Western “values” what they are actually talking about is US power.
It is because Russia refuses to subordinate itself to US power but insists on following its own course both in its foreign and domestic policies that the Western powers challenge it. For them any state that insists on going its own way is denying the universal reach of their power and ideology, which for them is unacceptable and represents a challenge they cannot tolerate.
That is why the West and Russia are in confrontation with each other. The fact Russia also happens to be a very large and very powerful country in de facto alliance with China – the main challenger to the US led order – is what lends this conflict its urgency.
Obviously in such a conflict bureaucratic self-interest of the sort discussed by Seth Farris plays a role. However one should not give this factor undue weight. Ultimately this is a conflict which is ideological and geopolitical not bureaucratic.
Russia’s very existence as an independent state is what is at stake. This is an existential issue, not one to be seen as a byproduct of a bureaucratic conflict. It is dangerous to be complacent about it