NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress fanning the fire of a ‘Russian threat.’ Peter Kuznick says it is an ‘obscene bipartisan spectacle applauding war’; Pietro Shakarian discusses the self-serving NATO expansion and the hyperbolic Russia threat narrative
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
NATO’s Secretary General Jans Stoltenberg addressed a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, on the occasion of NATO’s seventieth anniversary since its founding. In his speech, Stoltenberg warned about the threat posed by a more assertive Russia. Here’s what he said.
JANS STOLTENBERG: We will need to continue to deal with a more assertive Russia. In 2014, Russia illegally annexed Crimea, the first time in Europe that one country had taken part of another by force since World War II. And we see a pattern of Russian behavior, including a massive military buildup from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and from the Black Sea to the Baltic, the use of a military grade nerve agent in the United Kingdom, support for Assad’s murderous regime in Syria, consistent cyberattacks on NATO allies and partners targeting everything from parliaments to power grids, sophisticated disinformation campaigns, and attempts to interfere in democracy itself.
SHARMINI PERIES: In order to guard against this assumed threat, Stoltenberg advocated for a further expansion of NATO, which will soon take in northern Macedonia as its 38 member country. Another country that is in waiting is Georgia. And let’s listen to what he said about this.
JANS STOLTENBERG: We have increased the readiness of our forces, tripled the size of the NATO Response Force, modernized the command structure, bolstered our cyberdefenses, and we have stepped up our support to our close partners, Georgia and Ukraine, sovereign nations with a sovereign right to choose their own path.
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SHARMINI PERIES: Shortly before Stoltenberg’s speech to Congress, he met with President Trump, where Trump contradicted Stoltenberg about the alleged threat that Russia poses.
DONALD TRUMP: I hope we have a good relationship with Russia and with, by the way, China and everybody else. But I think the fact that we have NATO—and NATO is a lot stronger since I’ve been President, would you say that’s correct? We’ve taken a lot more money and—
JANS STOLTENBERG: Allies are investing more, and that provides some new capabilities. We need to maintain credible defense and defense for all NATO countries.
DONALD TRUMP: But I think we’ll get along with Russia. I do believe that.
SHARMINI PERIES: Joining me now to discuss the significance of Stoltenberg’s visit and NATO’s expansion is Peter Kuznick and Pietro Shakarian.
Peter Kuznick is Professor of History and the Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. He’s the author of Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930’s America. He’s also the author of The Untold History of the United States, along with Oliver Stone. Thanks for joining us, Peter.
PETER KUZNICK: Good to be here, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Pietro Shakarian is a PhD candidate in History at Ohio State University focusing on history of Russia and the Caucasus and the former USSR. He’s also the host of a podcast called Reconsidering Russia. Pietro, thanks for joining us.
PIETRO SHAKARIAN: Thank you, Sharmini. It’s pleasure to be here.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Pietro, let me start with you, then. The government of Georgia has been quite eager to join NATO. We should keep in mind that NATO has been increasing in size from its start; 12 members to 16 members in 1999, to 29 members today. Why is this expansion of NATO happening, and what is it adding for member states such as Georgia or Northern Macedonia and others who are eager to join NATO?
PIETRO SHAKARIAN: Well, I can’t speak to the case of Northern Macedonia, but I can certainly speak to the case of Georgia. I study the Caucasus region, I’m very familiar with these countries. And I think that from the Georgian perspective, there is this idea that if we were to join NATO, then we could use NATO as a means to regain control of these two breakaway territories known as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which basically broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s. There was a nationalist president of Georgia at the time, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. And essentially, these regions have been kind of living a separate existence from Georgia since this period of time.
And Russia originally played like the mediator in these two enclaves’ relations with Georgia, and then Saakashvili came to power. And already, Shevardnadze was flirting with the idea of NATO, but Saakashvili really was pro-Western, and he came to power in the Rose Revolution of 2003. And he really, really pushed the idea of NATO and the EU in Georgia. And it was Saakashvili who started the war in 2008 by attacking South Ossetia and triggering a bear-like response from Russia. And since then, Russia has actually recognized and fully supported the breakaway enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
And so, this is the situation right now. You have these two breakaways that are supported by Russia. And if Georgia were to attack them again, it would be a very, very dangerous situation. Fortunately, in Georgia, even though NATO–it should be contextualized that even though NATO is still on the table in Georgia, the new leadership since 2012, this is the Georgian Dream party of Bidzina Ivanishvili, have been more in favor of dialogue with Russia. Unfortunately, the United States, in the process, has been more and more–I mean certain politicians in the United States, the war hawks in the United States, have been encouraging Georgia’s NATO aspirations. NATO officials like Stoltenberg have been encouraging Georgia’s NATO aspirations, which I think draw more of a wedge between Georgia and its breakaways and Russia.
And I think Georgia’s keeping NATO right now on the table under Ivanishvili and his party–now it’s Zurabishvili, actually, she’s the figurehead president. But they’re keeping NATO on the table as like a bargaining chip, as a form of leverage. So that’s kind of the context.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Peter, now let me go to you. Historically, NATO was supposed to ward off the Soviet Union, but the Soviet Union no longer, obviously, exists. So give us some context here as to is Russia replacing the Soviet Union, and is it the threat that Stoltenberg is posing to Congress in this way?
PETER KUZNICK: Russia has never been the threat that NATO made it out to be. Go back to 1949. Wall Street Journal had an article in 1949 saying that if Russia wanted to attack the United States, it would have to swim to get here to attack us. People knew in the beginning that there was no threat from Russia, no serious threat. Russia never had a plan for world conquest. They weren’t aggressive, they were very defensive. They wanted a buffer zone between themselves and Germany, which had invaded them twice in a short period of time in the 20th century. Russia did not pose a threat in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Russia did not pose a threat in 1999 when the expansion began. It hasn’t posed a threat since, really, militarily. The NATO countries spend 75 percent of the world’s armaments. They also sell 75 percent, sometimes the United States alone sells 75 percent of international armaments.
Russia does not pose a military threat, but Russia has increasingly become defensive because of this NATO encroachment up to Russia’s doorstep. So Russia has built up its military defenses. In Putin’s March 1, 2018 State of the Nation Address, he said that Russia has now developed five new nuclear weapons, all of which can circumvent U.S. missile defense. He said, “You didn’t listen to us, but you’d better listen to us now.” When you get Stoltenberg and George W. Bush in 2008, who says, “We want to expand NATO to Georgia and Ukraine,” that was a red line that was too far for Putin to accept. So we see what happens, that Pietro was just talking about, in Georgia. And then we also saw what happened in Ukraine when the United States began pushing that after the coup. And there are red lines that Russia will not tolerate NATO and the United States and the West crossing. But we are not paying attention to that, and that’s created a very, very dangerous global situation now.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Peter, of course in NATO’s founding raison d’être, the Soviet Union was the focus and the threat. But its expansion today, is it needed? Is it something that is required except for the development of the arms industry in these countries?
PETER KUZNICK: There have been so many times that NATO could have been stopped. It should have not happened in 1949. It had opponents in 1949, the Russia experts, George Kennan, Charles Bolden. You had Henry Wallace, of course, on the left, you had Robert Taft on the right, Mr. Republican, all opposing NATO, saying that dividing the world into two armed blocs and alliances is a path to war, not a path to peace. In 1953, when Stalin died, the Soviets reached out to the United States, wanted to end the Cold War at that point. We could have done it in ’57. We could have done it in ’62 after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Kennedy and Khrushchev wanted to do so. Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986 at Reykjavik. And then 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, was a perfect opportunity. They didn’t have a raison d’être anymore.
Gorbachev said, “We’re going to do the worst thing possible for you, we’re going to leave you without an enemy.” But we needed enemies. As you say, the military, the defense establishment, the arms industry, they needed an enemy, and we found new enemies. Did Russia pose a threat to us when they were the first country to support the United States after 9/11? No. In 2003 when they supported us in Afghanistan? No. They didn’t pose a threat until we started to expand in ways that they found very, very threatening to their own national security.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Pietro, let’s break down the role NATO is playing for these countries in Eastern Europe that are lining up to join NATO–I mean, of course with the exception of what you were saying earlier in terms of Georgia, its being used as a bargaining chip of some sort. But what interests do these countries have in joining NATO?
PIETRO SHAKARIAN: Well, I think in part, I don’t think they have any interest. I think that actually what this does is it just destabilizes the region more, it ratchets up the potential for conflict in the region. And on top of that, the other issue that Peter was mentioning, which is this idea of arms sales, it beefs up the arms industries and defense industries of the countries, that’s a very, very good point. Because really what this does is it kind of markets around NATO almost as like a business for the arms industry.
And actually, it’s naked ambition. The reason why I say it’s naked ambition is because listen to Stoltenberg’s speech today. One of the things he talks about is “NATO, we create jobs, we are good for the economy, we boost the economy.” And so, I think that this is something we have to keep in stock. This is not about–first of all, it’s ridiculous that this would be about democracy or peace or anything like that, because war is antithetical to democracy and peace. But also, I would say it’s about business. I mean, fundamentally at the end of the day, that what it’s about. And little Georgia, it’s being played in terms of these kind of business ambitions that go along with the ambitions of the defense industries. So that’s, I think, another very important point that should be mentioned in this discussion as well.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Peter, how do you see this role of NATO within U.S. politics. I mean, historically, NATO has been a very bipartisan issue, apparently Congressional Republicans and Democrats want to keep it that way. Why is it important for them to have Stoltenberg speaking to Congress and prop up NATO in this way, where in the last two years, Trump has actually been a bit dismissive of NATO, and talking about how they’re not carrying their share of NATO’s costs and membership fees and so forth.
PETER KUZNICK: Sharmini, wasn’t the visuals there pretty shocking, looking as though the race there in the Congress was who could jump up first to applaud for Stoltenberg; was it going to be McConnell or was it going to be Pelosi? Who’s going to be quicker to prostrate themselves in this way? You know, there’s something going on that’s quite bizarre. The Democrats have really moved to the right of the Republicans in terms of foreign policy on issue after issue. That’s very distressing to me. Democrats should at least be somewhat critical of U.S. warmaking, somewhat critical of U.S. empire, somewhat critical of the military-industrial complex. But they fall over themselves just to be obsequious in this way. Why? Because Stoltenberg implicitly, symbolically is coming there as the antidote to Trump because of Trump’s attacks on NATO and Trump’s dismissiveness toward NATO.
We know in reality Trump is not anti-NATO. Trump has said things on a couple of occasions, but he is not sincerely anti-NATO any more than he wants to pull out of Afghanistan or Syria. Trump is militarist. So Stoltenberg comes there to reassure them, but it’s an obscene bipartisan spectacle where people are applauding war. We look at some of the history of NATO, we look at the invasion of Afghanistan, we look at the NATO bombing and overthrow of Gadhafi in Libya, we look at NATO increasing involvement in Africa. NATO was once supposed to be a defensive institution that’s turned very much into an offensive institution, and an aggressive one and [inaudible] U.S. empire.
SHARMINI PERIES: Also, Peter, when you look at the role NATO is playing these days, it seems to be an advocate for the arms industry, although it is instilled in the Constitution of NATO that one of the tactics it will pursue is peace and dialogue in the world. But you don’t see much of that taking place.
PETER KUZNICK: No. That’s the problem that Pietro and I are talking about. Yesterday, Oliver Stone and I put out the new, updated edition of our book, The Untold History of the United States. We’ve got an almost book-length chapter on the period from 2012 to 2019. When you look at that, the world has gotten so much more dangerous since late 2012 when we put out our first edition. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist had the hands of the Doomsday Clock at eight minutes before midnight at the end of 2012. That’s too close for comfort, but now the hands of the Doomsday Clock are two minutes before midnight. Back then, the United States’ main national security threat was thought to be international terrorism. Now, according to the new national security doctrines that Mattis put out, it’s Russia and China.
We have confrontations with Russia and China; the Freedom of Navigation operations we’re waging in the South China Sea, the confrontation between the U.S. and Russia in Syria, in Ukraine, Crimea, the Baltics, Eastern Europe, they’ve added 5000 more NATO troops in Eastern Europe. This is getting more and more dangerous. The world needs to step back. We don’t need more militarism, we don’t need more defense spending, whether it’s the craziness of Stoltenberg or the craziness of Trump, who said we need more defense spending. The Germans are right, we need to be cutting defense spending. In fact, Russia did cut defense spending last year. So to create Russia as this threat to us, this aggressive force threatening Europe, that’s nonsense. That’s not what Russia is about. That’s not what Putin is about.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Pietro, let me give you the last word here. Whenever Stoltenberg is talking about NATO, at least on this side of the Atlantic, he always says “NATO, led by the United States.” He realizes how the very existence of NATO is so dependent on the U.S. and he’s hoping that this kind of language, really, helps U.S.’s integral involvement and continued support for NATO. So let me give you the last word here in terms of how pivotal is the United States for the existence of NATO?
PIETRO SHAKARIAN: I think it’s extremely pivotal. I mean, NATO is put forth as this alliance of several European nations, but the United States is the core, it’s the heart of NATO. And Stoltenberg even made this point today in his speech. I mean, so you can’t look at NATO necessarily independent of the United States. I also want to throw in one more thing really quick, which I want to kind of flag from his speech today which I think was very concerning. He basically endorsed the U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty. I mean, he was there and he basically said that we should not be in one-sided treaties. He was calling on Russia to comply with the INF, he said that Russia violated the treaty. But in reality, there have been articles that have shown that the United States, before Russia was in violation of this, that the United States was advocating for missile defense in Europe. We forget about this. So I think that that’s another important thing to highlight today, a very concerning development, potentially.
And also, one final note, what Peter was saying about the defense spending which I think is very interesting. Trump has been advocating for NATO countries to spend more, their fair share, that kind of thing. And it was kind of funny, because at the beginning of this speech, Pelosi is almost like giggling. She’s like giddy that Stoltenberg’s is there, she invited him and all this. But what happened is, when Stoltenberg effectively was saying Trump is right on defense spending of NATO, if you noticed how she was reacting, she wasn’t too thrilled about that. And it shows, again, the power of the parties in the United States politics in determining whether you’re for or against something. That because Trump was against this, then she was not so thrilled about it. But if you’re sponsoring somebody like Stoltenberg, this is the natural result.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Peter, let me also get you to respond to the INF treaty. I know we’ve had you on talking about that specifically. Is Russia in compliance with INF or not?
PETER KUZNICK: Probably not. But there’s not some major, cataclysmic, great breaking of the INF treaty. It doesn’t change the strategic balance at all. And they’ve got countercharges against the United States, which probably are not as valid as the American charges against Russia, but Russia can be brought back within compliance if we use diplomacy. The problem is that you’ve got the Boltons and Pompeos advising Trump, and they were looking for an excuse to break out of the INF treaty. They don’t want the U.S. to be constrained by any international treaties, and it’s for that reason that Trump has signaled to Russia that when the New START treaty ends in 2021, the U.S. is not going to renew it. What frightens us is that what that means is the possibility of going back to a 1980s-style nuclear arms race.
In the mid 1980s, we had almost 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world, now we’re down to 14,000. We had a destructive capability equivalent to 1.5 million Hiroshima bombs. So then, there was a little bit of sanity. Reagan and Gorbachev started it and other presidents have followed through. Obama was a huge disappointment with his one trillion dollar, 30 year nuclear modernization program to make nuclear weapons more usable, which we know now is 1.7 trillion and going up from there. But if they do away with the INF treaty and they do away with the New START treaty, entire architecture of arms control that has made the world a tiny bit safer over the past decades is going to be eliminated. And that’s the danger of what’s going on. That’s the danger of reinforcement of NATO, that’s the danger of looking at the world through the eyes of military methods of resolving conflicts. We’re past that point. We need diplomacy on a global scale.
SHARMINI PERIES: Peter Kuznick, Professor of History and the Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, and the author of The Untold History of the United States. And I was also joined by Pietro Shakarian, PhD candidate in History at Ohio State University. Peter and Pietro, thank you so much for joining us today.
PIETRO SHAKARIAN: Thank you.
PETER KUZNICK: Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.