Does NATO Confront Threats, or Create Them?
As President Trump is criticized for declining to endorse NATO’s mutual aid clause, Professor David Gibbs of the University of Arizona argues that the alliance creates threats that previously didn’t exist
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.
At the NATO summit in Brussels, President Trump urged alliance members to pay what he called their fair share. He cited three main threats, terrorism, immigration, and Russia.
DONALD TRUMP: The NATO of the future must include a great focus on terrorism and immigration as well as threats from Russia and on NATO’s eastern and southern borders. These grave security concerns are the same reason that I have been very, very direct with Secretary Stoltenburg and members of the alliance in saying that NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations.
AARON MATE: Trump has come under criticism for declining to openly endorse Article 5, NATO’s mutual aid clause. It stipulates that NATO allies come to the others’ defense in the event of an attack. While that’s been the main focus there are some critics who say NATO’s existence causes the very problems it now faces. David Gibbs is a Professor of History at the University of Arizona.
Professor Gibbs, welcome.
DAVID GIBBS: Thank you for having me.
AARON MATE: Thanks for joining us. So President Trump’s comments at NATO are receiving a lot of attention because he declined to openly endorse that mutual aid clause I mentioned, Article 5. That’s been the main focus. What do you think we should be talking about when we talk about NATO’s role today?
DAVID GIBBS: Well, there’s a larger issue which is that NATO’s main function since the end of the Cold War has been to in very obvious ways create new security threats that didn’t exist before. I’d say that’s been its main contribution to international relations, increasing security threats. One can be very specific about that. Number one, NATO expansion into Eastern Europe clearly antagonized Russia and also violated a 1990 agreement the US had not to expand NATO and I’d say is the main factor that triggered the new Cold War the US is now having with Russia which is extremely dangerous since Russia has 1,000 nuclear warheads. It’s also very expensive, by the way, since the new Cold War with Russia is going to be the main factor contributing to US continuing military buildup.
AARON MATE: Professor Gibbs, Professor Gibbs, let me cut in there actually just to address this one point and then we’ll go to your others. You know, the counterpoint to that, what you’ll hear often, is that the new Cold War was provoked by Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
DAVID GIBBS: Well, this is a very longstanding issue. There basically was no security threat from Russia at all in the 90s. They were doing nothing threatening to the US in the 90s and then the United States expanded NATO. Many longstanding Russia specialists including George F Kennan pointed out that there was no purpose to expanding NATO. Russia was doing nothing threatening and all this would do is antagonize Russia and trigger a new cold war and that’s exactly what happened. Virtually all the aspects of US Russian conflict have been triggered as I would see it by NATO. It was NATO that expanded into the former Communist states of Eastern Europe. It was NATO that violated a 1990 agreement as I mentioned. It was NATO that then expanded into the Baltic States which had been part of the Soviet Union.
We must ask a counterfactual here, which is this. How would the United States feel if Russia were to include a military alliance with Mexico let us say? The US would not appreciate it. They would see it as a security threat and Russia sees Western and NATO expansion into Eastern Europe exactly the same way and it was predicted that they would see it in the same way. So what NATO has done really is triggered a conflict with Russia that was totally unnecessary and, yes, this is something very definitely triggered by the West. Russia’s responding to a Western confrontation that was triggered by the West.
AARON MATE: Let me quote you from the scholar Richard Sakwa who specializes in the Ukraine. He says, “There’s a fateful geographical paradox. NATO exists to manage the risks created by its existence.” Your take on that?
DAVID GIBBS: Exactly. That’s exactly right, basically. NATO first creates security threats and then it uses the security threats to justify its existence. One can look at this as kind of a make-work program really for the uniformed militaries and the military industries in both Western Europe and in the United States. If you’re a part of the military producing sector in Western Europe or the United States, these constant security threats that are being generated are really a very positive thing. Because after all they generate new interest in what you’re doing and also new contracts. For most people however I think the main effect is a) it’s very expensive and b) the main result of this expense is to increase insecurity and danger of nuclear war. It would seem to me this is a very foolish game the United States and NATO is playing here, one that has already gone very badly and is likely to continue to go very badly.
AARON MATE: Let’s talk about what’s currently happening right now between Russia and its neighbors in Europe. There are now 100s of warplanes participating in military exercises near Russia’s border. In Trump’s speech that we played that clip of him speaking to the NATO summit. He cited Russia as one of three main threats aside from immigration which, you know, he’s ran this long-time xenophobic campaign against refugees, as well as terrorism. Can you talk about the current state right now tensions between Russia and NATO in Europe and your concerns about what threats might escalate in that realm?
DAVID GIBBS: Well, the main flash point here, of course, has been the Ukraine, the Ukrainian civil war. The reason you’ve had this civil war, well, there are a number of reasons obviously. One of the principal ones is that there has been a continuing effort by the United States and some Western European states to try and bring the Ukraine into NATO. It’s very divisive within the Ukraine because approximately half the population of the Ukraine tends to lean toward Russia not the West but it’s particularly destabilizing from the standpoint of Russia which would view any effort to bring the Ukraine into NATO as a very immediate security threat given the very long border that they share. Again the comparison would be Russia concluding an alliance with Mexico. I think that more than anything else triggered the breakdown of stability within the Ukraine.
There are other factors as well, it’s very complicated but I think the effort to bring the Ukraine into NATO which was totally unnecessary has in fact triggered insecurity and triggered security threats that didn’t really exist before. I think that that’s very dangerous.
Another factor about any aspect of bringing Ukraine into NATO is that indeed it would by the nature of the NATO structure trigger a requirement that the United States and Western Europe would be required to use armed force to defend the Ukraine in any war with Russia or it could be interpreted that way at the very least. Again that’s extremely dangerous because obviously it could bring the US into direct confrontation with a nuclear armed Russia. I don’t see any gains for anybody from anything like that happening but that’s a real possibility if the Ukraine were to join NATO. Again, that has been on the table formally since 2008.
AARON MATE: Okay, now let’s talk about other context in which NATO plays a role in or potentially plays a role in internal security threats. There was just this horrible suicide bombing in Manchester. Now the bomber was born in Britain but his father trained with Libyan rebels who sort of were heavily involved in the fight against Muammar Qaddafi and whose power increased in the wake of the NATO-led bombing that overthrew Qaddafi and the bomber actually trained not only in Libya but also in Syria. Is there a connection possibly between this Manchester bombing and NATO?
DAVID GIBBS: Well there have been a number of reports in the British press indicating multiple Libyan connections to this terrorist attack in Manchester so, yes, it does look like that the Libyan intervention of 2011 when NATO was instrumental in overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi has not only destabilized Libya and North Africa but indeed it has fueled a new source of terrorism in the world. So again you have the perverse situation that NATO supposedly exists to protect the security of its members has indeed increased the insecurity of its members by destabilizing Libya and generating terrorism. That at least is how this terrorist attack in Manchester is starting to look.
I should add there are many cases where this has happened. You know, the United States and its allies overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan which is now in its second decade of war. Saddam Hussein was overthrown in Iraq, also an extended war basically that has resulted from that. Both of these overthrows just like the one in Libya have fueled increased terrorism. ISIS was born of course amidst the instability created by the war on terror. So really you have an extended series of iterations whereby the United States and in Libya NATO more directly has destabilized countries that were previously stable and then they become generators of terrorism and insecurity. The existence of NATO makes more likely future situations like this. If you have something like NATO sitting around you want to use it. There’s always a pressure to use it to do things like regime change. Almost invariably the regime change makes the situation worse in terms of breeding new instability and new insecurity. That I think is the main legacy of NATO is increased insecurity.
AARON MATE: So given that what do you think movement should be calling for? Do you think NATO should be abolished?
DAVID GIBBS: Yes, I think it should be abolished. I think it has no positive function. It really should have been abolished right after the end of the Cold War. Its main function during the Cold War was of course to repel a prospective Soviet invasion of Western Europe. With the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 NATO literally had no function whatsoever. It should have gone out of business. You know, the way things work in the real world is that when you get a large bureaucratic institution like NATO you get a vast series of interest groups built up around it both in Western Europe and in the United States. Quite naturally these interest groups lobbied successfully it would seem in favor of finding some new function for NATO. So NATO really has been something again of a jobs program for a series of vested interest groups but the cost is being borne by the entire world in terms of the increased insecurity, also very high expense. Maintaining NATO is extremely expensive with no positive results whatsoever so abolishing NATO I think is long overdue. It should have happened in the early 90s.
AARON MATE: Well, Professor David Gibbs, want to thank you for joining us. David Gibbs is a Professor of History at the University of Arizona. Professor Gibbs, thank you.
DAVID GIBBS: Thank you.
AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.