So when we say that England’s master
Remember who has made her so.
It’s the soldiers of the Queen, my lads
Who’ve been my lads, who’ve been my lads
In the fight for England’s glory, lads
When we have to show them what we mean
Occasionally, I tune into Russian TV chat shows, such as Evening with Vladimir Solovyov (or “Russians Shouting at Each Other,” as it’s known in my family). The other night Solovyov and guests were talking about Russia’s decision to cut all ties with NATO (a topic which I discuss in an article for RT here). One of those present argued that the problem was that NATO didn’t know what it was for. Others objected that it knew perfectly well – its objective was the containment, even dismemberment, of Russia. I think that both are wrong. NATO does have an objective, just not that one, and not a very good one either. Let me explain what it is.
But first, a little historical and personal digression.
For there was a time when I was a loyal NATO soldier myself, and looking back on it I have to say it was a damned good thing that the Soviets never attacked because I don’t think we’d have done so well in the encounter.
Take my experience of ‘Exercise Active Edge.’ This was the code name given to practice alerts, in which units of the British Army of the Rhine in West Germany were tested to see how quickly and efficiently they could mobilize themselves, and in more extreme versions of the exercise, deploy to their wartime locations to await the onslaught of the Soviet 3rd Shock Army.
Back in the dying days of the Cold War, I was just about to finish my tour of duty as a platoon commander in the 2nd Battalion, the Queen’s Regiment (long since defunct), in Minden, West Germany, when in my final stint as duty officer I got the call announcing that our unit was to immediately embark on ‘Active Edge’. We’d got a tip off earlier that evening, so it wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was still a serious bummer. I was due to leave a couple of days later and had already packed up nearly all my stuff in what were called ‘MFO’ boxes to be shipped back to Blighty. What I hadn’t packed I’d handed into the QM. So when a bunch of inspectors turned up and started asking me where was this and where was that, I looked a right idiot as I didn’t have any of it.
I also didn’t have much of a clue as to how to answer other questions. Should we take all the gear in our stores, they asked? I said no: a lot of it looked totally useless and there was so much that if we put it all in the armoured personnel carriers, there’d be no room for any personnel. We’d probably have to leave some stuff behind. No, they said. Take it all. I guess it was just as well that instead of 30 soldiers, my undermanned platoon had about 10, otherwise we’d have had to leave people behind instead of gear. But to be frank, if the Soviets had rolled up, my 10 guys and I wouldn’t have lasted a second. Frankly, it was a bit of a shitshow, as they say. Certainly not my finest hour, nor that of the regiment. The heroes of Tangier, Ramillies, Vittoria, Sevastopol, and the like, were probably turning in their graves.
There’s a point to all this – we didn’t do such alerts for the sheer bloody hell of it; we had to prepare for war. It was very unlikely that 3rd Shock would come trundling down the autobahn at breakneck speed, but the potential was real. East Germany was chock-a-block full of military gear – thousands of tanks, artillery pieces, helicopters, aircraft, all the rest of it, all ready to roll over me and my 10 guys at a moment’s notice. We weren’t likely to have to fight them, but it paid to be prepared.
And so we were (albeit not very well), by means of the communal defence organization known as NATO. And it was a defensive organization. All it did was sit around in West Germany and wait. And that was fine, and ultimately quite effective. In 1992, the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it the threat evaporated. Victory was ours.
A job well done. Time, one might imagine, to pat ourselves on the back, call it a day, and retire.
As we know, that’s not what NATO did. But it had a problem. Its raison d’etre had disappeared, and so a new one had to be invented.
Since then, the alleged threat which we in the West are all supposed to fear has kept changing with extreme rapidity. For a while back in the 1990s it was ‘fragile states’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’. Then, for a bit, it was ‘rogue states’. Then it was terrorism, or even worse the deadly combination of terrorism, rogue states, and weapons of mass destruction. And then it was Russia again. And now it’s moving onto China. None of these threats seem to have huge lasting power (though China may prove to be different). But the point is that we have to be afraid of something. Otherwise, there’s no reason to maintain the military industrial complex and, of course, NATO.
The logic of it all was perfectly expressed by George Robertson, who served as Secretary General of NATO from 1999 to 2004, and who liked to repeat his favorite mantra: ‘Out of area or out of business.’ The point was clear. NATO had to do something, anything, in order to justify its existence. And it had to be beyond its own borders because there was nothing to do within them.
And so began NATO’s march towards the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, its failed military operation in Afghanistan in the 2000s, and the talk at its most recent summit of taking action to contain China (which is about as far from the North Atlantic as one can imagine). At this point, we find that we finally have an answer to the question posed at the start of this post. What’s NATO for? And the answer is obvious. What drives NATO is NATO’s desire to exist. Period.
Like any being, NATO doesn’t want to die. It has an institutional momentum of its own, and in its struggle for the resources it needs for survival it will generate reasons for people to give them to it. And when those reasons lose credibility, it will invent some others.
That’s not to say that the bureaucracy doesn’t believe in what it’s doing. The great joy of such bureaucratic politics is precisely the fact that those involved genuinely conflate institutional and national (or in this case, international) interest. Belief and self-interest go together in a happy package.
The guests on Solovyov, like so many Russians, have it wrong They think that it’s somehow all directed against them. It isn’t. For now, Russia happens to be in the crosshairs, but that’s purely incidental. Tomorrow, it could be somebody or something else – whatever is credible from the point of view of budgetary politics. The result, in my opinion, is dangerous, because you have the most powerful military structure in the world in perpetual search for things to do to justify its presence in this world, “seeking monsters to destroy.” The result is that conflict is created where it does not need to be.
Back in my day, we just sat around waiting for the monsters to come to us. As I said, thank goodness they never did. I can’t guarantee that we’d have won.