‘Out of area or out of business.’ The logic of NATO

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.

15 thoughts on “‘Out of area or out of business.’ The logic of NATO”

  1. Interesting.
    What do you think of the occasionally emerging attempts to create a European Defence force of some kind?
    Is it a genuine attempt to kill off Nato (and reap the peace dividend)? I can’t see that anyone would actually want an EDF that would fight.
    For me it is an underlying explanation for all the anti-Russia hysteria (you’d be soft on Russia – No we hate the russians even more than Nato does). But Nato is so pointless, and the urge for Europe to be free of it must be huge.

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  2. >>Moscow no longer cares what the West thinks

    Putting up a collective finger in progress, as predicted.

    Now that it’s started, it’ll only accelerate. Долго запрягаем, да быстро едем – national character, you know…

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  3. Why did NATO bomb Yugoslavia?
    Why is NATO promising membership to Ukraine and Georgia ?

    The USA runs NATO and what they decide will happen

    Russia is right to be in their guard

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  4. I mean, isn’t it just NATO’s purpose to do whatever whatever the latest Caligula of the Empire decides, is necessary to do at this particular moment in time?

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  5. “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.”

    A-ha!

    “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.”

    […]

    Well, what can I say? Hats off to maestro Robinson! It’s truly a great feat of philological prowess, to pass a combination of personal anecdotae, self-deprecating humor and idealism as an “analysis”.

    Now, less idealistic worldview of us, poor mortals, drudging away in the Vale of Sorrow and not even aspiring to reach the Stellar Empyrean Summit of your exaltedness, maestro, we might, instead, focus on things more materialistic to base both our conclusions and views on diverse subjects. Like both the NATO and the so-called “Military Industrial Complex” (MIC) which is always oh so fashionable to diss and deride.

    Speaking of the former – the term itself is both quite a mouthful and, philologically speaking, a case of tautology, completely lost to its users (you know, like, e.g., “anarcho-communism”). There is no such thing as “Military” Industrial Complex – only Industrial, a dialectical embodiment of the nation’s capacity of development and a tool to exercise one’s sovereignty.

    While indulging the idealistic approach of describing the world so popular in everything touched upon by maestro Robinson – imagine the following. Nation’s industrial complex is like a plant – a tree, if you like – with soil being country’s economy, and which roots are said nation’s system of education.

    THAT is a true “Tree of Liberty” ™. American one is, fittingly, something akin to acer negundo – supplants native trees while being often toxic and/or causing allergy. And, yes, there is interspecies bloody rivalry even among the trees.

    The entire world had a chance to see how it happens “in the wild” with the last month’ AUKUS aka “the Anglo-Saxon perfidy”. Depriving the [M]IC of France of several dozen billion $ contract is just half of the issue.

    France had a large industrial presence in Australia and was one of the ADF’s major suppliers (e.g., the RAAF flew Mirages during the Cold War). The ADF is already dropping the “ARH Tiger” in favor of the “Apache Guardian”, which not only hurts Airbus Australia, but also means that France and Germany are going to suffer from higher sustainment costs for their own Tiger fleets thanks to the loss of economy of scale. Thales is another ADF supplier, and it’s a major shareholder in France’s Naval Group.

    The whole Australian submarine program, first of all, functions as a jobs program for South Australia, which is facing large-scale de-industrialization. [Boris Johnsons’ promise that, instead, this arrangement would bring jobs across the UK is… notable… for, surely, he won’t lie!] Maintenance and sustainment operations were also part of the plan from the start. The same was true for France – for the *other* side of maintenance, for, you know, there is a yuuuge difference between a “ship-wrights’” and a nuclear reactor technician’s skill-sets.

    But, as they say in Odessa, the tzimmes of the problem, is that building submarines (either nuclear or not) is special and perishable skill. Not having a shipyard open means that workers get laid off, suppliers need to find work, subcontractors may go out of business. The French, DO have a very legitimate reason to be so pissed, as they need to find a way to keep some of *their* companies up and running.

    Some subcontractors can move to other work – naval electronics specialist, for instance, may be able to get civilian work and/or there is also an option to sell replacement parts for systems already in use. But the skills to build a sub from scratch are perishable and there is a risk in losing the business that the Australians would have given them fo-re-ver.

    Rumors that there might be other buyers “just round the corner” are like that – rumors. India used to buy lots and lots of the French, but now it’s a part of the “QUAD”. Same story with Taiwan (search for “Lafayette’s Frigate Affair” – it’s just sooooo “feels good” moment full of good ol’ timey corruption!), but their own home-built submarine program is already has ‘Rican clawprint on it.

    Naïve people, for whom such things as “patriotism” or “common sense” are, deplorably, still mean something, might argue, that if you can’t sell your military hardware and in great need of keeping your workforce employed, then, HEY, maybe you should start making more of these things for your own use? OR (decry these anti-capitalists and enemies of all decent things) you should base your ability to defend your country on the continued profits of private enterprises. Well, hopefully you, gentle reader, will report such Unwholesome Talk to your nearest Liberty Enforcement Patrol, least you want to find yourself in the Freedom Camp.

    [Meanwhile France is adopting a heathen AR variant for their service rifle instead of their own FAMAS. But that’s all water under the bridge, aka “the common tendency”. Not everyone can be like Erdogan, astugfirullah!]

    Moving from particular and hilarious to the common and quite banal – the 90s despite the whining and gnashing of teeth from the die-hard Cold Warriors, was the Time of Wonders and wish-fulfillment for the people, who really matter. “The Peace Divident” meant that “the Euros” may, finally, get themselves first a vasectomy (speaking of military), then castrate themselves industrially, then… well – you get the picture. “New Euros” OBVIOUSLY had to become, ah, “proper civilized states” (c) by joining both the NATO and the EU – but, first, they had to “start following the standards”. Which meant ditching the infernal Soviet hardware a full-blown de-industrialization. Ask any one of their “ruling elite” and you’d get the same story – for them the NATO means not “we are ALL in it together”, but “Yankees gonna fight instead of us for our precious freedom”.

    Therefore, one (me) can say, that it was only by the Holy 90s that the NATO realized it’s whole intended potential and began its real mission – to serve as the chief pusher of the US-made military hardware. For it truly become and indispensible nation There Must be Only One… [M]IC.

    TL;DR – European sub-continent in the “military”-industrial sense is no longer a forest of distinct Trees. Now, instead, it’s a stumps filled proverbial Champs Elysee, where the remaining good, fertile ground is used for growing lotus… to be eaten both domestically and sold to other brain-dead.

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  6. 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.”

    Ok, ok I thought I shouldn’t cite Condi Rice again, but here we go: After 1989 everyone wondered who would be our enemy now, then 9/11 happened and everyone knew.

    In an interview with Der Spiegel during her visit over here.

    *********

    Paul, I loved this a lot. Both.

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    1. Yep, very, very funny.

      What I would like to understand better are the occasional collective actions against the wider ‘liberal’ Euro-Norms, It’s not that they don’t seem to disagree on Russia otherwise? Hungary – Poland?

      Can it be that alternative ways of living or the LGBTQIA+ as such is a super dangerous thing in itself? Not every US craziness about the issue. But the idea itself?

      After all, everyone would look out to create more young and agile fighters nowadays? Which that crazy lot surely won’t?

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  7. Well I thought the ‘Exercise Active Edge’ account was fun, especially in combo with that song ; ) very British ;
    And re Russia-NATO thing this passage caught my eye,

    “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”

    On the one hand it’s very true but on the other, it would be hard for NATO to come up with a better “raison d’être” than “The Russian threat © “, and in fact it tried and failed!

    Russia just fits the “big bad wolf” stereotype so perfectly, it IS big, and the image of it as a cold, dark hole inhabited by mean, tough thugs is kinda imprinted in the Western psyche. And both ethnically and culturally, Russia is just different enough to make “othering” it guilt-free.

    Also the new NATO member states are so sincerely, genuinely russophobic, they simply won’t let Russia out of those crosshairs anytime soon.

    But there are some tentative rays of hope out there, coming as it is from rather unexpected places:

    The first one comes surprisingly enough from the restless revisionism of American entertainment, especially its young adult segment. Turns out there is more to it than the ubiquitous LGBT references! Apparently clinging to the old stereotypes is officially bad taste now, and the constant novelty seeking actually favors looking at the familiar things from a new angle. And there seems to be a popular demand for reassessment (if not outright exoneration) of former anti-heroes; the younger generation is tired of the Russian villain cliché: just check out how well Netflix’s “Queen’s Gambit” and “Shadow and Bone” have done! The latter is an adaptation of a wildly popular YA book series, featuring a fantasy world based on Tsarist Russia. Of course seeing this as a trend may be wishful thinking, but it is refreshing! Who knows, perhaps the next generation of Americans actually manages to grow up less russophobic?

    The other hopeful sign is the now palpable impatience of the major Western European states with their allies, both the meddlesome cousins across the Atlantic and the needy&noisy Eastern European neighbors. NS2 story is the case in point, and the Aukus scandal didn’t help the “unified front” either. Again, may not lead to immediate changes, but something tells me the French and the Germans may now be less inclined to shoot themselves in the foot over the imaginary “Russian threat”, damned be pressure from Washington and hysterical shrieks from Warsaw&the neighborhood.

    And if you really think about it, this seems almost inevitable. Abscent real military threat, there is little reason for Europe to support US hegemony. Plus, absorbing so many Eastern European states was BOUND to destabilize EU/NATO: there has NEVER been much love lost between East and West. They bit more than they could chew let alone swallow.

    If so the frustration will only grow, and the practice of dealing with states individually will spread, until all these outdated blocks and alliances follow the dinosaurs. It’d certainly benefit everyone – except the Brussels bureaucrats that is.

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    1. “just check out how well Netflix’s “Queen’s Gambit” and “Shadow and Bone” have done!”

      QG is only mildly Russophobic.

      Shadow&Bone is ludicrously dumb, illogical and engages, ultimately, in “magic(k)al primitives/white men bad” double trope.

      Are you saying, that Ruxploitation media is something which we, Russians, must take heart at and be glad about?

      […]

      You know, we are still “salty”

      “Who knows, perhaps the next generation of Americans actually manages to grow up less russophobic?”

      I ask you not to wonder but go and read popular forums and comment sections about such media, where said “zoomers” congregate. Same ol’ pure Russophobia, only this time tinged with “all Russkis are mysoginists and homophobes”. Is it really such a big difference who does the “canceling” – crusty Cold Warriors or sensitive “progressives”?

      “[S]omething tells me the French and the Germans may now be less inclined to shoot themselves in the foot over the imaginary “Russian threat”, damned be pressure from Washington and hysterical shrieks from Warsaw&the neighborhood”

      Meanwhile in the real world. Just recently:

      – Chief “Green” representative in the Germany called this week to radically decrees her country’s consumption of the natural gas because – OF COURSE! – “that only enriches Putin”

      – France barred entry to (at least) 2 Russian employed in the Parisian “Russian Cultural Center”. You know, the one which conspiracy minded “Atlanticists” both in France and beyond had accused to be a den of spies, cuz those churchy onion domes would be ideal for housing SIGINT stuff.

      That, I repeat, the real world. Not some wishful thinking. In the end of the day, the US of A get the Euros by the (fairly atrophied) balls, which ensures that their hearts and minds won’t waver.

      Like

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