NATO and This Election

What does NATO have to do with the election? What—as we talk about the coronovirus crisis and systemic racism, unemployment and health care and Trump’s alleged coddling of Putin—does NATO have to do with anything?

Here is a modest effort to argue that NATO has a lot to do with the election, in that one candidate is overtly contemptuous of the world’s most horrific military alliance and the other enthusiastically supportive of it. That is one factor and deserves some thought.

This election occurs at a particular moment of time: 29 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its military alliance; 25-21 years after the NATO interventions in the Balkans (the first real fighting in NATO history); 21 years after the first post-Cold War NATO expansion in violation of the Bush-Gorbachev agreement; 16 years after NATO expanded to border Russia itself; 12 years after the U.S. establishment of the Serbian province of Kosovo as a country resulting in Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in what was once Georgia; 6 years after the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine designed to get it into NATO produced the crisis that led Russia to reclaim Crimea; 4 years after the first NATO-skeptic U.S. president was elected. That is the general context.

The U.S. has relentlessly expanded NATO since at least 1999 to surround and intimidate Russia. If you don’t see that, we are living in separate realities.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established in 1949 at the dawn of the Cold War, supposedly to defend western Europe from a Soviet invasion. It was designed to keep the Russians out, the U.S. in, and defeated Germany down (which is to say, militarily wedded to the U.S.). It was an explicitly anti-communist alliance of capitalist liberal democracies. Indeed, combining the industrial might of western Europe (revived by Marshall Plan aid) and the U.S. military-industrial complex, it became the most ferociously powerful military alliance in world history. The Warsaw Pact was created in 1955 to counter it.

Personal detail: I feel like I was raised in NATO. I grew up in or around military bases and spent three years of my childhood on Ramstein Air Force base in Germany while my father worked for NATO. (Later he was assigned to the Pentagon, and then CINCPAC in Hawai’i. I was very much a military brat, growing up fully indoctrinated, singing in chapel the Air Force Hymn asking God to bless the bombers, etc. I woke up in high school however.)

We lived in Germany shortly after the Berlin Crisis. I grew up aware that World War III would likely begin in Europe with a NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation in Germany.

But lo! the unexpected happened. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. Germany reunited after U.S. president George H. W. Bush assured Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expend “one inch” further eastwards. The whole Soviet bloc collapsed, the Warsaw Pact disbanded and the USSR itself dissolved. The former Soviet republics embraced capitalist liberal democracy. The Cold War was amazingly, quickly over.

NATO could then have dissolved itself along with the Warsaw Pact. Instead, it re-conceptualized its purpose as maintaining stability and peace (blah-blah-blah) in the post-Soviet period, coping with conflicts generated by the Soviet collapse. You get it? Now that the enemy is gone, creating a power vacuum—and for some reason generating ethnic conflicts that had earlier been contained—NATO must remain to keep the peace. That was the argument.

What did that mean? Well, for example, NATO was used to manage the ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. These were resolved by NATO bombing in 1995 (producing the dysfunctional state of Bosnia-Herzegovina under U.S. diktat) and by more bombing in 1999 (the first bombing of a European city, Belgrade, since WWII) producing the illegal state of Kosovo that now hosts a massive NATO base. NATO has refashioned the once-neutral Yugoslavia (that avoided both NATO and Warsaw Pact membership throughout the Cold War) into a collection of NATO statelets.

Thus the first instances of NATO actually deployed in combat occurred only after the Cold War and had nothing to do with the defense of Europe against (Soviet or other) Russians. But these actions deeply angered the Russians, as historical allies of the Serbs and other south Slavs. Sadly, in the 1990s Russia was weak and bleeding as it descended into Wild West oligarchal capitalism and was not in a position to protest very much.

President Bill Clinton ignored his predecessor’s promise to Gorbachev. In 1999, the same year as the NATO war on Serbia, NATO expanded to include Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Moscow was understandably shocked and unhappy.

Thereafter NATO was deployed in 2001 after 9/11 in the U.S.-led war to punish Afghanistan for hosting al-Qaeda. Quickly destroying or driving out the small al-Qaeda presence in the country the invading forces toppled the native Taliban regime that had up to that point been supported by U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan out of ideological affinity. The Talibs have waged a war of resistance forcing Trump to sign a peace agreement with them after 19 years. It provides for a full withdrawal of foreign troops. The NATO mission thus ends in failure.

Finally, NATO waged its fourth war on Libya in 2011, destroying the modern African state and sowing chaos.

To sum up: Bosnia (1995), Serbia (1999), Afghanistan (2001-), Libya (2011). The four NATO wars so far, producing two dysfunctional U.S. client-states in the Balkans, a failed two decades-long “counterinsurgency” war in Central Asia, and the destruction of at least one African country.

In 2004 NATO increased by seven more members including Estonia and Latvia, former Soviet republics bordering Russia. This is when relations with Russia started to truly sour. Why, Putin asked, when the Cold War is over, is the U.S. pushing for NATO expansion and the encirclement of my country? Despite opposition to the 1999 NATO expansion, Russia had cooperated with NATO after 9/11, graciously allowing NATO to transport material through Russia to Afghanistan. Why had George W. Bush responded to Russian help with the 2004 expansion?

(It was around this time that the U.S. media started to disseminate calculated disinformation about Putin, a centerpiece of which was his reference to the collapse of the USSR as a “tragedy” or “catastrophe.” Many if not most Russians would agree. In this case the context was that many ethnic Russians in the Baltics and elsewhere had suffered language discrimination after dissolution. It was taken totally out of context: cf. Ahmadinejad’s famous “We will wipe Israel off the map.” But TV anchors anti-Putin talking-points came to include “he wants to reconstitute the old Soviet Union, or the tsarist empire.” All the more reason to strengthen NATO to prevent that!)

In 2008 NATO announced plans to expand further, to include Georgia and Ukraine, both bordering Russia and former SSRs. This would complete the encirclement of the country. Simultaneously the U.S. announced that it would recognize Kosovo (the heartland of historical Serbia, dotted before their destruction by medieval Orthodox monasteries and churches) as an independent state. (The result as you should know has been a disaster. NATO empowered criminal terrorists who’ve made Kosovo a chief heroin transit point.)

The Russian response to the announcement about Georgia was a brief war against Georgia and Moscow’s recognition of the two separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Sen. John McCain, now glorified by both parties, would have gone to war with Russia to defend Georgia at the time. Instead of perceiving Russia as the defensive party, responding in measured fashion to ongoing provocation, he depicted Russia as the aggressor. Ever since U.S.-Russian relations have declined, even as NATO has expanded relentlessly.

The 2014 Maidan coup in Kiev, Ukraine was designed by the State Department official most responsible, Victoria Nuland, to replace a democratically-elected Ukrainian president who opposed NATO membership with leadership who would request it. The coup was pulled off successfully and leaders who were not only pro-NATO but fascistically anti-Russian came to power. This prompted a rebellion among the ethnic Russians of the east, who appealed for incorporation into the Russian Federation (but were refused). The two Donbas republics remain in a state of rebellion although there has been little fighting in recent years. Meanwhile Russia moved swiftly after the coup to annex the Crimean Peninsula where its vital Black Sea naval base has been located since the 1780s.

(I met Russia specialists at an antiwar conference at MIT in 2014 who were terrified at the prospects of war, noting that the confrontation in Ukraine was much more dangerous that the threat of ISIL just emerging at that time. Our panel on Ukraine at the event had meager attendance compared to the ISIL one. I talked a lot about NATO. I was struck by the low awareness of the audience about NATO; one woman asked me in Q&A, “When are they having their next election?” I was reminded of how most people have never been educated about what NATO is. Everyone knew that ISIL was horrifying while few there realized how horrifying NATO expansion might be.)

Fortunately soon after the February coup the Ukrainian regime which Moscow deemed illegitimate was able to choose a president acceptable to Russia as a legitimate interlocutor. Russia backed by France and Germany brokered an agreement for a ceasefire in Donbas in exchange for autonomy (still unfulfilled due to Ukrainian parliamentary opposition). The situation quieted down as Obama and U.S. allies applied heavy sanctions on Russia. The uprising in Donbas involving ethnic Russians was depicted as a “Russian invasion.” The peaceful annexation of Crimea following a referendum was also sometimes referred to as an invasion. The mainstream media never intimated that the U.S. had organized a pro-NATO coup to get Ukraine into NATO; that this for the Russians was the final straw; that the U.S. couldn’t assume that it could spend five billion dollars to topple a democratically elected president in the vast country on their southern flank (that for centuries was a Russian province) and attempt to pull it into an anti-Russian military alliance without facing any consequences.

So the Russian actions were not depicted as self-defensive reactions to NATO expansion; that would require a critique of NATO expansion that is not allowed in the bourgeois media. Rather, Russia under Putin is depicted as “expansionist,” intent either on the reconstitution of the USSR or its predecessor, the tsarist empire. The vilification of Putin from the Obama era at least has resulted not from his reported tendencies to poison critics or amass illicit wealth but from his resistance to NATO expansion.

So while the U.S. press depicts the expansion of NATO as somehow normative and uncontroversial, like the expansion of UNESCO or WHO, opposition to it is depicted as Russian aggression.


What does this have to do with the election?

1. Trump is the first president to question the ongoing “relevance” of NATO, shocking the foreign policy establishment during the 2016 campaign. And John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff from 7/2017-2/2019, is now saying that Trump repeatedly in the Oval Office declared that that the U.S. should leave NATO. This is interesting for several reasons including the fact that the president on this key issue was countermanded. While an autocrat, he seems in the end receptive to pressure from his generals who probably warn him he’ll look weak if they reject their advice. It appears Trump can get away with anything at all, except the inconceivable act of leaving NATO.

As a campaign issue, if NATO were to become one:Trump is not just lukewarm on NATO, but willing to scrap it; Biden in contrast is the experienced statesman always standing by “our” allies against Russia. Meanwhile Trump insults our war dead while Biden gets teary-eyed talking about their heroism in wars he’s supported. (I am not suggesting anyone’s talking points, just noting the differences.)

As president Trump has postured to NATO allies as an injured party, accusing them of ripping off the U.S. tax payer by not paying their bills. (NATO rules urge if not require that member states spend 2% of their GDPs on military expenditures. This “burden sharing” of course profits U.S. arms firms. The U.S. has actually not been so concerned about policing this 2% policy; the expansion of NATO is itself much more important than dues collection.) Trump’s not so much motivated by clearly articulated anti-NATO ideology as he’s inclined by nature to engage in deal-making; he likes to bludgeon business partners into a better deal he can take credit for.

In fact Trump’s abrasive talk has caused some countries to up their military spending. The sycophantic Norwegian Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg (a major proponent of Ukrainian and Georgian membership) credits Trump with forcing allies to increase military spending. But Trump’s unfriendly attitude has also puzzled and angered European leaders. In all, Trump seems to have weakened the alliance if only by causing its other members to reflect on the issue of U.S. unreliability, and maybe (?) come to question the value of NATO at all. That much is good. It is also good that Trump is withdrawing 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany (although very bad that some will be redeployed to Poland).

2. After Trump’s surprise election Democrats’ attacks on him centered on his imagined Russian ties, and his failure to attack Putin, his repeated statement that Russia and the U.S. should be friends, his questioning of NATO’s relevance, his indication that he would consider recognizing the Russian annexation of Crimea, etc. The Democrats in this period have emphasized their devotion to NATO and to “our allies,” their outrage at Trump’s rudeness to Angela Merckel and his general behavior at NATO summits.

In other words, rather than focusing their attack on Trump on his racism, misogyny, bigotry, cruelty, incompetence etc. the Democrats accused him of being too close to Russia. Failing to find evidence for campaign “collusion” with Russia the (frustrated!) Democrats turned their attention to Trump’s delay in supplying anti-tank weapons to Ukraine in a bid to find dirt on the Bidens. The impeachment process was in a way all about NATO; witness after witness talked about the need to confront the Russians in Ukraine “or we’ll have to do it here.” (That is as nuts as anything a Trump supporter might say.) The most outrageous Cold War rhetoric was wielded by people righteously enraged at Trump’s supposed coddling of Russia.

3. As the campaign unfolds, the Democratic media juggles several lines of attack: Trump as incompetent manager of the COVID19 crisis; Trump as racist maybe fascist in relation to mass protests; Trump as pro-Russian (as manifested most recently by his refusal to heed reports of Russians paying the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. troops, and his failure to condemn Putin on the latest poisoning incident); Trump as not only the bone-spurs draft dodger but the guy who positively disparages our fallen heroes as “losers.”

Both campaigns are of course saturated by mindless patriotism, but the Democratic one is more focused on the mindless continuation of Cold War era institutions and phobias and the glorification of the military. (These are I think closely related; look at how the Democrats have embraced the cult of St. John McCain, war hero shot down while bombing Vietnamese. A great patriot who during his 2000 campaign told reporters, “I hate gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.” He was a warmongering racist thug…and did I mention his presence at Maidan in 2014 and his photographs with Svoboda fascist leaders?)

4. The Democratic candidate Joe Biden is not just a NATO supporter. He’s a leading proponent of NATO expansion, and bent on the incorporation of the crown jewel of Russian encirclement that is Ukraine. Biden was especially involved in Ukraine during the Obama period, following the Maidan coup of Feb. 2014. He was the administration’s point man on Ukrainian corruption. (Why, you ask, were Obama/Biden so concerned about “corruption” in that country, as opposed to, say, corruption in Ecuador or Nigeria? Because there are certain rules for NATO admission.)

5. A Biden victory will surely mean a “tougher line” against Putin’s Russia. After all the sanctions, the attempt to thwart the Norstream pipeline, the exclusion from G-8, etc., Biden will implement that tougher line by pushing for Georgian and Ukrainian NATO admission. Putin will say no way. The Germans may continue to oppose it too.

6. Trump boasts about strengthening NATO more than any prior president, and being harsher on Russia. This is his typical egotistical malignant narcissist bullshit. But it’s true that he has followed advice and both endorsed NATO and applied unprecedented sanctions on Russia. This is a matter of opportunism and political necessity, not conviction of which I think Trump has none. But if there are debates with Biden, he may boast about how he’s strengthened it by making others pay more. Because he’s a tough deal-maker, not like that wimp Obama. But the issue might not come up at all.

7. The main threat of world war at present—war between the two great nuclear powers—is the provocative expansion of this anti-Russian military alliance to surround Russia. Trump has been president while Montenegro and North Macedonia joined, but these are of little concern to Russia. Ukraine and Georgia are the red lines.

At present Russia has 1572 deployed nuclear warheads to the U.S.’s 1750; other nuclear states have maybe 300. Post-Soviet Russia remains an “adversary” in U.S. strategic thinking, not because of its political, economic or social situation but simply because it is the other great nuclear power. One must wonder why the U.S. continues to press to surround it with military allies committed to “mutual defense” (a euphemism for automatic response to a member’s call for help, as in 2001). Why the “color revolution” plots? Doesn’t the State Department if not the Pentagon realize that Russia cannot accept the idea that the longtime adversary, the U.S.A.—having crowed about winning the Cold War, and having destroyed a Slavic country, and having betrayed a promise about NATO expansion—should surround its borders with military bases? Does Biden get that?

8. In all the discussion about the “obvious” choice of Biden over Trump in the upcoming election, NATO hardly figures. Indeed the question of war hardly figures. In a century marked by incessant U.S. wars of aggression, Trump is the only president since Carter (1976-80) who has NOT launched a new one. This rather remarkable fact is perhaps forgotten by those who (merely) call Trump a “fascist” and depict the warmongering Biden as a decent normal figure.

9. Given Trump’s repeated statements (to John Kelly) that he wanted the U.S. to withdraw from NATO, it is quite possible that this will occur under a second term. Trump’s announced withdrawal of 25% of the U.S. troops in Germany indicates his thinking that their presence is not necessary and too expensive. His announcement was absolutely condemned by the U.S. establishment, like his withdrawal of most U.S. troops illegally deployed in Syria using the Kurds as pawns, as a betrayal of allies.

10. I’m sorry to say this, but if the expansion of NATO and provocation of Russia is the most likely trigger for World War III, “decent” Joe is the more dangerous candidate. Trump as victor could attempt to impose a police state, although in the current climate, with the increasingly diverse mass movement against police terror and institutionalized racism, I have faith in the prospect of successful resistance, even revolution. Trump could decide to attack Iran, suddenly, for some reason, producing a war that consumes the Middle East. But I don’t think he’ll attempt that soon. I don’t think his particular strain of malignant narcissism requires war with Iran. There’s evidence he’s resisted advisors’ hawkish advise on the question. If Putin has any influence he’s surely discouraging Trump from attacking a peaceful country scheduled to purchase from Russia S-300 anti-aircraft batteries.

Trump is unpredictable, peevish, ignorant, vicious, and always eager to please Israel. He is a vile, repulsive, hateful, mean, racist, wannabe fascist. But I don’t think he’ll provoke Russia over Ukraine, while Biden very well might. He might withdraw from NATO, ending that monstrous thing I’ve tried to briefly describe.

Biden will on the other hand strive to “repair ties” with NATO. My best bet is that Biden will win on the basis of mass revulsion at Trump’s increasingly obvious exploitation of racism to rally his solid base. Biden will win by the votes of an unenthusiastic electorate that has not been diverted for some years by war, or thinking about war, maybe thinking the bad days of those hopeless wars is over. They will have forgotten about Biden’s passionate support for the Iraq War. Many will have seen nothing problematic in his tearful tributes to the troops (used in imperialist wars he supported) or his attacks on Trump for being soft on Russia. Many will just be relieved at a return to normalcy.

And then we will hear that Biden on the advice of Secretary of State Susan Burns is abjuring the agreement with the Taliban, insisting that the U.S. retain a base in Iraq, renewing aid to the Syrian Kurdish rebels Trump betrayed, returning the troops to Germany, and fast-tracking Ukraine for NATO entry (to defend it from “further Russian aggression”). At that point Luhansk and Donetsk, the two breakaway republics that have asked for admission into the Russian Federation, may redouble their plea. And Putin this time, considering the alternatives, might approve annexation. There will be bipartisan howls in Washington about Russia’s relentless expansion!

And then NATO will become a household word, not in any good way.


Does Biden’s support for NATO matter in this election? To those NOT addicted to war? Consider what’s happened since the fall of the USSR and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.

Major Russian military actions outside Russia since 1991

1991-93 assistance to Georgia in quelling a revolt
1991-93 assistance to South Ossetia in its war of independence from Georgia
1992 assistance to Transnistria (between Moldova and Ukraine) versus Moldova
1992-97 assistance to Tajikistan in a UN-backed war against terrorists
2008 5-day war with Georgia (leads to Russian recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence)
2014 alleged support for separatists in Ukraine; peaceful re-annexation of Crimea
2015- support for the Syrian regime against U.S.-backed armed opposition groups

Major U.S./NATO military actions since 1991

1991 Gulf War; Iraqi military expelled from Kuwait and destroyed; crippling sanctions applied
1995 NATO bombing of Bosnia
1999 NATO war on Serbia
2001- war in Afghanistan
2001- “drone wars” on Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, elsewhere
2003- war on Iraq, half a million killed
2011 NATO destruction of Libya
2014- failed intervention in Syria to overthrow Assad
2015- return to Iraq to quell ISIL, a terror group generated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq
2020 missile attack on Baghdad Airport kills a top Iranian general and diplomat in Iraq for a state visit, along with a Iraqi militia leader aligned with the government, creating outrage and the demand from the parliament for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops

And this (lawless, vicious) alliance wants to expand. To do more good deeds like those listed above! All the while complaining about RUSSIAN expansion and aggression, Russian threats to western democracy and the need to push back.

We all know how Trump the bully likes to depict himself as the victim. NATO expansion is all about depicting the imperialist west as somehow the victim of the lingering existence of the Soviet Union. It doesn’t make any sense. A massive juggernaut is methodically surrounding a truncated nuclear-armed still-superpower, but Moscow is supposed to accept this as the price of Cold War defeat. Its limited protests in 2008 and 2014 are hence a threat to western democracy, or our vital national security interests, or whatever.

This would be a good time to say: It’s not OUR national security, we HAVE no country (yet), and NATO isn’t “ours” at all but a weapon in the same quiver as the racist police forces who’ve been so well and sickeningly exposed as they have been over time. When you think NATO think LAPD. As you vote, if you vote.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: