Can NATO Survive Georgia?

Amidst all the journalistic brouhaha about a new cold war, most analysts are missing out on the real crisis that has been crystallized by Saakashvili’s imprudent excursion into South Ossetia.  The very existence of NATO has been put into question.

To understand that, we have to go back to the beginning of NATO as an institution and a concept.

The story began in 1947 when the United Kingdom and France signed the Treaty of Dunkirk, pledging mutual assistance in case of a revival of German military aggression.  In 1948, this grouping was expanded to include the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg in the Treaty of Brussels, in a move still designed to defend against Germany.  Later that year, the five nations set up the Western Union Defence Organization, with a combined chiefs of staff committee.  There are two things to note about these treaties.  The United States was not part of them, and they were aimed primarily at Germany, not the Soviet Union.

The founding of NATO in 1949 came in the wake of the Berlin Blockade of 1948. N ATO in effect nullified the Western Union defense treaties.  It was focused not on the dangers of renewed German militarism but on the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union.  From the point of view of the United States, NATO served several purposes.  It was a message to the Soviet Union that the United States was committed to maintaining the existing boundaries of the division of power in Europe, which had seemed threatened by the Berlin Blockade.  It was a method of reconciling the French and the British to the rearmament of West Germany.  And it was a way of controlling the military operations of the allies by undoing their nascent military structure and subordinating their troops to a U.S. command.

The political leaders and the majority of the population of western European countries were initially quite favorable to the concept of NATO.  For them, it guaranteed that the United States would indeed defend them should the Soviet Union come to think it could violate the Yalta arrangements.  And France was now ready to accept West German rearmament as a part of their historic reconciliation.  France, however, chafed at the third objective — keeping French troops under U.S. command, which is what led Charles De Gaulle in 1966 to withdraw from the NATO command structure and require its headquarters to move from Paris to Brussels.

Beginning in the 1970s, western Europe had not only gotten over its worries about Germany but had begun to think that the Soviet Union no longer posed an imminent menace of invasion.  Various countries, and not only France, began to think of how they could bring a tamer, post-Stalinist Soviet Union into more intensive cooperation with western Europe.  This was notably the case with West Germany’s Ostpolitik.  And when, in the 1980s, the idea was broached of a gas pipeline from the Soviet Union to western Europe, this was favorably received even by the United Kingdom under Margaret Thatcher.

The United States was dismayed by these developments.  It unsuccessfully opposed the gas pipeline.  It sought to discourage all talk of reviving a European army that was not part of NATO.  In general, it became considerably less friendly to the idea of Europe as Europe, one that was separate from a North Atlantic community.

The strain was intensified with the collapse of the communisms in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Since NATO had been created as a structure to defend western Europe against a Soviet Union governed by a Communist party, what function did NATO now have?  The United States was determined to maintain NATO, and sought a new definition of its role.  It was also determined not to permit the emergence of an autonomous European structure, delinked from the United States, and worse still, possibly creating the “common European home” that would include Russia, and which Mikhail Gorbachev had proposed.

The immediate structural question for NATO was the issue of expansion — to include or not the former Soviet satellites, which were now emancipated from their links with the Soviet Union/Russia.  The United States pushed hard, almost immediately, for their incorporation into NATO.  The western Europeans were less enthusiastic.  The former satellites saw their incorporation as their link to the United States, as protection against Russia, and as a gateway to economic betterment.  The United States saw their incorporation as a constraint on Russia’s possible resurgence but even more as a guarantee that “Europe” would not be able to delink from its close U.S. alliance, since these countries would oppose it.  And western Europe was less enthusiastic precisely because they understood what the United States was doing.

The Iraq war exacerbated the situation greatly.  Donald Rumsfeld gloated over two Europes — “old” Europe, which was effete and uncooperative, and “new” Europe, which was committed to the same world objectives as the United States.  Actually, in the immediate situation of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, there were three Europes: Rumsfeld’s “new” Europe (that is, the former Soviet satellites); those that refused to join the “coalition of the willing” (notably France and Germany); and those western European countries that in 2003 supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq (notably the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy).  France and Germany pulled closer, politically, to Putin’s Russia in their common opposition to the United States at the United Nations.

The strain continued.  When the United States pushed this year for the launching of the process to include Ukraine and Georgia in NATO, they met strong opposition not only from France and Germany but from the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy as well.  Indeed they had strong support in only four of the eastern European states — Poland and the three Baltic states.  The other eastern European states were reticent as well.

Then came Saakashvili’s march into South Ossetia and Russia’s vigorous and successful riposte.  Poland and the three Baltic states immediately gave full support to Georgia, and the United States a bit less rapidly raised its rhetorical level, and sent in warships with humanitarian aid.

What did western Europe do?  Immediately, and without consulting anyone, President Sarkozy of France negotiated a truce in the fighting, and then got the European Union to endorse this fait accompli.  Chancellor Merkel of Germany then got into the act with further negotiations with Russia.  Even Silvio Berlusconi of Italy was telephoning Putin.  All this while, Condoleezza Rice was out of the real diplomatic picture.

Did the diplomacy work?  Only of course up to a point, as controversy continues about where Russian troops are presently stationed and Russia’s definitive recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  But western European statesmen keep making statements about how one should be careful not to cut off ties with Russia.  And it seems the most the western European press can do is to scold Russia that it is they who are breaking friendly relations with western Europe.  Most revealing of all is the report in the New York Times that Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states are calling not Rice but Angela Merkel, asking her to use her influence to help resolve the situation.  Angela Merkel has made it clear that Germany will not be rushed into approving Georgian membership in NATO.

Most remarkable of all is an op-ed in the Financial Times by Kishore Mahbubani, a senior academic in profoundly pro-Western Singapore.  Mahbubani says that 10% of the world is united in condemning Russia, and the other 90% “is bemused by western moralising on Georgia.”  He says Mao Zedong was right in one thing — the distinction between the primary contradiction and the secondary contradictions with which one must always compromise.  “Russia is not close to becoming the primary contradiction the west faces.”  He ends by saying that it is Western “flawed (strategic) thinking” that is causing the world to be a more dangerous place.

The United States is not yet ready to listen to the sage counsel of its own friends in the non-Western world.  Western Europe is grappling its way to understanding what’s at stake for them.  NATO cannot survive the irrelevance of its strategic activity in what Mahbubani calls the “post cold-war era.”

Immanuel Wallerstein is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Sociology, State University of New York at Binghamton.  Among his numerous books are The Modern World-System (1974, 1980, 1989), Unthinking Social Science (1991), After Liberalism (1995), The End of the World As We Know It  (1999), and The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (2003).  This commentary was published on 1 September 2008.  © Immanuel Wallerstein, distributed by Agence Global.  For rights and permissions, including translations and posting to non-commercial sites, contact:, 1.336.686.9002 or 1.336.286.6606.  Permission is granted to download, forward electronically, or e-mail to others, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed.  To contact author, write:  Visit the archive of Wallerstein’s previous commentaries at <>.  These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.

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