When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) came into existence in April 1949, its sense of geography was extremely well defined. In the aftermath of World War II, NATO’s creators saw it as a powerful military alliance that could cure Europe of its addiction to massively destructive conflicts forged between colonial empires. During the war, the US had inflicted damage on others without suffering any on its own territory. With a sturdy economy, it claimed the role of honest broker and crafted the international institutions that would define a “rules-based order” that would bind its allies and intimidate its enemy, the Soviet Union.
The new defense alliance reflected the logic of the region, which included the majority of the world’s industrially developed nations, all in close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and north of the Tropic of Cancer. Collins dictionary defines the term “North Atlantic” as: “the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean, esp the waters separating North America and Europe.”
By focusing on “defense” and its character as an “alliance,” NATO sought to create the perception that it existed as pure potency, rather than as an active force that would intervene militarily in geopolitics. At NATO’s core reigned the idea that peace and non-aggression were the norm. Security was the watchword. It was about potentially defending or protecting the peace within Europe. Because the contest turned into a race—the nuclear arms race—rather than a war, a peaceful consumer society could prosper and grow on both sides of the North Atlantic.
NATO became a logical necessity once the Cold War was officially announced, opposing capitalism and communism. Both sides had nuclear bombs. In Robert Oppenheimer’s borrowed words, both had “become death, a destroyer of worlds.” The entire drama was confined to the northern hemisphere, with the Soviet and American empires engaged in a permanent showdown, with Europe in the middle.
Since those early days, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the very idea of NATO has undergone radical changes. Technically, there was no further reason for NATO to exist. The communist military menace had ended up in the dustbin of history. But not only did it continue to exist, it began expanding, much like La Fontaine’s frog that wished to be as big as an ox.
At this month’s NATO summit in Vilnius, the media noted that Japan and NATO appeared to agree on a new partnership program. To make it more concrete, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg proposed creating a NATO liaison office in Tokyo. Alas, France’s President Emmanuel Macron – profiting from the rule that NATO decisions must be decided unanimously – prevented that resolution from being passed.
Stoltenberg had disclosed the Tokyo liaison office proposal in an interview with CNN in May. On that occasion, he insisted that “Japan is a very close and important partner for NATO.” On NATO’s own website, we can read today the assertion: “No partner is closer than Japan.”
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
- Near, in geographical terms
- Emotionally connected
- Ideologically formatted thanks to an asymmetric relationship in which a dominant power can dictate to subservient powers the policy orientation that undergirds its own value system and ensure the subordinates will serve its interests.
NATO’s Orwellian “Newspeak” retains only the third definition. After all, the distance between Tokyo and Brussels is exactly 9,442 km. The distance between Tokyo and Washington is 10,900 km, which is almost exactly halfway around the world at that latitude. So, the first definition has no meaning.
The second definition is about personal feelings. It could have meaning, but only if it were legitimate to draw conclusions about entire populations on the basis of what military and political strategists feel on both sides. Members of the political warrior class quite naturally sense some kind of universal bond when assuming there is a common enemy. But clearly neither Europeans, Japanese nor even the American people feel emotionally connected to Japan. 99.99% of the global population outside of Japan, even among those who admire Japanese culture, literally feels no emotional connection with the Japanese. The fact that the Japanese themselves have notoriously cultivated a “Gaijin complex” (distrust of foreigners) attests to this reality.
Even while asserting a concordance of “values” between Tokyo and Brussels, Stoltenberg personally shows no evident capacity to identify with Japan’s hyper-collectivist culture, the contrary of Western individualism. In the NATO context, the dictionary’s second meaning of “close” makes no more sense than the first. In the annals of lexicography, our Devil’s Dictionary, therefore, stands as unique in providing an accurate description of Stoltenberg’s use of language. Close describes what is distant.
NATO expansion, the central fact that provoked the war in Ukraine, is one thing. But this kind of linguistic expansion— or rather inflation—is outdoing even La Fontaine’s frog. Should the world accept with a shrug that the North Atlantic now encompasses the South Pacific? We might rather be tempted to ask ourselves this question: Which nations in the world have direct access to both oceans? There are two: Canada and the US. In terms of power politics, Canada is a featherweight. But fragmented Europe, so distant from the Pacific, isn’t even part of the discussion. It should be clear by now that NATO is quite simply a tool of US foreign policy.
NATO’s obsession with the Pacific clearly means that the treaty organization is no longer about maintaining peace in Europe at all. Instead, it is about Washington’s plans for war with China. Beltway politicians, diplomats and media increasingly evoke this as the inevitable next step in geopolitical action. Macron alone seems to have noticed that the motivating factor is not peace, but global conquest. Sensitive to the meaning of words, the French president argued: “Whatever people say, geography is stubborn.” He then added this truism: “The Indo-Pacific is not the North Atlantic, so we must not give the impression that NATO is somehow building legitimacy and a geographically established presence in other areas.”
Undaunted, Stoltenberg tweeted on July 12: “Security is not regional, it is global—so we are determined to continue deepening our cooperation.”
Put more bluntly, NATO has evolved from a tool designed to provide a soft landing after World War II into a willing initiator of World War III. Speaking with reporters at Vilnius, Stoltenberg called China a NATO “adversary,” and said, “China is increasingly challenging the rules-based international order, refusing to condemn Russia’s war against Ukraine, threatening Taiwan and carrying out a substantial military build-up.”
What Stolteberg failed to mention is that the Global South in its entirety is also challenging the rules-based international order, refusing to condemn Russia and demonstrating a studied indifference to the question of who owns and controls Taiwan. Moreover, most of the Global South recognizes that China has a long way to go to match the military build-up of NATO (i.e. the US military-industrial complex and its client states). Does that also make the Global South NATO’s enemy? Stoltenberg didn’t say.
At this point in history, we can have some idea – however equivocal – of where NATO has been and what it still represents. After all, as an expanding alliance, at its base it still groups together in its core all the nations that, over the past 500 years, have practiced the most outrageous forms of colonialism on every continent. Their current wealth reflects that history. But things are rapidly changing. What gave some the impression of being a stabilizing factor in the past may prove to be the opposite in an evolving context.
After 1991, Cold War architect George Kennan was not alone in observing that NATO had outlived its usefulness as defined by its initial mission. Created to respond to an atmosphere of Cold War paranoia focused on a rival economic system that could legitimately be suspected of seeking to spread its ideology across Europe and elsewhere in the world, the paranoia should have faded away. The rational leaders of the victorious capitalist West needed simply to redirect their attention towards constructing a new world order in conformity with Francis Fukyama’s blueprint for the “end of history.”
They chose a different path. In an article on The Tricontinental, Vijay Prashad traces the complex evolution of NATO since its beginnings. He highlights its permanent, though never publicly avowed ambition to stretch its influence well beyond the North Atlantic. He concludes by speculating that NATO’s ambition now has less and less to do with military prowess and security concerns than with the ambition of establishing its moral bullying power and incarnating its own rules-based order. “Slowly, NATO is positioning itself as a substitute for the U.N., suggesting that it—and not the actual international community—is the arbiter and guardian of the world’s ‘interests, security and values.’”
Amazingly, there are commentators among the former colonial powers who are still wondering why the nations of the Global South have not simply fallen into line.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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