An Obsolete Alliance Turns 75

The next summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is set for July of this year in Washington, D.C., following the 75th anniversary of the alliance’s founding on April 4. The organization’s leading lights will discuss “important issues” and “provide strategic direction” for NATO. The NATO website also explains to curious readers that the organization is devoted to an “understanding” and “awareness” of the “security environment.” Those of us who have grown skeptical of NATO and its intentions can only imagine what this press release verbiage might mean, as an organization established to counter the Soviet threat during the Cold War seems to take its existence and continued interventions for granted.

From where your humble observer stands, the NATO bureaucracy lost the reason for its existence in the early 1990s but carried on anyway, as bureaucracies are prone to do. Today, it seems clear what NATO’s real post-Cold War missions actually are: ensuring its continued existence and expansion and defending certain “democratic values”—that is, imposing what we now know as a “woke” agenda on everyone else. It plays its part in this effort, along with the European Union, the United States government Leviathan, specific international organizations, and globalist activists at the World Economic Forum, or what I like to call “the Davos Politburo.”

Anyone or anything that rejects the agenda of these globalists may be treated as a mortal threat by their military wing, NATO. Such “threats” reflect globalist aims that have nothing to do with what ordinary citizens of the West would comprehend as “national security.”

NATO, in fact, no longer has anything to do with defending its member nations. The unvarnished truth is that NATO’s continued expansion, in antagonizing member nations’ neighbors, has done the opposite: NATO has undermined their security and created enemies that, in turn, justify further NATO interference in an increasingly unstable “security environment.” Today, NATO is an instrument deployed in an ideological crusade. It should have been clear that was the case several decades ago, but Western elites maintained the pretense of “national security.”

For more than 30 years, I was a CIA analyst and an area expert on Russia. 

In 1989, I was just about to begin my career in the intelligence community when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War effectively ended. Ronald Reagan, a man who had based his political career on anti-Communism, made the wisest decision of his presidency when he ignored the hawks in his administration and embraced detente with the Soviet Union. Reagan broke the shackles of ideology at the correct historical moment and engaged in a dialogue with the Soviets as Mikhail Gorbachev began his reform programs of perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (openness”). Reagan called for Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall in a 1987 speech in West Berlin. Gorbachev reciprocated by doing all he could to deprive the West of its enemy, as Soviet luminary Georgiy Arbatov put it. 

As the Iron Curtain came down and the Soviet empire began disintegrating, the opportunity to construct a post-Cold War peace was there for the taking. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker assured Gorbachev in a Feb. 9, 1990 meeting that, following the unification of Germany, NATO would expand “not one inch eastward.”

It’s difficult now to describe the feeling of those halcyon days. We who had chosen careers in the U.S. security apparatus enjoyed a sense of euphoria. The Cold War was coming to a peaceful conclusion without a catastrophic conflict, and we had played a small part in that historic turn of events. After the initial celebration, we increasingly realized that the world we had been born into had reached its end. It was time to rethink what national security meant in what was already being described by foreign policy wonks as a “unipolar world,” with the United States as the lone and dominant world power.

For some of us, that meant hopeful talk of a “peace dividend.” Talk of rolling back global commitments and turning our attention homeward to deal with a society in moral and social disarray. It was time for America to focus on her own problems. American “wise men” of the Cold War era such as George Kennan, Paul Nitze, and other prominent figures, perceived a historic opportunity to include Russia in a new security architecture. One that would consider Russian concerns, building a new concert of Europe based on balance-of-power realism. NATO’s historic mission was coming to a close, and something new should come out of the end of the Cold War. Kennan advised against NATO’s continued expansion. He warned that such a step would revive East-West hostility and inflame the worst militaristic instincts in the Kremlin. His advice went unheeded, and the historic window of opportunity quickly slammed shut. It was an opportunity not just missed but thrown away with vehemence by U.S. hawks still sweating under the ideological fervor of the Cold War.

One faction in the West saw in the unipolar world the prospect of redefining security in ideological terms to the advantage of American power. The mood of this globalist wing, made up of both neoliberals and neoconservatives, was one of triumphalist hubris. Yes, the historical epoch we had grown so accustomed to was over, and so was “history,” as proclaimed by the neoconservative thinker Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. As they saw it, the future belonged to a developing global technological culture, “democratic capitalism,” and the eventual end of what they categorized as atavistic religious, tribal, and nationalist concerns. In this new definition, security would be achieved by the triumph of a globalist “end of history” ideology.

In the celebration of the defeat of Soviet Communism, naïve patriots missed something: the emergence of a new internationalist threat from within the United States. A new globalist agenda would express itself in ideological, quasi-religious language, eventually hardening into a dominant zeitgeist. Technological advances in computing and the Internet during the 1990s aided the emergence of the new globalism. Personal computers soon became essential to our work and, eventually, to every aspect of our lives in an emerging cyberspace universe. The development of the Internet provided the nascent globalist body with its central nervous system.

I should have been more alarmed by what I saw in the early 1990s intelligence community. I had already noticed amid the euphoria of the post-Soviet era a tenacious missionary attitude and cocksure sense of ideological certainty, which had not yet been announced in explicit policy terms. My experiences in post-Communist Russia reinforced my sense of unease.

My Russian acquaintances, including Russian nationalists then engaged in debating the contours of a post-Soviet Russian identity, were hopeful about the end of the Cold War despite hardships following the Soviet collapse. In the eyes of many nationalists, post-Communist Russia could return to its historical developmental path as a country somewhere between East and West. They remained suspicious of Western intentions but were exceptionally hospitable and open to speaking frankly. In the mid-’90s, I studied the problems of post-Soviet Russian identity and pondered Russia’s place in the new world. That research culminated in my 1998 book The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, in which I posited that Russian nationalism was but one manifestation of a growing backlash against globalization.

Yet many Russians sincerely wished to join the Western world. In the dichotomy between a desire to join the international community and to maintain a distinct national destiny, I encountered an echo of the old pre-revolutionary Slavophile-Westernizer debate. The same questions about Russia’s place in the West had come up repeatedly in history. This time, there was a feeling there could be a solution. Most of the Russians I knew, whatever their political views, were open to arriving at an understanding with the West. Western observers at that time had been criticizing messianism as a flaw in the Russian national character, but it was actually the American variety that was far stronger than anyone expected. The Russians were prepared to engage in a dialogue based on foreign policy realism, but they did not find a serious participant on the other side of the table.

Russia had a long love-hate relationship with the West, admiring the Western world’s prosperity, the stability of its institutions, and its technological advances. At the same time, Russia remained wary of the technologically advanced Other that could conceivably dominate their homeland. That was another old story going back centuries in the Russian collective consciousness, one that has been repeated in the less-developed world time and again. The Russians were still smarting from past tensions and wars with the Western powers. These date back at least to the “Northern Crusades” that began in the 13th-century and included attacks against Orthodox Russia. The troubled history with the West also includes the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s 17th-century interventions during Russia’s succession crisis during the chaotic “Time of Troubles,” and Napoleon’s 1812 invasion.

Yet a special admiration for Americans persisted through the mid-1990s. Many Russians I knew at the time, whatever their doubts about Western consumerism and the plastic “McCulture” that accompanied it, longed for friendship—and respect and acknowledgment as equals—from the West, especially from Americans. Over and over, I heard that Russians and Americans were actually very similar. Many educated Russians believed that both nations shared what they called a “broad nature,” befitting their vast continental-scale lands. They recalled Allied aid during the cataclysmic Great Patriotic War (World War II) and saw no real reason Russia and America could not be on good terms in a post-Cold War era.

The 1990s were a time of chaos, collapse, and economic and social disarray in Russia, which was struggling to grasp at anything that might restore its sense of pride and dignity. The country became dependent on the International Monetary Fund to stay afloat financially. It had lost its superpower status, though it retained nuclear weapons that were a cause of concern at home and abroad following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Educated Russians were reduced to hawking Chinese consumer goods in open-air markets. Workers weren’t paid on time, and sometimes not at all. The army, security services, and police staggered through the decade as the state fell into a corrupt stupor.

Organized crime and the rapacious “oligarchs” flourished when President Boris Yeltsin’s administration followed Western advice and opted for “shock therapy” capitalist marketization, the negative consequences of which most Russians blamed on the West. There were possible alternative paths under discussion for easing into a new economic system. We’ll never know what would have come of them. Of course, other post-Soviet states suffered, but the Baltic states for example, sensed that the West was their destiny. 

Russians were unsure what would come next. Their sense of humiliation ran deep, and national psychological depression haunted a country that was in steep demographic decline as life expectancies fell to Third-World levels. The sense among Russians of all social strata that the West was taking advantage of the situation was widespread.

Their suspicions were confirmed when the NATO expansion began at the decade’s end. NATO incorporated several former Warsaw Pact countries in 1999. I was asked by Russian acquaintances numerous times why, if a weakened post-Communist Russia was not an enemy, this was being done. NATO bombed Yugoslavia the same year, encroaching on what Moscow saw as its geopolitical turf. Even Yeltsin, who had spoken fondly of his “friend” Bill Clinton, was furious. 

Ordinary Russians soon felt a sense of resentment at seeing garish Western quick-buck artists living the expat highlife in Moscow, a city then studded with casinos and infested with prostitutes. There was a feeling that Russian authorities had sold the Motherland herself.

How much the West was to blame for all this and how much was self-inflicted is a subject for another discussion. But NATO expansion was naturally perceived in Russia as the tip of a hostile spear pointed at the heart of a weakened and humiliated country. NATO always loomed large in the worst fears of the nationalists. Even Western-friendly Russians warned what the terrible consequences might be should NATO expansion inflame old Russian fears, not only in international affairs but in Russia’s development into the West’s vision of a liberal democracy. The traditional Russian solution to such external threats was a “strong hand” in the Kremlin, centralization, and militarization. Didn’t the West understand that?

The short answer is “no.” A longer answer must take into account Western elites’ obliviousness about, or outright contempt for, Russian security concerns. No one in power in the quickly globalizing Western world had learned anything from the past. The 20th century was a prolonged catastrophe for a large portion of humanity partly because the Western Allied powers insisted on humiliating their foes in the aftermath of World War I. Despite that leading to even more destruction in another world war, the sense of triumphant Western entitlement persisted into the post-Cold War period.

That the West felt entitled to dictate the forms, structures, and ideologies of the post-Cold War world was palpable to Russians and the rest of the world. It never occurred to anyone in power to ask what gave “the free world” the right to determine the forms of government, economy, and social mores in countries that were not their own. It was taken as a given that the West had such a right, and a condescending, patronizing, arrogant attitude was pervasive in the corridors of power in Washington. 

I once found myself debating in the agency just whom the United States should back as Yeltsin’s successor. This was after the United States had helped Yeltsin miraculously win—or steal, according to a large body of Russian opinion—the 1996 presidential election. The obvious questions about whether the United States should be interfering in Russia’s domestic politics and whether such interference would greatly damage U.S.-Russia relations rarely came up in these debates.

Recent events in Ukraine are instructive regarding the U.S. attitude toward Russia. At the time of the “Maidan” revolution in Ukraine in 2014, which was a street rebellion egged on by the West, I was not alone in my alarm at what was happening. American officials had encouraged the overthrow of a Russia-friendly administration, and Ukraine was, to say the least, an area of vital concern for Russian security. Any perceptive observer could have predicted—and a number did—what would happen. I discussed these consequences in detail in my May 2022 Chronicles essay, “Come Home, America,” but to summarize, they include: 

•  the war in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking Donbas region, with Russian-backed rebels taking on Ukraine’s military; 

•  the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea (the base for the Russian Black Sea fleet, another vital security concern for Moscow); 

•  the refusal of Kiev to fulfill the Minsk agreements regarding autonomy for the Donbas; 

•  the renewed Ukrainian assault on the Donbas, which was apparently in the works just before the Russian invasion in February of 2022; and, 

•  the West’s dismissal of Russian security concerns, including repeated calls by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin for negotiations aimed at keeping Ukraine out of NATO.

My reaction to that catastrophic fall of dominoes was, “What did you expect?” The United States has launched military actions with far less provocation in places far more distant from its shores. In time, I became convinced that war was exactly what some of the most aggressive globalists, who saw a recalcitrant Russia as a major roadblock on the road to their version of a “democratic capitalist” utopia, had both expected and wanted to provoke.

Anyone who believes that series of events had anything to do with fostering America’s legitimate security interests is delusional at best. The West and NATO played a significant role in helping foment the crisis in Ukraine, which was predicated on ideological hostility to Russia. In closing, I can only repeat a previous statement I wrote for this magazine the day after Russia invaded Ukraine (“Rethinking ‘National Security’ in Light of the Ukraine War,” Feb. 25, 2022):

What can “national security” mean to a regime that is attempting to erase the nation itself? The great games of Metternich, Talleyrand, and Kissinger are over. It’s long past time that we understand that a subversive, anti-American ruling elite has replaced America’s old governing system and that this successor system treats America as an occupied zone of a global empire. For us, “national security” means working to preserve the remnants of our country, ourselves as a people, and cultural space for us to live as we see fit.

The end of the Cold War presented the national security state with an existential crisis. Globalism was the answer to the need for enemies and a new purpose. At this point in history, NATO has nothing to do with America’s real national security interests.

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