The main outcome of the NATO summit that took place in Newport, Wales on 4th-5th September appears to have been the decision to launch a new ‘spearhead’ rapid response task force. This ‘achievement’ is something that NATO’s political and military leaders seem to be very proud about. In reality this new project is yet another landmark in the weakening of US imperialism, the crisis in world relations and the decline of the global capitalist system as a whole.
The weakness of the West
In the run up to this summit it has been clear that NATO is out of its depth. It is fighting battles on multiple fronts, from Ukraine to Iraq and Syria, and it is not up to the task. This impotence is thanks in part to NATO’s own internal weaknesses, both economic and political. The ruling classes in all 28 of NATO’s member states are wrestling with decline, stagnation or anaemic recovery in their own economies as a result of the global crisis of capitalism. None are particularly keen to deal with instability abroad which could further escalate the developing class struggle at home.
Furthermore, relations between member states are increasingly strained, as each national ruling class seeks to defend its interests in the midst of economic crisis. For example, it is no secret that the USA and Germany have been somewhat at odds over how to deal with the crisis in Ukraine. Germany is heavily dependent on Russian gas for its fuel and so has been more hesitant than the USA, with its plentiful supply of home-grown shale gas, to pursue a path of harsh sanctions and belligerent rhetoric towards Russia. Divisions like this serve to paralyse NATO and compound its inaction.
This chaotic state of affairs is one that the rest of the world watches with interest. The relative stability given to world relations since the end of the Cold War by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of US hegemony is clearly being undermined. NATO’s apparent incompetence is a large advertisement for that fact. As Russia and China begin to assert themselves on the world stage, small nations traditionally allied to the West and searching for security will begin to question the ability of the USA, the EU and NATO to stand up for them when push comes to shove. This questioning attitude among the rest of the world threatens to break up alliances and destabilise world relations even further – a scenario NATO can ill afford to deal with.
NATO’s answer to this situation has been the announcement of a rapid response unit of 4,000 troops than can be deployed into Poland or the Baltic republics within 48 hours. The aim is to allow more flexibility to deal with fast moving situations such as those in Ukraine and the Middle East. In essence, this is supposed to be a muscle-flexing exercise by NATO, on behalf of the USA, to demonstrate to its smaller allies that it is still strong enough to defend them and that it is still worthwhile to stick with the West rather than turning towards China or Russia. It is an attempt to shore up the relative stability which characterised world relations from the collapse of the USSR until 2008.
It does not take much to see that this latest announcement is a fig leaf hiding serious problems for the West in terms of military might and diplomatic influence. Following the Arab revolutions in 2011 the USA was severely weakened in the Middle East. Its close Egyptian ally, Mubarak, was toppled while the US could only look on helplessly from the sidelines. The inaction of the USA during those events angered Saudi Arabia which has taken a more independent position and is increasingly pursuing its own interests in the region. In Syria and Egypt, for instance, the Kingdom has supported groups which were fighting against the forces that were supported by the Obama administration.
The shambolic intervention in Libya that has shattered the country into various warring territories also signifies the West’s sliding grip on its ability to influence world events. And the humiliation of Obama and Cameron, who were forced to back down in the face of enormous public opposition to intervention in Syria, drives yet another nail into the coffin of Western supremacy in world relations.
These events have proved to the US ruling class that it is no longer capable of playing the role of world policeman quite so brazenly, not least because ordinary people in the USA are sick and tired of foreign intervention that carries an unbearable cost in terms of lives and money. Not only this, but the $18 trillion US budget deficit does not leave room for another military adventure. That is the meaning of this new NATO force, which has been announced with such fanfare and bluster. It is an admission by the US ruling class that it needs NATO to be the standard bearer for Western military action from now on because its own brand of intervention is so toxic both at home and abroad.
This is a shift that has been taking place for some time. In 2003 the USA secured NATO approval for its invasion of Iraq but decided not to involve NATO with the invasion itself, preferring to build its own alliance and go it alone. But when imposing the no-fly zone over Libya in 2011 this was enforced by NATO, not the USA. And now when dealing with the Islamic State threat in Iraq Obama has been bending over backwards to assure everyone that there will be no ground invasion by US troops and putting emphasis on the need for organisations such as NATO to take the lead in dealing with the conflict.
There is no doubt that the USA is still by far the most powerful imperialist nation on the planet, spending as it does more on armaments than the next several highest spending states combined. But there can be no doubt that the decline of the power of the US ruling class on the world stage is having a serious impact on the stability of world relations – a process that is only going to become accentuated in the future.
Where will the money come from?
The manoeuvrings of the US ruling class are not the only signs of weakness discernible following this NATO summit. The glaringly obvious problem is how this new rapid response task will be funded. NATO’s own guidelines suggest that member states should spend 2% of GDP on defence. At present, just 4 of the 28 member states do so. Last week’s summit decided that the other 24 states should meet this target within a decade.
Making the decision is one thing, but actually increasing military spending is quite another. Every member state is grappling with the fallout of the crash of 2008 which economists say will last decades. Arguing for greater expenditure on weapons that can be used for more foreign wars while at the same time cutting health, education and other public services is a recipe for enraging ordinary people even further and this is not a situation the ruling class wants to provoke.
In any case, following the bailout of the banks in 2008 governments have no money to spend on weapons anyway. An increase in arms expenditure would mean a further increase in public debt (to the advantage of private firms that take the lucrative contracts for the production of weapons) at a time when few creditors are jumping at the chance to lend to the crisis-stricken European states currently mired in stagnation. This is why governments are so fanatically engaged in austerity programmes to cut state spending, not increase it.
Increasing taxes to pay for weapons is hardly a viable economic, let alone political, option either. Increasing taxes on the working class will cut into demand and push fragile economies even further into decline. Increasing taxes on the rich will be met with the usual chorus of ‘anti-business’ accusations and threats of a strike of capital which are levelled at any government that tries to close tax loopholes or tax the rich. So where does NATO expect the money to come from for this new task force?
The Economist magazine, as part of its hysterical campaign in defence of “poor Ukraine” and its fascist-supported government argues that “what NATO needs above all is more deployable and better-equipped forces—and European leaders prepared to tell their voters why they should pay for them.” Such a ridiculous statement betrays just how far certain spokespeople for the ruling class have divorced themselves from the reality of the developing class struggle and the precarious position in which the bourgeoisie currently finds itself.
Sure enough, just a few days after the summit where this was agreed, the German defence minister has announced that Germany, which spends 1.3% of its GDP on defence, will not be increasing its spending to 2%. The reasons for this are firstly that the German economy contracted 0.2% in the second quarter of 2014 and so it is not in a position to make extravagant spending increases. But on top of that, Merkel is concerned that NATO’s actions will anger Putin even further, and working relations with Russia are vital to German energy supplies. Once again the opposing interests of the German and US bourgeois cliques are showing up NATO’s financial and political impotence.
In the past the USA has always been capable of filling the gap left by inadequate defence spending by other NATO members but now that everyone’s back is against the wall economically speaking, the budgets are being tightened as well. This doomed effort to get member states to increase defence spending means that this rapid response force will struggle to even get off the ground, which will amount to yet another blow to the position of NATO and the USA on the international stage.
A futile project?
The purpose of this new ‘spearhead’ force is for it to be deployable as far afield as Poland within a matter of hours, with heavy equipment already in place in Poland for it to pick up when it arrives there.
Interestingly, this is not the first time a scheme like this has been announced by NATO. In 2003 a similar rapid response unit was unveiled which at that time consisted of 9,000 troops (the present one consists only of 4,000). This smacks of NATO running out of ideas and so recycling one they had over a decade ago, albeit in a smaller form.
The purpose of the unit, according to General Bradshaw, NATO’s chief in Europe, is to “demonstrate capability so that you don’t have to get involved in a conflict”. In other words much of the work of this new force will be manoeuvre and exercises to show off its capabilities – the aim being deterrence rather than actual fighting.
Faced with ongoing fighting in the Middle East and an uneasy ceasefire following the bloody conflict in Ukraine, it seems faintly ridiculous for NATO to be talking about how impressive its ability to deter future conflicts will be while its allies like Poroshenko in Ukraine have been desperately calling on it to intervene and protect its own interests for several months.
NATO has claimed that the creation of this new force will allow it to better deal with rapidly developing situations, like those in Ukraine and the Middle East. But the situation in Ukraine has been going on for several months, in which time NATO could have mobilised some or all of its 13,000 troops to intervene in the conflict. The reason it has not done so is not because it lacks the logistical capability, but the political will. NATO does not want to enter into a war against Russia (which is what sending troops into eastern Ukraine would eventually amount to) and so it has not mobilised its troops. How would anything be different if it had a rapid reaction ‘spearhead’ force?
The changing world situation
The reality is that NATO and its 4,000 new troops are no match for the power of historical forces. Capitalism is in terminal decline and the crash of 2008 is the most violent death pang it has yet experienced. This decline is causing the disintegration of stability in the economic, political and social spheres all across the world.
War, although an extremely complex phenomenon, is fundamentally politics by other means; and the political agenda of every country in the world today, particularly those 28 states that make up the NATO membership, is dominated by how to deal with the prospect of decades of economic stagnation. There is no solution to this crisis on the basis of capitalism, thus the military schemes of the NATO leaders who are clinging to capitalism can only be as incoherent and ineffective as their economic policies.
The catalogue of NATO’s recent difficulties serves as a series of signposts pointing to increasingly turbulent times ahead. The sharp turns and sudden changes that are being experienced in countries across the world are causing more people to think about and engage with politics, not as careerists or petty reformists, but as revolutionaries who reject this system in decline and are ready to fight for a fundamental transformation of society.