NATO -- Still Mission-Creeping At 60

By Alexander Cockburn

March 20, 2009 7 min read

We're heading toward the 60th anniversary of NATO. There's to be a ceremony April 3-4 in Strasbourg and Kehl, the latter being the German town facing Strasbourg on the east side of the Rhine. Sarkozy of France and Merkel of Germany will meet and embrace, in symbolic affirmation of Unity Restored, after divisive conflicts now buried in the mists of time. I'm not sure what theatrical events are being planned to symbolize this celebration of Gallo-Teutonic entente, perhaps some flotilla on the mighty Rhine itself, with Sarko as a latter-day Mark Anthony and buxom Merkel as Cleo.

To give vibrancy to the event, Sarkozy has just formally brought France back into NATO's "integrated command." Charles de Gaulle, a leader who looks better with every passing decade, took France out back in 1966 as a rebuke to American domination of the alliance. No doubt there'll soon be an institutional shift back to Paris by NATO personnel, wearied of Belgian moules frites and waterzooi.

You can be sure there will be gale-force gusts of bombast about the NATO alliance's historic role as Europe's mighty shield and buckler, guarantor of its freedoms against "aggression," thus perpetuating 60 years of humbug. There was never the slightest chance of the Soviet Union and its auxiliaries in the Warsaw Pact rolling west in the prospective onslaught luridly evoked by Winston Churchill in a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March 1949. Churchill raised the specter of the "Mongol hordes" that had menaced Europe 700 years before, only heading home when the Great Khan died. "They never returned," rumbled the old faker, "until now."

Having borne almost the entire burden of crushing Hitler's armies on the Eastern front and having suffered appalling casualties in so doing, the Soviet Union was in no condition to invade Western Europe. This didn't impede mad Western scenarios of the sort that threat- inflators routinely issued down the decades until the very moment the Soviet Union collapsed.

Armored Cavalry Journal quavered in 1947 that "Russia could probably invade and occupy the whole of Western Europe against resistance from present American, British and French troops in a matter of 48 hours." Driven by Truman's 1948 arms scare, NATO lumbered into being in 1949, ratifying dominance of U.S. arms procurement for the alliance, internal custodial sentry duty against any slide to the left by one or other of the European allies, establishment of West Germany as an independent state and US control of the nuclear forces deemed necessary to counter nonexistent Soviet conventional superiority.

Year upon year, nothing dented the endless flow of "threat assessments" powering new weapons systems, "theater nuclear" and "counterforce" doctrines that kept the arms factories running at full tilt and spawned a vast subculture of think-tanks, expert panels and lobby shops.

Then, suddenly, it was all over. NATO's formal purpose evaporated. The Soviet Union collapsed. Without delay NATO burgeoned into exactly what its left detractors had always said its essential function had been from the very start, a U.S.-dominated political and military alliance aimed at encircling Russia and acting as enforcer for larger U.S. imperial strategy. NATO's onslaughts on the former Yugoslavia duly followed.

In April, we can expect NATO's leaders to proclaim a new "strategic concept" to define the organization's mission for the twenty-first century, doubtless including its availability to battle global warming, latest in the long line of imaginary threats, conjured up to elicit larger budgets, more weapons, new "missions" launched from the ramparts of Western capital. NATO doesn't need a new mission. It needs to disappear into the trashcan of history along with the cold war that engendered it.

Dragging myself through the transcripts of three sessions of the Council of Foreign Relations devoted to Russia, held in January of this year, I was astounded to see no less a personage than Richard Burt apparently hinting at this. Burt was the New York Times defense correspondent who followed Al Haig into the Reagan administration in 1981, heading the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs at the State Department and later becoming ambassador to Germany. At the Council, Burt remarked that "NATO is at this point an organization either in search of a mission or an organization with too many missions" and "needs to kind of fundamentally go through a pretty deep review of what its core mission is." Then he remarked that there is "something that President Obama could do in one week, and that was announce that he was going to go to the Congress to drop Jackson-Vanik." George W. Bush promised this to Vladimir Putin but nothing ever happened."

Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson authored the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Reform Act in 1974, as part of his vain quest for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976. Jackson was chasing the Jewish vote. The statute forbids the U.S. government to extend "Most Favored Nation to countries with poor human rights records, particularly in the area of emigration. Jackson is dead. Millions of Jews (including Avigdor Lieberman in 1978) have emigrated from the former Soviet Union. But like NATO, Jackson-Vanik lives on malignly, blocking Russia from permanent, unconditional, most favored nation status in trade. As the Russian Foreign Ministry remarked not so long ago, it is "one of the last anachronisms of the era of confrontation and distrust." (China, which by any standard, has an awful human rights record, enjoys permanent normal trade relations with the United States.) Anthony and Cleopatra may enjoy each other amid the bathos and hypocrisy of NATO's April anniversary on the Rhine. But if Obama and his Secretary of State wish to display any enthusiasm for constructive change in the 21st century, they could start by throwing Jackson-Vanik out the window.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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