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Is NATO Obsolete as per Caligula Presidency, or More Needed than Ever?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2017-06-03 11:26:18
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“Gentlemen, we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
                                                       --Benjamin Franklin

If we peruse the map above depicting the European nations belonging to the NATO Alliance (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), we shall notice that, as a bloc, they used to confront another bloc, that of the former Soviet Union which extends east into Asia all the way to the Pacific Ocean, now called Russia.

Most of those nations belong to the EU (a confederation of nations created roughly at the same time as NATO after World War II).  There are five more countries of Europe shown on the map that are seeking to join both the EU and NATO, namely Albania, Macedonia, Croatia, Ukraine, Georgia.

But that is not even half of NATO’s territory. There is another land mass on the other side of the North Atlantic Ocean, that of the North American continent comprised by the United States, Canada and Mexico whose Western border is the North Pacific Ocean. Both the US and Canada are members of NATO.

So much for geography. Let’s now focus on more geo-political considerations.


The above proverbial quote by Benjamin Franklin at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 is a good place to begin. It warns the signatories that were the alliance between the thirteen colonies of the former British Empire not survive, neither would the newly minted nation called the United States of America. It was a wise warning before engaging in a difficult war with the most powerful empire in the world at the time.

Had such a warning not been heeded, what it predicted would have come true. For instance had the colonies gotten mired into a protracted and fierce intellectual debate on the institution of slavery, which some accepted for mere economic interests, England would have easily reasserted its dominance. As it is, the problem of slavery was kicked down the road and came back with all its virulence in 1871 producing a destructive civil war which almost destroyed the young democracy. But it survived and eventually eliminated slavery, if not exactly racism. I suppose it always takes longer.


In any case, it can hardly be denied that Benjamin’s advice at the time of the nation’s birth was a wise and timely one: if a union gives in and then succumbs to centrifugal forces, it will not be able to withstand for very long to the attacks of internal and external forces. This geo-political maxim has proven valid time and again within the long span of human history.

Another crucial question arises in regard to another union, that of the EU and its corollary unions of NATO and/or the so called North Atlantic Alliance. All those unions are within a paradigm which could be referred to as Western Civilization, a unique civilization going back to the ancient Greeks and characterized by the birth of democracy and science.

And so we come to 2017. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, NATO observers began to characterize it as “obsolete,” in the sense that its raison d’etre, the resistance to the Eastern Soviet block was no longer necessary. It was dubbed an organization or treaty in search of a mission. That might have made sense at the time, but had it been abolished then, it would have to be reinvented now. The menace of the Russian bear has resurfaced and NATO is justifiably alarmed. Once again, the military balance between NATO and Russia has become the focus of intense concern in some quarters. Some talk of a new Cold War. There are some quarters, of course, who continue to call this concern mere gossip and fake news, something not to be too worried about. Their explanations are usually supported by much ignorance of history and political philosophy. One such is president Trump, more concerned with collecting dues from allies than in reasserting article five of the treaty guaranteeing mutual defense and security.

But there are others who beg to differ and nowadays see Russia as a serious military threat to NATO’s eastern flank and the Euro-Atlantic security. Why is that? Well, for three main reasons: in the first place a military reform and modernization program launched in 2008, combined with significant increases in defense spending over the past several years, has improved the capabilities of Russia’s armed forces.

Second, in the past decade, Russia has demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to use force as an instrument of its foreign policy, as well as an improved capacity to project military power beyond its immediate post-Soviet periphery.

Third, the Kremlin has been conducting a far more aggressive, anti-Western foreign policy, significantly increasing military provocations  near NATO members’ borders with Russia, intimating nuclear threats, and deploying nuclear-capable missiles in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. As a result, there is a growing perception in the West that Russia has reemerged as a revanchist, neo-imperialist, expansionist, and hostile power bent on dismantling the post–Cold War European security system and dividing the continent into spheres of influence. Putin’s strategy seems based on three words: “divide and conquer.”

But there is always the other side of the coin. The other side is the Kremlin’s view of the situation. Such a view maintains that Russia is threatened by the West and by instability not only around its periphery but also at home. With NATO’s expansion, the alliance’s border with Russia has shifted much closer to the Russian heartland. These fears have prompted the Kremlin to launch a national mobilization effort to thwart what is perceived as a direct Western threat to Russian security.

As seen from the Kremlin, over the past twenty years, the United States and NATO have undertaken numerous initiatives that underscore the threat from the West: NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and the Baltics; NATO partnership programs with states throughout the former Soviet Union; improvements in conventional, missile defense, and nuclear capabilities; support for antigovernment uprisings and regime change around Russia’s periphery; and  assistance to opposition movements and parties inside Russia.

Specifically, Russian officials have argued that the U.S.-led campaign in the Balkans in the 1990s, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, NATO’s military intervention in Libya in 2011, and U.S. support for the opposition in Syria and for the Arab Spring have threatened Russia’s security environment. In other words, the relationship is viewed as adversarial and likely to play out in the gray zone that divides the Euro-Atlantic security order and Russia. But how it plays out cannot be easily predicted. Western sanctions, lower oil prices, and economic stagnation over the past two years have not in any way diminished Russian President Vladimir Putin’s appetite for taking risks. It is important, therefore, to take proper measure of Russian capabilities. The Kremlin has repeatedly demonstrated a will to act contrary to most Western assessments of those capabilities and at great cost to Russian interests as understood in the West.

The question arises: is a dialogue still possible and desirable? A dialogue that is, leading not only to restraint but to some semblance of cooperation, as it seemed possible in the 90s and the first decade of the 21st century. The chances of that happening as we speak do not seem good. The annexation of Crimea and aggressive behavior in eastern Ukraine in 2014 began a fundamental change in Western perceptions of the Russian military threat, when Russia appears intransigent and provocative vis a vis NATO, necessitating NATO’s expansion and defense improvements to the eastern front of Europe in tandem with additional diplomatic-economic measures.

Senior U.S. military officials in Europe and at NATO, as well as the governments of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, have also expressed grave concerns over Russia’s actions. Each government has pressed Washington and Brussels to significantly increase the alliance’s permanent presence and conventional capabilities in their territory to bolster deterrence and defense against a possible Russian invasion.

What happened to bring about such a dramatic change in the U.S. and the West’s perception of the Russian threat? Consider the following events: Russian intelligence operatives abducted and Estonian intelligence officer from Estonian territory in 2014. Russian aircraft have conducted frequent intrusions into the air space of NATO countries and harassed U.S. and NATO ships and aircraft operating in the Baltic and Black Sea regions. Russian forces have staged unannounced (“snap”) exercises simulating the use of nuclear weapons in an invasion of the Baltic region. The Russian military has deployed additional missile and air defense assets and, most recently, nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad. There has been a significant increase in Russian cyber operations against Estonia and, within the past few months, the United States. Russian officials, including Putin, have threatened nuclear strikes against NATO countries that have missile defense installations within their territory. Russia’s recent deployment of a nuclear-armed cruise missile that threatens NATO forces and facilities—in violation of the U.S.-Russian Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty—underscores Moscow’s intent to undermine alliance cohesion.

There is more: Moscow has also threatened a military response if Sweden or Finland decides to join NATO; according to NATO’s secretary-general, Russian exercises have included simulated nuclear strikes against Sweden. Reported changes in the Russian military doctrine suggest that the Kremlin plans on the first use of nuclear weapons in the early stages of a conflict with NATO (known as “escalate to de-escalate”) to prevent escalation to a larger-scale conventional war that Moscow believes NATO would ultimately win. Moreover, NATO has every reason to be concerned about Russia’s ongoing quantitative and qualitative improvements in military forces opposite the alliance’s eastern flank, its violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and its effective withdrawal from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (both treaties are long considered bedrocks of European stability and security).

It is puzzling that while the Trump administration presently keeps talking about improved communication and dialogue with Russia, in the summer of 2015, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. General Martin Dempsey, and his successor, General Joseph Dunford, both described Russia as the greatest threat to US national security. This strange dichotomy is now under investigation by the FBI. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in his senate confirmation hearings, echoed these views, as did the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Mike Pompeo. President Trump meanwhile seems more interested in collecting the dues owned to NATO. It appears that for him it’s a mere transactional operation having little if anything to do with the defense of freedom and democracy. Here again, political schizophrenia seems to be at work. Some have called it psychological derangement. I call it “The Caligula Presidency.” The final outcome of this schizophrenic behavior and possible dissolution of this disastrous presidency that has done more damage in four short months than in many previous years of diplomacy, is still to come once the FBI and Special Prosecutor’s investigation is completed.

Here too there is another side to the coin, that of Russia. As surprising as it may seem, Russia’s National Security Strategy for 2016 does not reflect the NATO view that it is outmatched by superior Russian forces. To the contrary, the assessment reveals a deep sense of inferiority vis-à-vis NATO in high-precision and long-range conventional strike capabilities, nuclear weapons, missile defenses, and other kinetic and nonkinetic forms of warfare. In these estimates, the Russian military would face a far superior enemy—better equipped with “smart weapons” and electronic warfare capabilities, better trained, better led, and better sustained.

This lack of confidence may seem surprising, given Russian progress over the past several years on defense reform and military modernization; increases in defense spending; and successful operations in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria. Nonetheless, Russians maintain that the current NATO buildup in the Baltic states—less than a two-hour drive from Russia’s second-largest city—is a strategic threat to the homeland. Some of this rhetoric is no doubt intended to mobilize the Russian public’s support for the regime at a time of economic hardship. But it also reflects real anxiety over NATO’s military prowess and its intentions toward Russia. There is little doubt that paranoia abounds on both sides.

That paranoia may explain why nuclear weapons remain at the heart of Russia’s national security strategy. Russia may envision, misguidedly or not, a worst-case scenario: a combination of NATO’s conventional and nuclear offensive and missile defense capabilities prove devastating to Russia’s strategic forces and deny Moscow the ability to deliver a retaliatory strike.

Continuing with this analysis of rampant paranoia, the West’s preoccupation with Russia’s hybrid warfare capabilities is mirrored by Russia’s own fears; the Kremlin charges that the West is conducting hybrid warfare through a combination of military and other means, particularly democracy promotion activities in and around Russia. From Moscow’s perspective, these activities encircle Russia with Western agents of influence, create opportunities for Western intervention, and empower groups inside Russia opposed to the Russian government. Similarly, according to Russian defense experts, the West’s cyberwarfare capabilities have heightened Russia’s sense of insecurity. They believe cyberwarfare could, among other effects, destroy Russia’s civilian infrastructure and computer networks and disseminate false information to sow widespread public panic and paralyze its armed forces. The neuralgia to this potential threat was underscored when Putin declared Google “a special project” of the CIA and urged Russians to avoid using it.

This is strange when one considers that what the FBI is currently investigating are the numerous ways and means by which the Russians have interfered in the 2016 presidential elections. These conflicting perceptions have contributed to a lack of trust, a deteriorating security environment, and the prospect of a much more unstable and dangerous adversarial relationship between the West and Russia for many years to come, despite the platitudes proffered by President Trump, allegedly motivated by his personal financial dealings with Russia. It remains to be seen whether his trumped up desire to improve relations with Russia will prove successful in lowering tensions and putting the U.S-Russian relationship on a more positive trajectory. There are ample grounds, however, for skepticism. The U.S.-Russian confrontation is deeply rooted in fundamental differences over interests and values, clashing conceptions of the rules of international order, their different views of the nature of a free and open and democratic society, and each country’s views of its own exceptionalism.

To return to Franklin’s warning. It is still valid today. To continue talking about “going it alone” and disregard the common commitment to the defense of liberty and democracy is to risk being overcome by centrifugal forces (the most dangerous perhaps being a global populism tinged with racism, xenophobia, white supremacy and fascism). Indeed, within the consortium of democracies dubbed NATO, either we hang together or we shall surely hang separately.


A final concluding note, should readers be wondering about the roots of Russian exceptionalism here alluded to, they ought to consider reading some of Dostoevsky’s novels (especially Demons) and ignore the noisy and vacuous bombast and disinformation of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. They may also wish to peruse an up-coming contribution, in the June Ovi Symposium, a monthly section of the magazine I coordinate, wherein the nexus of Russian exceptionalism and Dostoevsky’s novels is explored and discussed.


Check Dr Emanuel Paparella's EBOOKS
Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers
& Europe Beyond the Euro
You can download them for FREE HERE!

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