Nato's Sea of Troubles

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The expansion of Nato eastward comes on the eve of war. Dragan Plavsic argues this is no coincidence.

'Nato has became a European peace movement. An effective movement, that is, to spread peace across the continent,' gushed Timothy Garton Ash in the 'Guardian' in November, one week after the three Baltic states-Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania-together with Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, were invited at Nato's Prague summit to join the alliance in 2004. In his enthusiasm for this miraculous conversion, Garton Ash turned a blind eye to the heart of the matter - Nato as the vehicle of US imperial expansion eastwards, and war as an integral part of the strategy.

In the first phase of Nato expansion in March 1999, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary became members only days before the US launched its 78-day bombardment of Serbia. This time round, expansion comes as the US readies itself for war against Iraq. The ambiguous attitude of Nato member Turkey towards war, given the landslide election in November of the Islamist-based Justice and Development Party and the clear antipathy of the population at large, has heightened the strategic significance of the Bulgarian base at Sarafovo, used by the US during the Afghan campaign, and the Romanian base at Constanta, both on the Black Sea. Indeed, the accelerated invitation to Bulgaria and Romania, dismissed as regards potential Nato membership before 11 September, is clearly related to the gathering prospect of war in the Middle East.

Ultimately, however, it is not the meagre military capacities of the new invitees that is of critical importance for the US. After all, the three Baltic states, with a total population of 7.4 million and 22,500 army conscripts, are hardly a military prize worth having. The real prize is a geopolitical one that has been long in gestation-the encirclement and isolation of Russia from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. With the inclusion of Bulgaria and Romania, not only will the soft southern underbelly of Nato between Hungary on one side and Greece and Turkey on the other be plugged, but soon only two of the six states with Black Sea coasts will be without US troops-Russia and the Ukraine.

What we are therefore witnessing is a global recasting of international relations by the US in its own image. Just as the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans in the 19th and early 20th centuries created an imperial vacuum that the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires attempted to fill-thereby provoking the First World War-so the US has been striving to fill the imperial vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet empire and the Warsaw Pact in 1989-91 by expanding Nato membership eastwards.

It was the Clinton administration that set about realising this strategy in earnest in the mid-1990s. In January 1994, Nato launched its Orwellian 'Partnership for Peace' programme, inviting membership from the formerly Stalinist states of eastern Europe as a stepping stone to eventual full admission to Nato. US policymakers rapidly appreciated that this strategy could not succeed without a decisive demonstration of US power in the Balkans, where war was raging. As Ivo H Daalder, a former national security adviser to President Clinton, put it, 'As long as the war festered, it proved impossible to exploit the opportunities created by the collapse of Communism, the unification of Germany, and the dissolution of both the Soviet empire in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself to foster a more stable and secure European order.'

The fact that the US bombardment of Serbia in 1999 was the first 'out of area' military campaign of Nato's 50-year history-for which the sanction of the UN Security Council was not even sought because of Russian and Chinese opposition-signalled the depth of US determination to take advantage of this historic opportunity for imperial expansion. In short, the war against Serbia was a classic act of US geopolitical opportunism that exploited the plight of the Kosovan Albanians as a Trojan horse for the far greater prize of imperial expansion eastwards.

Russia's reaction to the latest phase of Nato expansion has been one of muted discontent. Garton Ash blithely observed in the Guardian that the 'Russian president didn't seem to mind, amicably receiving George Bush in St Petersburg the next day'. But this misreads Russian weakness for consent. Putin's energies are absorbed by internal questions, such as the brutal oppression of the Chechens, for which he seeks to maintain tacit US approval. His true feelings, however, are not in doubt. One of Putin's close aides, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, stated that the inclusion of the Baltic states in Nato had 'provoked the concern' of Russia which would now look to ensure that the position of the large Russian minorities there was improved.

Russian imperialism

Elsewhere Russia has been attempting to assert itself. Take the case of the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan in central Asia, a country with a population of 4.5 million, which lies north of Afghanistan and borders China. Besides the 'temporary' Nato airbase in the capital Bishkek set up for the Afghan campaign, home to some 5,000 troops, Russia announced earlier this year that it had reached an agreement to build its own airbase only 20 kilometres away where it intends to spend $50 million per year. Russia may be down but it is certainly not out, which is why the aggressive urgency of Nato expansion has also as its goal the pre-emptive containment of resurgent Russian imperialism.

US geopolitical ambitions are not the only driving force behind Nato's expansion. The US is also drawn eastwards by its desire to control the greatest oil and gas resources outside the Middle East, in the Caspian Sea basin of central Asia, formerly part of the Soviet empire. Although the US is not the global economic power it once was during the Cold War, having steadily lost ground to the European Union, China, Japan and the so called South East Asian 'tigers', it remains the world's foremost military power, spending more on arms than the rest of Nato, Russia and China put together. The US is determined to exploit this overwhelming military superiority, via the expanded medium of Nato, to gain not only geopolitical but also economic advantage in the competition for energy resources.

In this light, Nato's progressive encirclement of the Black Sea, some 500 kilometres west of the Caspian, is economically as well as geopolitically significant. It is through the Black Sea that the most direct routes run for the transport of Caspian oil by tanker and pipeline to western markets. Thus, at Nato's 50th anniversary Washington summit in April 1999, in the midst of the war against Serbia, Georgia and the Ukraine (both on the Black Sea), Moldova (near the Black Sea), Azerbaijan (on the Caspian) and Uzbekistan (near the Caspian), all formerly part of the Soviet empire, formed GUUAM, an alliance with close ties to the US which the 'Financial Times' observed was designed 'to develop the area's rich oil and gas deposits to the exclusion of Russia'.

US military superiority wielded through Nato is critical to the issue of which pipeline will be built and under whose control. The successful US bombardment of Serbia not only crushed a Russian ally in the Balkans but it also revived interest in existing proposals to build a trans-Balkan pipeline under US control westwards via the Bulgarian port of Burgas on the Black Sea coast, across Macedonia and Albania to the Adriatic Sea. Both Macedonia and Albania are Nato membership candidates.

Indeed, the day before Serbia sued for peace in June 1999, the US awarded Bulgaria over half a million dollars to partially fund an update of a 1996 feasibility study on such a pipeline. The 1996 study had been undertaken by the Brown & Root division of the Texas Halliburton Company, the world's largest oil services corporation. In 1997, Ted Ferguson, a former British Petroleum and Brown & Root executive, became head of AMBO (Albania Macedonia Bulgaria Oil), the US company set up in 1996 to realise the project. Brown & Root later won the contract to build the massive $36.6 million US army base in southern Kosovo, Camp Bondsteel, the largest such base built since Vietnam, which lies within spitting distance of the proposed pipeline route. Meanwhile, the head of Halliburton, Dick Cheney, became Bush's new vice-president.

The AMBO plan is not only an alternative to a Russian-sponsored trans-Balkan pipeline south from Bulgaria via Greece to the Aegean Sea. It is also very much an Anglo-American project with potential backing from BP, Texaco and Chevron to the exclusion of Europe's own French-based oil giant TotalFinaElf, which too has significant interests in the Caspian. The latter, however, is seriously disadvantaged by the fact that the EU lacks the integrated military and political organisation the US wields through Nato to enforce the claims of its own multinationals.

By strengthening US power, Nato expansion is also critical to continued US leadership in Europe. At Copenhagen last month the European Union invited ten countries to join it in 2004, including all those invited to join Nato in November, except Bulgaria and Romania who were offered membership in 2007. The US presently has no objection to the EU's economic enlargement. Indeed, it positively encourages it on condition that Europe's military and political leadership remains firmly under US control.

US backs Turkey

The US has therefore been resolutely opposed to French and German plans for a European Defence Force and is keen to have strong allies within the EU to prevent the development of political and military structures along independent-minded Franco-German lines. Britain of course plays a key role here, but at Copenhagen it was the question of Turkey that was central. The US was anxious for Turkey to be offered immediate membership, not only to get it firmly on side over Iraq, but also because it would be a powerful pro-US counterweight to French and German influence. With a population of 70 million, Turkey would be second only to Germany in size and political representation. France and Germany opposed entry because Turkey, like Britain, would be an obstacle to their plans for greater EU independence from the US.

As for the nations that have joined Nato and figure as small change in this competitive imperial game, Nato membership is especially popular in countries such as the Baltic states that find themselves on the cusp of the imperial faultline. With large Russian minorities, and the bloody Chechen fiasco as a warning, the Baltic ruling classes prefer to shelter under Nato's wing.

However, Nato membership is not universally popular. In Slovenia, for example, opinion polls in September revealed that 39.4 percent opposed membership, while 38.6 percent were in favour, the first time opponents have been in a majority. By contrast, in 1997, 62.4 percent were in favour. The realisation that military expenditure will have to increase by at least a third at the expense of social spending is one factor, but direct US pressure in other areas is another. A year ago Slovenia passed a law banning nuclear-powered submarines and warships from its waters. This year an amendment was swiftly introduced to remove the ban.

Nato expansion has nothing to do with peace but everything to do with the pursuit of US imperial geopolitical and economic interests by any means necessary, including war. The US wants to take advantage of its military superiority to expand Nato so as to isolate and encircle Russia, to gain control of the energy resources of central Asia, and to maintain its political and military leadership of Europe in the face of Franco-German recalcitrance. Nato's conversion from a regional defence alliance into an aggressive and expansionist vehicle for US imperialism will not create a more peaceful world but a more dangerous one. Sustained opposition in the west to war against Iraq offers one opportunity to demonstrate to many across Europe and further east that there really is an alternative to choosing between empires.

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The motives for Bush's war in the Middle East were evident even before the attack of 11 September 2001. Regime change in Iraq and Saudi Arabia were advocated by Bush's advisers once it became clear that the state capitalist regimes of both Saddam Hussein and the Saudi royal family were failing to develop the full potential of the region's reserves.

In May 2001, Iraq tried to negotiate its way out of the sanctions regime imposed by the US and Britain by proposing to open up some of the huge reserves on the Syrian border. This was on the condition that the developers returned western-financed production facilities to Iraq after 12 years, while using ongoing profits to exploit the more remote oilfields for the benefit of Iraq.

US oil multinationals had failed to gain a foothold in any of these fields when President Bush Sr decided after the 1990-91 Gulf War that overthrowing Saddam Hussein for that purpose was too risky, and might result in the Iraqi Kurds and even the Iranians laying a claim to them.

The stakes are enormous. The Irish oil company Petrel Resources, one of the few foreign firms allowed into Iraq, reports that there are 70 known fields in the country, only 12 of which are producing. 'Fifty eight fields are just sitting waiting to be developed and each of these is bigger than anything in Saudi Arabia or Iran.'

In the Saudi case, the Saudi princes are holding back on the development of the country's huge natural gas reserves which the oil multinationals would like to market by pipeline through the countries at present threatened by Israel's military supremacy--Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine.

Despite the opulent lifestyles of their leaders, both Iraq and Saudi Arabia have suffered from the reduction in oil prices. Oil price fixing by the US and European multinationals and sanctions against Iraq have led to their populations' living standards falling by two thirds since 1980. Their steady loss in average personal income is the price paid by the peoples of the Middle East to allow global capitalism to weather (so far) the long, slowly gathering recession of the advanced economies.

But by fuelling bitter resentments and fostering groups with a hatred of global capitalism, US war policies are stoking a potential for revolutionary change throughout the region.

As wars create profiteers and environmental destruction, they also raise the opportunity for building real democratic control from below over the earth's richest resources.