Issue 230 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
At the beginning of the war in Kosovo, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated, 'This is a test of the Nato of the 21st century.' What we are seeing may be only the beginning of wider wars. Nato is not waging some 'humanitarian war' to rid the world of an evil tyrant or to end oppression. It is about the US, and to a lesser extent its European allies, demonstrating to the rest of the world that it is their interests which are paramount.
Nato's leaders gathered in Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary Of the alliance with much backslapping and congratulatory rhetoric about how the war in Kosovo will make the world a safer place. But there is a real danger now that this war could escalate. It is being fought under the control and direction of Nato. The last four years have seen Nato launch its first offensive operations, its first active military deployments and now its first bombing of a sovereign state.
The collapse of the Soviet Union left Nato's leaders with a dilemma. If Nato was there to protect us from the threat of Soviet invasion--its justification for four decades--what was the point of it continuing if that threat no longer existed? The war in Kosovo has shown how Nato has shifted from being a military alliance concerned with Eastern Europe to one that is prepared to go on the offensive in the interests of US and European capitalism. As Robin Cook put it, 'Nowhere in the world is so far away that it is not relevant to our security interests.' The implications of this, as Bill Hayton wrote in the New Statesman recently, are frightening: 'What if renewed fighting takes place between Armenia and Azerbaijan or in nearby Abkhazia or Ossetia?... And it needn't be the Caucasus, it could be the Gulf, Cyprus, North Africa or anywhere with the heady mix of ethnic conflict and the potential use of weapons of mass destruction. Kosovo isn't going to be the last of Nato's peace-enforcement operations; it's just the curtain-raiser on the alliance's new role.'
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation treaty was signed on 4 April 1949. As the Second World War came to an end the leaders of the Allies met and drew plans to carve up the world. The world was redivided between two competing power blocs centred on Washington and Moscow. The US emerged from the war as the world's most powerful economic and military state. In the late 1940s the US accounted for 75 percent of the world's invested capital and about two thirds of its industrial capital. US troops were stationed in 56 countries and the US had the use of some 400 naval and air bases worldwide. Nato was part of the strategy of maintaining US dominance worldwide. It bound Western Europe and the US together closely, and because of the overwhelming economic and military dominance of the US it was from its inception an arm of US foreign policy.
Throughout the Cold War Nato said it stood for the defence of the West against the 'Russian aggressor'. Much of this was rhetoric since CIA estimates at the time conceded that Russia was incapable of launching a sustained conventional military attack on Western Europe. Nato was consciously designed to counter internal as well as external threats to its member states. One of its founding members was fascist Portugal. Greece and Turkey remained members during the periods they were controlled by military dictatorships.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact at the end of the 1980s gave the US, through its military alliance, Nato, the opportunity to assert its dominance over Russia and embark on a new period of imperialist expansion. For the US it was vital to display its military capacity. In the decades of the Cold War it had succeeded in bankrupting the Russian economy through military competition. But high levels of US arms spending also meant that countries in the Western bloc which spent a small proportion of what they produced on arms--Japan and West Germany in particular--were able to gain economically at the expense of US corporations.
In the early 1990s there was much talk in the US political establishment of 'declinism'--systematically falling behind its economic competitors. The US needed to assert itself militarily, not only against military threats but as a demonstration of power against economic competitors as well. Despite all the talk at the end of the Cold War about the 'peace dividend', the US has consciously embarked on a new period of military expansion. The US defence budget for the period 1998 to 2002 projected spending to be around $250 billion a year up until 2000, with a slight increase to $288 billion a year from 2000 to 2002. US Defence Secretary William Cohen declared that this was less than the 1985 level--which was around $400 billion (at 1997 values). On the face of it this would suggest that the end of the Cold War is indeed paying dividends. But the reality is that the choice of figures is somewhat selective.
In fact, 1985 was the year in which the extraordinary expenditure of the Reagan era came to its peak. Apart from 1985, US defence spending in 1997 has only been exceeded twice--at the height of the Korean and Vietnam wars. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, since the collapse of the Soviet empire US defence spending is equal to the combined spending of the six other countries with the biggest military budgets in the world--Russia, Japan, France, Germany, Britain and China. The US's share of world military spending is now larger than it was in 1985, at the peak of Cold War spending (some 33 percent compared to 30 percent in 1985). If we combine this with military spending of the Nato states it amounts to $470.7 billion in 1997 (compared with $1.44 billion for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia).
In 1993 Clinton decided to pursue a policy of Nato enlargement into eastern Europe. In the run up to the war in Kosovo, Nato accepted the former Warsaw Pact members of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic into its fold. The enlargment of Nato shows how aggressive the alliance is, but it also reveals the tensions between the US and the European powers. For much of the 1990s France and Germany insisted on incorporating the eastern European states into the European Union before they could join Nato. They saw the main vehicle of capitalist stability as the EU. The US, however, had a contradictory attitude to the EU. On the one hand, it saw it as providing stability and embodying free market ideas. On the other hand, powerful sections of the US ruling class feared the potential competition from a bloc of capital which was even larger than theirs. The European powers, in turn, still depended militarily on the US even though they clashed economically--as seen in the protectionist rows between the EU and US.
The result of all these developments has not been to herald a period of peace and stability. The Cold War between the superpowers pushed the 'hot' wars to the periphery of the system--such as Korea or Vietnam. The collapse of that balance, sustained by the threat of nuclear annihilation, has led to the US trying to police a series of states across the globe which seek to establish themselves as local powers. So the US talks of containing 'rogue states' like Iraq, North Korea and Serbia. This leads to repeated wars. At the same time tensions between the world's major powers have increased. As the war in Kosovo shows, military conflict is more likely and tensions in the system have increased--whether between the US and Russia, or with the emergence of sub-imperialist nations and the greater likelihood of regional conflict, or within the main western alliance itself.
The fact that the Nato alliance is moving closer to Russia's borders is of increasing alarm to Russia's rulers. The fleets of the Nato alliance have greater forces in the Black Sea--a vital maritime outlet for Russia--than ever. The decline and decay of the Russian army--still officially the world's second most powerful army--and the collapse of the Russian economy have combined to make their reliance on nuclear weapons even more important. Alexei Pushkov, a member of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defence Policies and an important figure in Russian foreign policy, said in 1997, 'Russia's present conventional military disadvantage would incline it to rely more heavily on nuclear weapons in planning its defences--just as Nato did in similar circumstances starting in the late 1950s.' He went on to say, 'As long as Russia's economy remains weak, no extensive new arms race will resume. But by conserving their huge nuclear arsenals Russia and the US will enter a grey zone of heightened strategic insecurity.'
It was with this in mind that the Russian leadership in 1993 abandoned the pledge made in 1982 by Leonid Brezhnev not to use nuclear weapons as a first strike. And the possibility of an increase in military tensions between the US and Russia has not been lost on the Clinton administration. At the end of 1997 the US Defence Department stated: 'The [Nato] alliance must be prepared for other contingencies, including the possibility that Russia could abandon democracy and return to the threatening behaviour of the Soviet period.' All this took place before the problems of the last 12 months. If Russia were to be pulled into the war in Kosovo, a possibility raised by Yeltsin a few weeks ago, then the nuclear threat would become very real.
The fluid state of the world after the Cold War also means that regional powers may assert themselves militarily. The proliferation of nuclear arms in countries such as Israel, India, Pakistan and South Africa means that the first regional nuclear war may not be too far off. A number of countries are not client states of the US and will not be dictated to by Washington, including two of the most powerful countries in the world, China and Japan. Japan already has the third largest military budget in the world. Tensions between China and the US have increased recently over the issue of Taiwan. On the eve of presidential elections there in 1996 China fired two missiles close to the Taiwan coast in a show of strength. The US reacted by sending battleships to patrol the Taiwanese coastline. Taiwan is at least as important strategically to the US as Kuwait. If the US had allowed China to seize Taiwan by force, as Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro, authors of The Coming Conflict with China, put it in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs Journal, the US would 'lose forever its claim to be the great-power guarantor in the Asia Pacific region.' One of the most important reasons why Nato and the US cannot be seen to lose in Kosovo is because of the confidence it would give these other states to assert themselves.
Finally, within the western alliance itself it is not simply a case that when the US shouts, 'Jump!' all the others follow. The recent war against Iraq exposed the limits of US hegemony--only Britain was prepared to go along with Clinton all the way. France and Germany were openly critical of the bombing campaign, and many of the Gulf states which supported the war against Iraq in 1991 opposed the recent bombing. The current war in Kosovo has shown the brute force of Nato bombers, but it has also exposed the tensions that go to the heart of the alliance. There is much talk about a ground war, and it is the option Nato may be forced to take to win the war, but it may prove politically impossible to hold the alliance together if troops go in.
The war in Kosovo may only be the precursor to a period of increased instability. The 20th century threatens to end in the same way that it began--with imperialist rivalry spilling over into war. It confirms the brutal way in which capitalism operates. Competition between existing firms is central to the system. This leads to crises which periodically call for a restructuring of the system. In turn these lead to wars and conflicts.
As the system becomes more and more dominated by bigger firms and multinationals, and as states intervene more directly in economic affairs to prop up their national economies to make them competitive at an international level, competition will intensify. The interaction of these two tendencies pushes competition beyond the orbit of national life and increasingly to drag the state into the arena of direct competition with other states. This inevitably means the growth of arms production, not as a minor element of the economy, but as a leading component. Economic conflict is increasingly settled by military might. The drive to war therefore is built into the modern economy and into capitalism itself.
Paul Foot had an emergency operation to repair a chest artery on 3 April. He is out of immediate danger but is still very ill. We are sure that all our readers will wish him well. We will be happy to pass on cards or messages.