Originally published on Socialist Resurgence’s website
In previous posts and in our work in the Revolutionary Socialist Network, Workers’ Voice and Socialist Resurgence, along with our RSN comrades, have stated our unequivocal opposition to the Russian aggression in Ukraine and our support for the self-defense of the Ukrainian people. We demand the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine and call for solidarity with Russian antiwar protesters, for an end to their repression, and for an immediate release of all detainees.
Does this mean that we support calls emanating from North America and Europe in support of further military expansion in Europe and the ongoing arms race? Does this mean that we support NATO? Unequivocally, we say no. The barbarity of the Russian invasion tempts those who oppose it to launder the reputation of NATO and of the U.S. imperialist project at its heart, to concede to false narratives about its supposed defensive nature rather than its true character as an aggressive and imperialist alliance. A look at its history and current function as a creature of US imperialism is necessary to combat such illusions.
NATO: A brief history
The origins of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) go back to 1948, when the United Kingdom, France, and the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg) formed a military alliance out of fear of potential German and Soviet aggression after World War II. By 1949, the founding members began to see this as insufficient. Soon thereafter, the United States and Canada joined. Subsequently, the alliance formed three commands: Europe, the Atlantic, and the English Channel (the last dissolved in 1994). France withdrew from military participation in 1966, rejoining in 2009.
When West Germany was admitted in 1955, the USSR responded by forming the Warsaw Pact, giving the lie to the original NATO founders’ perception of Soviet aggression. As Marxist geographer David Harvey explains, “Cultivating fear (both fake and real) of the Soviets and Communism was instrumental to this (cold war) politics. The economic consequence has been wave after wave of technological and organizational innovation in military hardware.”
The arms industry—a form of monopoly capitalism often referred to as the “military-industrial complex”—has always been at the heart of NATO, as it sought to balance the numerical superiority of the Warsaw Pact’s armed forces with technological superiority, including medium range nuclear weapons.
Article 5 of the NATO treaty states that an attack on any signatory would be regarded as an attack on the other members. This “collective defense” pact was first invoked in 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Currently, 30 countries are NATO members, 28 of which are in Europe (the U.S. and Canada are the two non-European members). The most recent entrant is North Macedonia, a former Yugoslav province, admitted in May 2020. NATO’s courting of Ukraine—especially after the Western-supported 2013-2014 “Euromaidan” protests and the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea—all the while maintaining that it refuses to directly militarily intervene there, has generated the ambiguity contributing to the current crisis. It also coincided with the increase of Ukraine’s debt with the IMF and the application of neoliberal austerity policies.
After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved but NATO kept growing. Since the late 1990s it has expanded to 14 new countries. This military encroachment has been largely naturalized by U.S. and European governments as a guarantee of peace, but its root causes have not been really explained. In the United States, the likes of The New York Times and PBS have been among the worst in this regard, constantly drilling audiences with Pentagon talking points and focusing almost entirely on issues of logistics rather than the larger geopolitical context.
Instead, we offer a materialist explanation, specifically contextualizing NATO’s aims both within U.S. imperialist ambitions and within the emergence of rentier capitalism since the 1990s. To summarize, as many have discussed, the U.S. regime rejected a “peace dividend” after the defeat of the USSR. This is puzzling only when we fail to consider how central to U.S. capitalist profits both the expansion of U.S. military bases since World War II and the military-industrial complex since the 1990s have been.
U.S. imperialism and expansion of bases
At the time of this writing, U.S. President Joe Biden is visiting Europe for an emergency NATO summit, along with meetings of the G7 and the European Council, in what the bourgeois media is depicting as an “honor lap” of sorts after the shambolic Trump years. Read without the fog of bourgeois sentimentality, European capitalist politicians are welcoming Washington back as their prodigal king. This trip occurs in the immediate aftermath of Biden’s pledge to devote $3 billion from the $13.6 billion Ukraine “aid” package to increase U.S. NATO troops in Europe, and another $700 million to support Foreign Military Financing and to foster U.S. counter-espionage activities ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). This move can only be seen by the Russians as an escalation.
As of July 2021, the U.S. operates about 750 bases in at least 80 countries and spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined. Since the Pentagon publishes incomplete data, the number of bases may be even be higher. A significant number of these bases are located in NATO member countries: Germany (119 bases), Italy (44), the UK (25), Portugal (21), Turkey (13), and Belgium (11). Moreover, the U.S. deploys approximately 173,000 troops in 159 countries. Again, NATO member states host a large proportion, at least 60,000, of these troops, with the following breakdown: Germany (33,948), Italy (12,247), UK (over 9000), Spain (over 3000), Turkey (1600+), Belgium (1000+), and Norway (700+).
Interestingly, one of the agenda points of Biden’s summit with the Europeans will be to discuss NATO’s long-term deployment plans. In 1997 the U.S. and Russia signed an agreement in which the U.S. promised not to deploy troops permanently in frontline states. In 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, the U.S. began to exert a military presence in both Poland and the Baltic states, but “in rotating deployments to honor the letter of that agreement,” as reported by the Guardian. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has voided the deal, in the eyes of the U.S. and its NATO allies. Now the U.S. is pushing for permanent basing, which has long been the desire of the Baltic states.
The idea that U.S. bases and troops intervene in foreign countries to provide security and to promote human rights is belied by the real history of U.S. bases, as described in an excellent book, “Bases of Empire,” edited by the anthropologist and director of the Cost of War Project, Catherine Lutz. As Lutz shows, U.S. bases have many functions, none of which promote the security or human rights of host populations. For example:
• Basing comes with Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs), not just with NATO countries but anywhere Uncle Sam goes. These grant U.S. soldiers immunity from local laws.
• Bases expand U.S. military capacity to wage war—for example, when the U.S. used its bases in Guam, Thailand, and Philippines during the Vietnam War.
• Bases provide “R&R” for invading U.S. soldiers, inflicting the misogyny and racism of many of these troops on local populations.
• The CIA used secret bases in Laos to ship heroine to U.S. troops in Vietnam.
• Bases facilitate the shipment of U.S. materiel to its theaters of invasion and intervention.
• Bases enable the U.S. to manipulate local governments and to exert influence on them to change laws in the interests of U.S. capital.
• Base agreements often come with U.S. investment and trade treaties tying countries into U.S. trade relations and forcing liberalization and privatization.
The ultimate goal of NATO today is to secure the support of governments allied to the U.S. in the region, offer so-called “protection” and IMF/WB “financing” in exchange for austerity policies and privatization, as well as pushing forward imperialist policies abroad which benefit U.S. capital. It is a military alliance to back a concrete economic and political project.
All of this helps explain why Biden and NATO see the Russia war on Ukraine as an opportunity to escalate imperialist intervention. However, it is not just old school military intervention and basing that is at play. Since the 1970s, U.S. imperialism has morphed into something more indirect yet equally sinister: the promotion of rentier capitalism.
Rentier capitalism: Minerals, militarism, and FIRE
The decline in U.S. manufacturing generated a profitability crisis, going back to the early 1970s. To revive profitability, U.S. capitalism shifted toward “rentier” sectors such as the arms industry (aka. The military-industrial complex or MIC), finance-insurance-real estate (FIRE), and oil, gas, and mineral extraction (OGM). Rent-seeking capital, as opposed to surplus-value generating capital—for example, manufacturing or agriculture—seeks profits through monopolization of property, whether in the form of resources, financial assets, or so-called intellectual property. Often, rent-seeking capital is described as the search for profit without the contribution of social value (think of the activities of your typical sleazy landlord).
Rent-seeking capital, specifically the MIC, FIRE, and OGM sectors, has risen to dominance in the United States over the past generation, and the promotion of these sectors has been the raison d’etre both of domestic national politics and of NATO in that time. Since 1991, the alliance has primarily served U.S. interests, shifting European and other U.S. allies’ focus from their domestic spheres toward that of U.S. “national security.” As economist Michael Hudson has explained, NATO has become, in effect, Europe’s foreign policy ministry, dominating domestic economic interests.
“Rejection of the peace dividend,”seen in Marxist terms, refers to the fear of the U.S. ruling class losing control over NATO and dollar-area states as they have sought increased trade with both Russia and China. MIC interests such as Raytheon, Boeing, and Lockheed-Martin generate their profits from “monopoly rent,” specifically from sales to NATO countries and Middle East oil exporters. These companies’ stocks rose sharply right after the Russian invasion, explains Hudson. Germany, for example, announced that it will raise arms spending to over 2 percent of GDP.
Meanwhile, the Nordstream 2 pipeline connecting Russia with Central and Western Europe has been seen as a major threat by the U.S. energy capitalist sector. Exerting intense pressure on European countries, especially Germany, to remain in U.S.-controlled supply networks and, more generally, isolating Russia (and Iran) from global energy markets, have been important motives for U.S. policy in recent years.
Finally, there is FIRE: Its profits are generated primarily through land rents paid to the banks in the form of mortgage interest and debt amortization (the paying off of debt over time in principal and interest). Approximately 80 percent of US and UK bank loans go to the real estate sector, in whose interest it is to maximize “capital gains” from rising land rent and the privatization of economies, inserting rent-seeking monopolies into public services, education, health care, and transport.
It is these three sectors of capital that dominate both domestic politics in the United States and NATO policy in Europe. None of this is to say that we agree with the campist line that Russia, or China, represent some sort of balance of power, let alone an emancipatory alternative to the NATO-dominated world order. In this clash between competing imperialisms, it is the workers both of Ukraine and of Russia that stand to suffer most. No workers—Ukrainian, Russian, or otherwise—have an interest in either of the imperialist camps.
Just as the working class is the only class that produces the wealth of society, it is the only social force that can permanently end wars. We therefore agree with and amplify the statement by our comrades in the Revolutionary Socialist Network: “It’s the internationalist solidarity of the workers of the world, in total independence of imperialist powers, that can force the retreat of Russian troops and put an end to these wars by overthrowing our own ruling classes.”
Photo: U.S. Army