Why is NATO wrong?

The NATO is treated as beyond moral judgment: for most politicians in Europe, it simply exists, like gravity. For them, the only issues are: who should join, and where should it intervene? Nevertheless, the NATO has no moral basis: its existence and its fundamental purpose are wrong - let alone its interventions.

Revised October 2002, last changes 05 December 2004.

A good illustration of the ethics of the NATO is the issue of hunting - a classic political controversy, in several west European countries. Imagine two countries, one with 25 million voters, one with 125 000 voters. In each country 80% of the population is aggressively pro-hunting, 20% are totally opposed. In both countries free and fair referenda are often held on the issue. The anti-hunt people always lose: after all, they are in the minority. So why does this large minority - the 5 million opponents - not secede? Why do they not form an anti-hunt state? If a state (Iceland) with about 125 000 voters is viable, then a state with 5 million voters should be viable.

There are two main reasons. First, hunt and anti-hunt populations live alongside each other. In reality, there is no town or village in Europe where all voters take one view on hunting. Secondly, such a secession would contravene the basic principles of the present world order of nation states. That order replicates planet-wide the Europe of nation states, which emerged during the 19th century. It restricts state formation to peoples, ethno-cultural and ethnic groups. There is a Britain, there is an Iceland, but there can be no anti-hunt state. Therefore, in the real world, there are pro-hunt states.

But suppose the minority did secede anyway? Would some outside force intervene to restore the status quo? The answer on a global scale is, perhaps. The answer in Europe is: yes. There are organisations which have the implicit function of preserving the order of states, and its underlying principles. At a global level, although weak, there is the United Nations. In Europe it is primarily the NATO which has this function, secondarily the European Union. The NATO belongs to a category of boundary-fixing entities, which are probably inherent in all world orders constructed from one type of state. In other words, if there are any other planets with nation states, then they probably have NATO-type organisations also.

This function is morally wrong: any secession-preventing, boundary-fixing organisation of this kind, prevents innovation in state formation. It usually does this at the expense of a minority. It is conservative in the strict sense of the word, and it is unjust.

The structure of the NATO

Like the EU, the NATO is an alliance of nation states. Its political structure assures its control by these nation states. These nation states are represented in the NATO, by their political and military elites.

In other words, the structure of the NATO excludes many entities, and excludes many people. No person can join the NATO as an individual. Nor can they join the NATO as a group or association. They can not usually choose to join the NATO as part of a preferred nation: pro-NATO Albanians are not allowed to simply emigrate to Italy, to enjoy life in the NATO. In general, persons are born into a nation state: if that state is a member, they are in the NATO. If it is not, they are not. They can not leave the NATO either - not as an individual, and not as an association. Cross-border membership of the NATO, or cross-border exit from the NATO, is impossible.

Those who are not a member of a government (or military commanders), can not participate in NATO decision making - even if they accept their involuntary membership through their nation. In sociological terms, the NATO, as a military and diplomatic organisation, draws its staff from the upper-class and 'officer caste' of each member country. Although there is no formal exclusion, in practice persons from low-status social groups can not take part in NATO decision-making. That includes some ethnic minorities - a NATO Secretary-General from the Roma minority is unthinkable.

NATO is an alliance of nation states: it exists partly to defend those states. (In theory, an alliance of nation states to dissolve themselves is a possibility: clearly the NATO is not such an alliance, but its exact opposite). As a security alliance of nation states, NATO enforces their existence. In doing so, the NATO enforces the following characteristics of nation states

  1. the NATO enforces the permanence of each member state, restricting its innovative abolition
  2. the NATO enforces the transgenerational nature of community inside nation states - restricting individual freedom from inherited tradition
  3. the NATO reinforces attempts by nation states, to impose some form of national core culture
  4. the NATO enforces the codification of economic and technological activity along national lines, especially through national standards - restricting innovation which conflicts with these national standards
  5. the NATO restricts the freedom of each individual to secede from the nation of residence, although in eastern Europe the NATO sometimes supports secession of national groups (and national groups only)
  6. the NATO enforces the contiguous territory of nation states. All of the NATO area is covered by its members territory: there is no reserve territory to found innovative states.

Imposing the values of the NATO

The NATO is not, and can not, be politically neutral. It has values, which it imposes by military force. In their declaration preceding the Kosovo campaign, the NATO leaders say: "The crisis in Kosovo represents a fundamental challenge to the values for which NATO has stood since its foundation: democracy, human rights and the rule of law." NATO values must be inferred from this and similar documents, because there is no formal list of values, no formal declaration. Here is the official NATO position, from spokesman Eric Povel:

There is no 'Declaration of NATO values'. But one of the basic documents where later on NATO was founded, is the 'Atlantic Charter' of 14 August 1941 as issued by the US President and UK Prime Minister. You can find it in our on-line library under the NATO Handbook as part of NATO Documentation. Here you find a "declaration of principles common to our peoples", as they put it in 1942. The Washington Treaty of 1949 mentions in its introduction that "the Parties to this Treaty reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the UN .... to safeguard .... principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law".

These NATO values are not emphasised within the member states. After all, they coincide with the national values, and national political structures. There is no reason for the NATO to march though the streets of Belgium or Germany, proclaiming the free market economy. But things are radically different in a NATO intervention. In military interventions, the NATO can, and does, kill people - to enforce a free market, and liberal democracy. Inevitably, it also enforces the results of those ideologies in the process. The NATO values are stated explicitly in a 1997 speech by Václav Havel:

...Euro-Atlantic values, especially the respect and care for human rights, democracy, the rule of law and the free market economy, must be defended by those who subscribe to them. The new European security system must be built by democratic forces. The North Atlantic Alliance is, as recent experience has shown, the most appropriate means of ensuring the collective security of our values.
Václav Havel: NATO and the Czech Republic: A common destiny

It is not necessary to consider all of these values, to judge the ethics of the NATO. The ideology or 'grand narrative' underlying the NATO is the subject of a 1998 book by David Gress, From Plato to NATO. At its beginning, the NATO consciously identified itself with a model of historical progress towards Anglo-Saxon liberal market democracy. In recent years, such values are once again an explicit goal of western military policy, above all in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obviously some people, including Václav Havel and his admirers, do support these NATO values. The point is, that others do not.

The NATO can not claim neutrality between these two groups, and therefore cannot claim to be neutral. In general, the values of the NATO are those of the European liberal tradition, which have also become the national values of the United States, and the basis of the Anglo-American liberal world view. Yet the NATO undertakes military actions, and often these are legitimised as 'peacekeeping' or 'peace enforcement', as if it were a neutral referee. Even if peace itself was morally neutral (which it is not), NATO actions inevitably enforce NATO values. At the end of the action, territory is controlled by the NATO, and NATO values are enforced on that territory. These values are enforced, not only against the forces defeated or disarmed by NATO, but also against any subsequent secession based on non-NATO values. Any successful NATO military intervention is a de facto war of conquest, in favour of certain claimed universal values. It has the nature of a moral crusade.

The NATO recognises no objections of conscience to its values. It does not demand direct loyalty to itself as an organisation, except in the case of its direct employees. However, NATO armies are composed of units from national armies. These armies do enforce loyalty, sometimes with the death penalty. So far as I know there is no criminal offence anywhere, of disloyalty or treason to the NATO. Equally, however, there is no mechanism for conscientious objection to its values. In theory, a person conscripted into a NATO army, could be executed for refusing to enforce a free market in Kosovo - but it would be a national military court that pronounced sentence.

Such a trial is not very likely: it would be politically embarrassing, and besides, there was a free-market economy in Kosovo before KFOR arrived. The example shows however, that there is no clear legal recognition, that the NATO has specific values. There is no NATO recognition of specific objections of conscience - specifically relating to the NATO, that is. In itself, that is a NATO failure with respect to freedom of conscience. NATO has no moral grounds for enforcing loyalty even on its direct employees, if they have conscientious objections to its values.


The NATO now seeks to expand its membership: that brings new areas and new populations under its control. Although universal values were always in the background, during the Cold War the NATO was more of a military alliance. The boundary with the Soviet bloc in Europe was rigidly fixed. Now, the NATO wishes to include all of Europe - preceded by conversion of the eastern European states into acceptable member states. Membership of NATO is generally the last phase of the 'transition' in eastern Europe. (Although there are many possible 'transitions', the term is now used only to mean 'transition to a market democracy'). In the US foreign policy elite, there is talk of expansion of the NATO, outside the European continent, and NATO member Turkey already borders directly on Iraq.

It is morally wrong for the NATO to expand without limit - that would ultimately enforce NATO values on the whole planet. That, in turn, will block alternative future worlds - a classic form of conservatism.

Historic background

The NATO began after the Second World War, but its origins lie in proposals for a 'union of democracies' in the 1930's. That reflected the emergence of Atlanticism as a specific geopolitical vision, after the successful US intervention in the First World War. Some of the proposals are even older, dating back to the late 19th century: H. G. Wells was one advocate of such a union. These union proposals were usually based on Anglo-Americanism as an ideology, and a belief in the superiority of liberal-democratic parliamentary government. Outside the English-speaking world, they had much less support. That changed after 1945. The second successful intervention of the USA in Europe, in the Second World War, gave an impetus to this model that has lasted 50 years.

The NATO was, and is, as Havel says, "Euro-Atlantic". It could not exist, without the widespread Atlanticism in western Europe. In fact the political elites in western Europe are almost exclusively Atlanticist. The NATO symbolises by its own existence, that there is no European entity capable of resisting the United States. Two generations in western Europe have grown up with this sense of powerlessness and inability. It is ironic that US politicians now complain, that Europeans expect too much from the USA in military commitments. It was, and still is, a theme of US propaganda, that the USA is the sole protector of Europe. The acceptance of that propaganda is a measure of the total acceptance of Atlanticism in Europe.

So the NATO is also an expression of a geopolitical ideal: that Europe should consist of nation states, and not of a European-scale state. In the NATO vision of Europe, each nation state in Europe is primarily allied to the United States of America, the ultimate arbiter of the pattern of states on the European continent. The NATO is an alliance with the US military forces, which are deployed in Europe to enforce this pattern. This in itself is a justification for European rejection of the NATO: it is in a sense an 'occupation force' of Atlanticists.

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