Sacred Honor & Lizard Brains: Let’s Talk NATO

Since the end of the Cold War, discussion of nuclear disarmament has been conspicuous by its absence from US politics—and, indeed, from debate and coverage in most countries. While the dangers of nuclear proliferation receive more attention, the intimate link between banning the Bomb and preventing its spread is rarely considered. The paradox is striking: as a non-nuclear peace came within reach, the subject, suddenly ‘unsexy,’ retreated from view. And the effect is insidious: the more we worry about keeping nuclear weapons out of the ‘wrong hands,’ the more reasonable it can seem for the ‘right hands’ to remain on the button.

Map showing NATO expansion.

NATO expansion.

As noted in my last column, President Barack Obama rhetorically champions the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world, despite his schizophrenic commitment to a massive modernization of the US arsenal. Many leading members of the American Cold War establishment, Democrat and Republican, have in recent years been converted to the abolitionist cause. Credit, however, for shaking confidence in the deeply-ingrained, ‘right hands, wrong hands’ view of the nuclear world is due not to Obama’s eloquence, or the cogent analyses of these hawks-turned-doves, but to the current Republican nominee for president. In his reported musings about using the Bomb; his openness to Japan, South Korea, and other states getting the Bomb; his questioning the relevance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); and his seeming fondness for Russia’s ‘strongman’ President Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump has blundered across some of the most significant and neglected questions facing his country—questions his Democratic opponent would much prefer not to address.


Post Cold War

By fateful irony, it was the rapid collapse of the Soviet Union that allowed NATO—an organization constituted solely in response to the Soviet threat—time to first regroup and then expand east towards Russia. If Mikhail Gorbachev had remained in power just a few years longer, his radical vision of a demilitarized, bloc-free, nuclear-weapons-free Europe and world would have gained traction, due not least to the immense financial ‘peace dividend’ certain to flow from such deep disarmament. Before his demise, in fact, Gorbachev agreed to the reunification of Germany—the state responsible for the deaths of 25 million Soviet citizens in World War II— after securing promises from West Germany and the US that NATO would not deploy troops in East Germany, let alone push into former Warsaw Pact territory.

By the mid-1990s, pressure was growing within NATO to break that commitment. The key vote, as ever, was America’s, and on 26 June 1997, an extraordinary bipartisan Open Letter to President Bill Clinton from over 40 former senators, officials and diplomats begged him to resist the temptation to exploit the military and socio-economic weakness of post-Soviet Russia. Given, the letter argues, that Moscow “does not now pose a threat to its western neighbours” and that “the nations of Central and Eastern Europe are not in danger,” expansion would prove “a policy error of historic proportions,” guaranteed only to “decrease allied security and unsettle European security.” Most alarmingly, such a move, “which continues to be opposed across the entire political spectrum” in Russia, would “strengthen the non-democratic opposition, undercut those who favor reform and cooperation with the West,” and “bring the Russians to question the entire post-Cold War settlement.”

Clinton rejected the appeal in part at the urging of his defense secretary, William Perry, now a staunch nuclear disarmament advocate. Speaking to journalists in Washington last year, Perry conceded that if the West now faced the prospect of a new Cold War with a profoundly mistrustful, nationalistically pro-nuclear Russia, “it’s as much our fault as it is” theirs. “We were on our way,” Perry added, “to forging a really positive and solid relationship, and then we announced we were going to expand NATO… That was the first move down the slippery slope.”


Awakening the Bear?

Most supporters of expansion, however, are far from contrite, caricaturing Putin’s Russia as an awakening Russian ‘bear,’ with its paws already on Crimea and only restrained from pouncing on
Eastern Europe and the Baltic states by NATO’s military, and particularly nuclear, might. Such a depiction, as Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen argued in The Nation in 2014, is a crude cartoon, refusing to acknowledge Moscow’s not unfounded fear that the West was attempting to manipulate political turmoil in Kiev to “smuggle the former Soviet republic” into NATO, together with the “cherished naval base” at Sevastopol in “predominantly Russian Crimea.”

Russian bear in snow.

Actual Russian bear as opposed to popular caricature.

“Deterrence is back,” a bloodcurdling article in NATO Review this March proclaimed, “and NATO needs to re-establish a robust and credible” set of nuclear war-fighting options. At their Summit in Warsaw this July, NATO leaders not only referred to nuclear weapons as part of an “appropriate mix” of capabilities but extolled the virtues of “separate centers” of nuclear “decision-making…complicating the calculations of potential adversaries.” Translation: it’s good that not only the US but Britain and France have and could use nuclear weapons, and it’s good that tactical nuclear weapons are deployed in five NATO states—Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey. The more the scarier. The scarier the better. No wonder Gorbachev despaired that “all the rhetoric in Warsaw just yells of a desire almost to declare war on Russia,” claiming “actually they are preparing for offensive operations.”

The only problem is that, under the terms of the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the US, Britain and France, together with Russia and China, are honor-bound to negotiate “in good faith” the elimination of their weapons. Nearly 50 years of bad faith later, the NPT is in deep crisis, with a majority of states voting at a UN Open-Ended Working Group in Geneva as recently as August 19 to recommend the opening of negotiations in 2017 on a convention banning the Bomb. The nuclear-weapon states boycotted the group, and all NATO participants either abstained (Norway, the Netherlands) or, like Canada, voted No. Writing in the Hill Times (August 24) former Canadian Disarmament Ambassador Doug Roche described the Canadian position as “an amazing diplomatic volte-face”: “At the very moment when Canadian leadership was…needed, Canada took a dive.”


Canada’s Bind

The Trudeau government, though, is in a genuine bind: it cannot remain true to the principles of both an anti-nuclear treaty and a pro-nuclear alliance. This is why the NDP traditionally opposed Canadian membership in NATO, a position abandoned under Jack Layton. According to a statement from Foreign Affairs critic Hélène Laverdière, the Party is “shocked by the Liberal government turning its back on nuclear disarmament” in Geneva. Tommy Douglas, however, would not have been shocked, and the question for the NDP today is whether it has the courage to choose the NPT over NATO or at least, like the Scottish National Party (SNP), argue the case for a non-nuclear alliance.

Honor, it would seem, is a relative concept. Speaking in Latvia in late August, US Vice President Joe Biden stressed: “we have pledged our sacred honor…to the NATO Treaty and Article Five,” the central Cold War commitment pledging mutual defence. But what about Article Six of the NPT, the “good faith” commitment to “cessation of the arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament?” Are the US and Canada really more interested in going back to a Cold War future, running again the risk of nuclear miscalculation and disaster? Speaking on MSNBC on August 24, the political commentator Alex Wagner described the image of the evil Russian bear as “wired into the lizard brain of America.” In 1955, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, demanding nuclear abolition, urged: “remember your humanity, and forget the rest.” But we still can’t compete, I guess, with the lizard and the bear.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton.




Photo Credits:

Russian bear photo by Julie R CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

NATO expansion map CC BY-SA 3.0,

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