Too Late to Shake NATO Awake?

It’s Stockholm, 14 December, 1992, and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev has begun to address over 50 of his counterparts at a summit meeting of the

Andrey Vladimirovich Kozyrev

Andrey Vladimirovich Kozyrev

Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), an institution widely considered instrumental in helping end the Cold War. Just two years after the November 1990 CSCE ‘Charter of Paris for a New Europe’ had boldly declared that the continent was “liberating itself from the legacy of the past,” Kozyrev is worried the chance to build a ‘Common European Home’ is being lost, a ‘peace dividend’ squandered by American-led NATO triumphalism. So, in diplomatic desperation, he decides: no time like the present, to pay a visit from the future…

“Great Russia,” Kozyrev growls, is back, determined to protect its own western flank, defending its Slavic brethren (and suddenly vulnerable Russian minorities) from a NATO wave threatening to wash through the former Warsaw Pact to the shore of the Baltics, or even Ukraine. Given the Alliance’s pursuit of “essentially unchanged” goals – military supremacy and strategic dominance – a counter-Alliance is once again needed; and so, as a “state capable of looking after itself and its friends…using all available means, including military,” Russia will require all “the former Soviet Republics” to “immediately join a new federation or confederation”.

As Trudy Rubin wrote in The Baltimore Sun, what the Foreign Minister “didn’t say, but what every diplomat was all too well aware of, was that Russia still possesses 11,000-plus nuclear weapons.” No wonder, when he “left the room,” most “diplomats stood stunned,” while US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger “rushed after him, demanding, ‘What is going on?’” A long hour later, he found out, when Kozyrev returned the podium to declare:

Neither President Yeltsin nor I will ever agree to what I read out in my previous speech. I did it so that you should all be aware of the real threats on our road to a post-Communist Europe.

Widely dismissed as a joke or hoax, it was instead, veteran New York Times columnist William Safire insisted  “a historic performance” by “the young man,” a “slap in the face…to say, ‘Wake up! Stop being so damnably complacent! To avert a return to a divided world, help us now’” – a rude awakening, admittedly, but one to which “the West’s diplomats should reply: ‘Thanks, we needed that.’”


The ‘sleep’, alas, was not broken. As the nightmarish ‘Back to the Future’ decade of the 1990s unfolded, NATO’s war-wagons rolled east, against the urgent, bipartisan advice of many senior retired US politicians, diplomats and officials. As a 1997 Open Letter to President Clinton, signed by 40 national security establishment luminaries, argued, while Moscow “does not now pose a threat to its western neighbors,” expanding the Alliance – a move “opposed across the entire political spectrum” in Russia – would be certain only to “undercut those who favor reform and cooperation with the West,” and “bring the Russians to question the entire post-Cold War settlement.”

Plenary hall during the 23rd OSCE Ministerial Council, Hamburg, 8 December 2016.

Plenary hall during the 23rd OSCE Ministerial Council, Hamburg, 8 December 2016. (Source: OSCE CC BY-ND 4.0)

On 1 January 1995, two years after Kosyrev’s performative prophecy, the CSCE became the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a change ostensibly intended to institutionalize and advance the pan-European agenda, embracing what the Budapest Declaration of December 1994 called ‘Genuine Partnership in a New Era.’ The day the declaration was signed, however, President Yeltsin foresaw the dawn of a ‘Cold Peace’ unless Washington changed its ‘victory march’ tune, abandoning the “dangerous delusion” that “the destinies of continents and of the world community in general can somehow be managed from one single capital.” While “we hear explanations,” Yeltsin scoffed, that NATO expansion “is allegedly the expansion of stability, just in case there are undesirable developments in Russia,” the real “objective is to bring NATO up to Russia’s borders,” in breach of multiple, unequivocal ‘security assurances’ offered to the Soviet Union in 1990-91 that the Alliance would expand “not an inch eastward

Writing in the American journal Foreign Policy in 1995, the year before he was replaced in a sharp hardline shift, Kozyrev justified his Stockholm ‘stunt,’ arguing that “although the ideas I presented were far from the most extreme held by Yeltsin’s opponents, they threw my Western counterparts into virtual panic: for a few moments they had a realistic glimpse of the kind of Russia they would have to deal with” if “Western politicians, again Americans in particular” continued to “substitute a strategy of rapid expansion of NATO” for “its fundamental transformation” into a defensive, denuclearized alliance seeking “partnership” with, not absorption of, “Eastern Europe, including Russia.”


On the sidelines of the 1994 Budapest Summit, Russia, the US, the UK, and Ukraine demonstrated the potential of disarmament diplomacy to positively shape the post-Cold War world, signing the ‘Budapest Memorandum’ confirming Ukraine’s relinquishment of Soviet nuclear weapons left on its territory, in return for security guarantees of non-interference in its internal affairs. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a gross violation of these commitments, but also a graphic illustration of “the kind of Russia” the West had by then to deal with, an ultranationalist autocracy embittered by a near-doubling of NATO from 16 states to 28, a surge swallowing most of Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Vaclav Havel and General Henry H. Shelton.

President Vaclav Havel (left), of the Czech Republic, is greeted as a new member of NATO by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Henry H. Shelton (right), U.S. Army, as he arrives for the North Atlantic Council meeting. The U.S. hosted NATO Summit meetings were held April 23-25, 1999 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Helene C. Stikkel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The total is now 30, with Bosnia and Herzegovina next in line and the former Soviet Republics of Georgia and Ukraine ‘aspiring’ to join, the latter with political encouragement and practical support (e.g. weapons and training) from Washington. The prospect of Ukrainian accession was at the root of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, designed in part to prevent the absorption of Sebastopol, for centuries the home port of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, into a ‘Western’ Alliance not only enjoying conventional superiority but still claiming its Cold War ‘right’ (outnumbered by the Red Army) to strike first with nuclear weapons. Moscow, too, has claimed that same ‘right’ since the mid-1990s, when Yeltsin renounced the doctrine of ‘No First-Use’ inherited from the last Soviet leader – and champion of a nuclear-weapon-free world – Mikhail Gorbachev.

And not only would both sides strike first to prevent or deter nuclear use; both would ‘go nuclear’ to deter or defeat non-nuclear attacks – conventional, chemical, biological, even cyber. As Admiral Charles Richard, head of US Strategic Command (STRATCOM), stated bluntly during a recent event at the Brookings Institution: “Nuclear is not separate from conventional”; hence the ‘need’, according to Air Force Magazine’s summary of his remarks, for a “new nuclear and conventional integration policy” – new not just for the US, but NATO.


On June 14, NATO leaders will meet at the Alliance’s new, $1.45 billion (!) HQ in Brussels to discuss what Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg all-knowingly defines as “the challenges of today and tomorrow,” a self-serving short list – “Russia’s aggressive actions, the threat of terrorism, cyber attacks, emerging and disruptive technologies, the security impact of climate change, and the rise of China” – inexcusably excluding the danger of nuclear war, or indeed the detrimental impact of astronomical military spending (almost $2 trillion in 2020, the Year of COVID!) on, for example, pandemic preparedness…

Leaders will also be charged with reviewing a report, NATO 2030: United for a New Era, published in November 2020 by a ‘Reflection Group’ appointed by Stoltenberg in the turbulent wake of President Trump’s description of NATO as “obsolete,” and French President Macron’s diagnosis of strategic “brain death.”

NATO HQ Brussels

Exterior view of the new NATO headquarters

The Reflection Group, however (10 pro-NATO “independent experts”) was tasked not to reason ‘why’ – to finally answer the basic questions posed by Kozyrev in 1995: “What is the raison d’être of NATO today?” and “Who is its real enemy?” – but rather explore ‘how’ Alliance “unity, solidarity, and cohesion,” given and taken as a self-evident good, can be increased. For what is too good for a “strategic anchor in uncertain times,” drawing on its “success in the Cold War” to keep at bay not only the Russian ‘Bear’ but now the Chinese ‘Dragon’ (added to the list of NATO adversaries in 2019 at the xenophobic behest of the Trump Administration)?

And to combat, maybe literally, both Russia and China will certainly require – as the report takes pains to stress – a hellish amount of firepower (conventional and nuclear), correspondingly massive ‘investments,  and the pursuit of “dominance” in every “arena” opened by emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs), e.g., “big data, Artificial Intelligence, autonomous capabilities, space, cloud technologies, hypersonic and new missile technologies, quantum technologies and biotechnologies, and human augmentation/enhancement.”

A “strategic surge” in all these areas is necessary, we are told, to maintain NATO’s “edge” and “ability to win on the battlefield.” But the jewel in the Alliance’s crown remains its spectrum of nuclear capabilities: the long-range, thermonuclear weapons of the US, UK, and France (thousands of warheads, each capable of killing millions) and around a hundred American short-range, ‘dial-a-yield’ bombs (each capable of killing many thousands), ‘hosted’ at air bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. In recent years, and particularly since Coronavirus lockdowns literally brought home the importance of ‘human’ rather than ‘national’ security, the popularity in NATO states of nuclear weapons in general, and ‘nuclear sharing’ in particular, has steeply declined, a fall also explained by the ‘new light’ cast on the issue by a fast-rising star, the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the ‘Ban Treaty’ NATO continues to regard with a cool, porcelain disdain at odds with public sentiment.

In Canada, for example, 74% of 1,007 respondents to a Nanos poll conducted in late March ‘supported’ (55%) or ‘somewhat supported’ (19%) Canada signing and ratifying the Ban. (Quebec – 82% – and Atlantic Canada – 74% –were the most enthusiastic regions, the Prairies – 65% – the least.) Almost the same number, 73%, agreed or somewhat agreed that Canada should join “even if, as a member of NATO, it might come under pressure from the United States not to do so.” And in a striking indication of the Treaty’s stigmatizing impact, 71% declared they “would withdraw money from any investment or financial institution…investing funds in anything related to the development, manufacturing or deployment of nuclear weapons.”


The NATO 2030 Report dutifully rides to the rescue of the status quo, insisting not only that “nuclear-sharing arrangements” are a “critical element” of NATO’s “security guarantees,” but that the “political value of this commitment is as important as the military value it brings”. But what does this mean, except that ‘nukes’ – acting as a kind of atomic adhesive, or Superweapon superglue – are needed as much to prevent internal division as deter external threat? Isn’t that rather a high price to pay, absurd risk to run, for “unity?”

Counting the many blessing of the Bomb is essential, the Report argues, to “counter hostile efforts to undermine” the Alliance’s “vital policy” of nuclear dependence. The ‘hostility’ presumably emanates from the Nobel Peace-Prize winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and other Ban Treaty supporters, an ‘emerging and disruptive’ threat – first the Bear, then the Dragon, now the Dove! – NATO needs to counter by insisting the TPNW “will never contribute to practical disarmament, nor will it affect international law.” In January this year, however, with its 50th ratification, the Treaty became international law, fully-binding on its growing membership. And if that membership, to date, includes none of the nuclear-armed nine (China, France, Israel, India, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, UK, US) or their 32 pro-Bomb allies, its contribution to disarmament may yet prove decisive if it can generate new perspectives, inspire deep debates – and inform new policies – within NATO and beyond.

Interior, NATO HQ, Belgium, 2018.

Interior, NATO HQ, Belgium, 2018. (Photo by Swadim, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Canadian Government recently insisted that the Ban Treaty’s “provisions are inconsistent with Canada’s collective defensive obligations as a member of NATO.” This is a favourite means of ‘cementing’ the Alliance’s pro-Bomb façade: but is it true? The famous ‘collective defense’ provision (Article V) of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty states only that an attack against one is an attack against all, not how such aggression should be deterred or responded to. As Canadian activist Ray Acheson details in her superb contribution to Peace Research Perspectives on NATO 2030, “a look at how NATO came to identify as a nuclear weapon alliance indicates, rather than ‘compromise’ achieved through ‘statecraft’, the process was more like obedience reached through intimidation.”

To keep hopes of disarmament alive, saner NATO states like Denmark and Canada insisted that the Alliance’s first Strategic Concept (1950) did not embrace or endorse collective nuclear defense. After years of Anglo-American bullying and arm-twisting, the second Strategic Concept (1957) did – a fateful surrender greatly increasing, as Canada complained, the chances “of the atomic sword being unsheathed.”

False narratives – and histories – can generate false consciousness, constraining or eliminating options for change; and such fabrication, as peace researcher Michael Brzoska writes in ‘Bending History, Risking the Future,’ is the dangerous hallmark of the new ‘study’:

Foremost among the events the report does not mention are Russian opposition to the extension of NATO to the East, the illegality of the Western wars in Kosovo and Iraq, and Western contributions to the dismemberments of arms control arrangements.

As a result, Brzoska worries, the report “bodes ill for the future,” strengthening “the view, already accepted in many NATO countries, of a Western world, with NATO as its ‘strategic anchor,’ that has been innocently drawn into the quagmires created by evil others.”

As an exercise in ‘reflection,’ in fact, NATO 2030 rather resembles the narcissistic architecture of the new Headquarters, a 250,000 square-meter complex (comparable in size to UN HQ!) of “shiny glass and steel interlocking buildings,” housing 4,000 staff, with “glazing equivalent to 10 football pitches, sleek, airport terminal-like halls” and an “amphitheatre-like…decision-making chamber”: a high-tech temple with a “central IT brain”  – and 60,000 sensors – which I heard a former disarmament diplomat describe as a “glass mausoleum.”

Sixty thousand sensors – and no clue about peace.

What a joke!

Featured image: NATO HQ Brussels.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.