The US NATO Debate: A Review

Magnus Peterson is at once a historian, a political scientist, and a sociologist. If he added to these the role of autobiographer, he would surely tabulate these former positions for the convenience of the reader. In a threadbare analysis of speeches and policy statements by NATO officials, the Obama Administration, Congress, and the so-called ‘media/think-tank environment’ concerning the role of American leadership during the period in NATO’s history as bookended by the Libyan War (2011) and the Ukrainian Crisis (2012), Peterson attempts to make the claim that there is (was) a debate being waged on this subject, though by his own admission, no one with whom he consulted on this matter seems to agree with him. What Peterson describes instead is a sort of soft dissonance in the views and statements originating from the three major headings under which he has organized his sources. Therefore, the truth, which may be summed up in just a half dozen words or so (there is and was no debate), would do a great disservice to Peterson’s efforts. If only he had added the subtitle: Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and dispensed with the cocktail-napkin forward in which he negates his own premise, his book might have been a best seller. At least he might have gotten the typical chapter-by-chapter recap which has been the protocol in this review series. Instead, it is necessary to provide a point-by-point refutation of his concept, methodology, and conclusion.



What Peterson sets out to do is odd. On the surface, the book appears to be a product of the highest order of research. The sources are profuse, and the material is well organized, to a fault. There is page after page of statements from dozens of people, some in public speeches, and others in editorials or congressional hearings, meaning Peterson (and his team) have mined an extensive amount of primary material, mostly of politicians making promises to NATO members and aspirants. Peterson looks for language in the rhetoric which is (to him) indicative of either a ‘minimalist’ or ‘maximalist’ view of America’s role in NATO and of the organization itself in the affairs of others. In the minimalist sense, NATO is merely a military tool. In the maximalist sense, it is the ‘hub’ of a ‘global security network,’ which seeks to export western values and democracy (presumably, to all the places which do not already possess these commodities). It is well that Peterson chose to look into the rhetoric of career politicians and defense officials for strong, emotional, and loaded language, or else it’s possible that no one would have ever found it there.

Furthermore, though Peterson has observed a change in the rhetoric over the three years examined among its (then) sixty-seven year history, he would have to concede that in terms of Policy, (capital ‘P’) the US hadn’t really moved an inch from its position in 2011 at the end of 2014. The US was just as visibly, verbally, and vocally in full support of NATO allies, of the NATO missions, and the NATO principles, in thought, speech, and action, at the close of Peterson’s 167 pages as it had been during the prologue. That much is an objective fact. That a US president started out wary of excessive zeal, and ultimately warmed up to the reigns as time went on is no great revelation. Nor is the notion that congressmen and tabloids can get away with brassy machismo in ways the president can not. But even Peterson is unwilling to adhere to his own preconceived duality, and before long, ‘minimalist’ and ‘maximalist’ begin to abrogate into ambiguously modified conditions of moderate, such as ‘moderate-low’ or ‘moderate-high.’

The substance of this duality is yet another arbitrary rhetorical device: the question of leadership. While at no point does Peterson or any of the myriad officials he cites elaborate in any meaningful way about what “leadership” of a consensus based organization actually involves, let alone implies, all parties seem equally convinced in advance that America either is or ought to be doing the leading. One may assume that by America, each party is in fact referring to the Commander in Chief specifically, and in the most republican of senses, because the American people en masse have and have had little to no influence on US NATO policy, and there is little evidence of any forthcoming public interest to that end. Peterson’s overt exclusion of any venue of public opinion south of ‘think tank’ is evidence aplenty that the general public has no role to play in deciding NATO’s future beyond that of third-party paymaster, warm-body reserve, and the cynical, latent, daily expectation of an unfettered status quo.

Lastly, in this exhibition of inherent shortcomings, the question of utility remains unaddressed. In other words, once all of the statements made on the future of NATO by a given group in a given period have been divided between the two arbitrary dipoles, moderate high and moderate low, what is the use of these observations, and to whom? It seems that this perceived duality between the language of the administration and the language of the congress (and its cadre of self-sponsoring rhetoric factories) implies a debate between two rival camps concerning the future of US NATO hegemony. Another view of this discrepancy (if there is one) between the two didactic modes (moderate low, moderate high; or minimalist view, maximalist view) is that it more likely results from the career-bearing and campaign circumstance of the speakers themselves. That is to say, when addressing members of NATO (i.e. foreign ministers, diplomats, and figureheads) it is less likely that US representatives will admonish the host for deficits in its support, or failures to heed the primacy of US policy, but it is more likely, in fact, that they will speak in just these tones when addressing one another or their constituencies. The material with which to make these distinctions is surely available within the pages of this work, to the certain credit of Mr. Peterson, and the accomplishment of this task would have validated much of the premise and methodology of this work (in the opinion of this reviewer). It is unfortunate in this respect that this has been left undone.

Perhaps the absence of popular debate is itself perilous. Quoting Lawrence Kaplan, Peterson does heed the significance of these questions: “Too little attention has been paid to the West-West conflicts that arguably have been more frequent and often more bitter if not more dangerous than the struggle with the Soviet Union. In fact, the only arena in which Mr. Peterson’s thesis can be appropriately applied is the North Atlantic Council itself. But policy is not so mercurial as political rhetoric. Perhaps speeches are persuasive (they are rarely as informative), but they often have little to no effect on the budgets or missions in being, and certainly less are their influence on the natural conditions which constrain those budgets.

That said, a better approach to the ‘Minimalist-Maximalist’ debate (or dissonance, if the reader has been persuaded) would be an explicit, across the board analysis of each NATO member nation’s per-capita, per--GDP contributions, both material and mammalian, to the various missions of NATO. Does Peterson correctly address this question? On page six, he cites an article from the Washington Times (2012), a webinar, and the BBC for US troop levels from in 1953 and “the beginning of the 1990’s.” He notes that “a new generation of policy makers in the United States does not have the same Eurocentric worldview that the former generation has.” (p. 6)

This is half true. The former generation was far more isolationist than the present generation, outside the years of actual world war in which “eurocentrism” was simply otherwise unavoidable. But in point of fact, this generation of policy-makers is far more globalist than any generation in history, as is also copiously evidenced in Mr. Peterson’s selection of remarks. He also describes the character and content of those megalithic institutions of academia which produce the talking points in DC, listing three (out of 1,500) of them with a combined annual funding in excess of $350 million as examples. (p. 19) In fact the book is replete with the names of NGO’s and “foundations” across the world whose own accounting would likely only muddy any reasonable attempt to produce an authoritative log of every nation’s contribution.

During his exposition of the Libyan War and NATO’s air campaign in that conflict, Peterson does quote representative Mike Coffman of Colorado, speaking in October of 2011: “I think only 4 of our 28 NATO allies are spending the required 2 percent required under the NATO charter.” (p. 31) On the following page, he cites the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, quoting Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, speaking in May of that same year: “Europe and the United States still make more than 54% of world GDP and over 90% of global foreign exchange holdings.” Later in the Libyan chapter, he cites John McCain, the Senator from Arizona, “...I would remind my colleagues, of the 28 members of NATO, only 8 members are actually in the fight.” (p. 40) This was in July, 2011. Leon Panetta is later quoted in Brussels as applauding the increased level of participation of the European Allies during this conflict. (p. 51)

Peterson subsequently demonstrates the commitment of the Obama administration, through various speeches and promises made in France and before the European parliament, on the “revitalization” of the NATO alliance, even as the so-called ‘think-tank’ environment condemned his lack of leadership. It would seem that the removal of Gaddafi, the prevention of a Bosnia-style massacre, and the renewal of European interest in the NATO mission are not enough to sate some critics.

Peterson’s next chapter focuses on the title themes “The Chicago Summit and the Syria Conflict.” (p. 69) As the Syrian crisis unfolds, Peterson observes a shift in the language of the Obama administration and the successive State Departments concerning NATO, particularly an increase in the word values. If a speech contains the word, Peterson files it under the ‘maximalist’ heading, and therefore interprets the rising instance of the term as an increasing prevalence of western interest in political and cultural applications of NATO, extra corpus.

It would seem that Peterson has discovered, hidden within the byzantine transmissions of highly secretive public statements and classified editorials in the Saturday evening news, evidence that NATO has spilled well beyond its own borders into the most distant lands on the globe, overtly negating its founding premise of collective security and regional defense, to offer its services as arbiting mercenary to the peoples of the third world. But he is hesitant to say so, for fear someone might hear him. He, and the reader, could have easily learned as much viewing the public web page of the organization, which provides an interactive map of all the NATO force and asset distribution on the continents. Incidentally, the chapter also mentions a new (and long awaited) shift in diplomatic priority from the Atlantic Ocean toward (if not yet to) the Pacific, and from the transatlantic partnerships toward Asiatic collaboration. In simplest terms, the revelation is that the US intends not only to be the principal architect of the western security complex, but eventually, also the patriarch of the eastern security complex as well. Who best to profit in the event the interests of the two conflict? Or, more interestingly, against whom might the interests of the two great power centers conflate? One hopes the answer is space aliens, but history teaches that the answer will be the poor, agrarian cultures whence resources and cheap labor most readily proceed. Those will send the grain, the steal, and the soldiers. The rest will merely send money and instructions, after a vote, of course.

Foremost heralds of this terminal inevitability were, at the time of the emerging Syrian conflict, Nancy DeViney (IBM) and Edgar Buckley, (former Assistant Secretary General), who “argued for a more distinct cultural role for NATO:

Culturally, NATO’s default behavior patterns no longer match its vocation and mission. The fundamental cultural problem is that it has not adapted its political approach and military means to match its modern role as an international security organization with responsibilities going beyond simple defense.” (p. 98)

This is immediately followed with rhetoric which romanticizes “remaining true to its mission and identity,” (Ibid) in the same breath as language like “cultural foundations...adapt...new strategies…(and) every [sic] changing.” True to its history, Syria proved to be the point at which the roads of diplomacy from Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and Africa all intersect. But the scale is even bigger. Peterson cites Druva Jaishankar in 2012 who “argued that NATO should defend the ‘global commons’ that is, the space, cyber, and maritime domains.” (p. 105) The phrase ‘global commons’ is at once a delightful Freudian slip and an ominous Orwellian travesty. It simply does not get any more maximalist than subordinating the skies, seas, and webs of every nation to a single, centralized, minoritarian, consulate authority.

From this point on, references by all parties to NATO as some form of “global” security service are a flood. But in Peterson’s taxonomy, the administration’s language and that of the media differ in the absence of cultural considerations on the part of the former (minimalist), whereas the two differ from congress in that the later apparently has no view of NATO as a military tool, according to Peterson’s signature tablature, wherein, Ironically, the three groups agree, NATO is a political tool. (p. 113) Peterson, nonetheless, holds the line: “...a moderate role for NATO in US security policy during the Chicago Summit and Syrian conflict.” (Ibid)

Peterson’s final chapter concerns the “Ukraine Crisis and the Wales Summit.” (p. 115) FInally, a principle upon which the prefab policy direction may be articulated! Obama, speaking in 2014, “Bigger nations must not be allowed to bully the small, or impose their will at the barrel of a gun or with masked men taking over buildings. And the stroke of a pen can never legitimize the theft of a neighbor’s land.” (p. 128) It is here that Obama transcends the concept of ambient defense, of global security, of international consensus based policy trajectories, and of unified command structures, and perpetual wars of liberation. And it is here that Peterson’s core observation is most succinctly undermined. If the ascendent status quo can be described as moderate, what is the point of the rating system in the first place?

In the Ukrainian crisis, the US refused to defend the Ukraine (using much softer language, of course) on grounds that is was not a member nation, and for that reason could not precipitate an Article 5 resolution. If this position is interpreted on the presumption of a moderate, semi-objective, semi-neutral foreign policy view, then the full ramifications of this position are obscured. In point of fact, this position accomplishes a number of conflicting (yet desired) outcomes at once. It precludes an armed US reaction against a militarily superior foe. In so doing, proponents may argue, it also precludes the possibility of a nuclear war, though this much remains to be seen. But it does this while simultaneously reaffirming the older, more defensive conceptualization of NATO (in spite of its burgeoning status within the context of a global security apparatus) among members, and also advertizing to the nonaligned world the potentially gruesome consequences of disregarding what George Washington famously admonished as “entangling alliances.” But most of all, these conditions, when taken together, amount to an elevation of the prestige of NATO membership to the very philosophical sacrality of Self Determination itself. Ukrainian blood may induce the other aspirant nations to run faster, before the castle gates slam closed, or before the beasts at their heels overtake them.

The world does not stand still, transfixed by the crisis in Syria, which has outlived Peterson’s narrative. Perhaps this is why in the beginning of the book, when the author relays his experiences telling “US experts that I was doing research on the US NATO debate,” that they all replied in kind “What debate?” (p. IX) There really isn’t one. There exists an unquantifiable body of commentary, remarks, criticisms, and rhetoric on the subject. But outside the actual North Atlantic Council, all of those speeches and statements are made in simplex, into the wind, and to nowhere. They are not a corpus of dialogue, but merely an un-indexable cloud of monologues. Most were funded in utero by NGOs. All were prewritten, as in outlined in advance, drafted, edited, revised, reviewed, and rehearsed, with the help of staffers and gurus. Their didactic mode is persuasion, and therefore, their language, like Peterson’s reliance on the ambiguous term ‘moderate’, is designed to be unassailable. This no longer reflects a soundly rooted logos, which might withstand critical cross examination (Mr. Secretary, what are democratic values?). Instead, this language is designed to elude the sensationalist scrutiny of the western news cycle, perhaps so that the gears of that odious edifice never grind to a halt long enough for anyone to contemplate what is being suggested, formulate a coherent challenge based on organized principles, and choke out a response before the pistons fire again and the belt advances. The present generation of American youth is on one hand struggling to reign in an historic epidemic of domestic gun-crime, terrorism, and hate-speech, drug abuse, indigence, and poverty, while on the other hand being asked to subsidize arms for foreign security forces, and to commit the national economy to the defense of the rights of third world provinces who might invoke the holy right of self determination, like the power of Grey Skull, in absence of any other viable means of effecting such privilege; and to do all this essentially on credit no less, while in a profound state of record debt.. In this context, perhaps the use of the word ‘moderate’ isn’t just an indolent rhetorical device, but a dangerous obliviation of perspective against the backdrop of a poorly informed and habitually apathetic electorate, amidst the third major epoch of nuclear renovation (read: the third major failure of disarmament as a political lodestar on planet earth).

On the day of this review’s publication, the front page of the USA Today Weekend Edition featured Baseball, Pot Laws, Black Friday, and Obama’s prowess as a communicator. Evidence of Vladimir Putin’s connections to the Ukrainian separatist movement appeared on page five. Beyond this, as is commensurate with any periodical featuring a big bud-leaf on the masthead, there is no other mention of war, crisis, or conflagration whatsoever. There hasn’t been a real debate on anything in this country in years. Fortunately, there are the diligent and attentive souls like Mr. Peterson who expend extraordinary energies examining a subject as important as this and have seen fit to show the world what they have found, for the world’s sake in advance of their own. The US NATO Debate is a thoroughly inviting work worthy of praise for the effort alone. Its contents runneth over with detailed analysis, enough tables to seat a theater, and the occasional extra syllable on a word which would otherwise mean something different.

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