April 6, 2023
HONG KONG – On April 4, 1949, when the North Atlantic Treaty (the Washington Treaty) was signed in Washington, DC, the then-US president, Harry Truman, assured the world that nobody need be concerned by it. Although, he said, “there are those who claim that this treaty is an aggressive act on the part of the nations which ring the North Atlantic”, this was “absolutely untrue”. It would, he promised, “be a positive, not a negative, influence for peace,” and its abuse by his successors would have dismayed him.
The treaty was based on the United Nations Charter (Article 51), which affirms the right of independent states to individual or collective defense. It recognized that armed force could be used “to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic Area” (Article 5). It was, therefore, purely a regional security pact.
Once the treaty was signed by its 12 founders, including the US, the UK and France, it resulted in the creation of the North Atlantic Alliance. Shortly afterward, it spawned the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), headquartered in Belgium, with a supreme allied commander (currently US General Christopher G. Cavoli). With NATO’s creation, a military structure was in place to implement the alliance’s defensive agenda.
The significance of the treaty lay in the involvement of the US, given that this was its first peacetime military alliance outside the Western Hemisphere. Whereas the US saw the treaty as a means of projecting its influence in Europe in the aftermath of World War II, the other signatories wanted to tie the US closely to the UK and Europe, believing this was their best defense against any threats posed by the Soviet Union.
As the NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, explained on Jan 30, 2023, “NATO was established as a response to the threats we saw from the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union after the Second World War. And that was our main, that was the main focus.”
The Soviet threat, however, was only part of the story, and the treaty’s signatories also hoped the alliance would help to prevent any revival of extreme nationalism in Europe, as well as stimulating Europe’s political integration.
The US, moreover, together with seven allies (including, once again, the UK and France), was also instrumental in creating the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), in Manila, in 1954. Its model was NATO, and it was hoped that the eight militaries could be coordinated in the interests of collective defense. With the exception, however, of the Philippines and Thailand, SEATO members were not located in Southeast Asia, and the US, which footed almost 25 percent of its bills, saw it as a part of its Cold War containment policy.
After, however, the US-backed government in South Vietnam was defeated in 1975, France withdrew its support, and SEATO was dissolved in 1977, meaning the US had to find new methods of projecting its influence in the Far East.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of the European Union, and the marginalization of Europe’s far right, the rationale for NATO largely disappeared, although the last thing the US wanted was to see it going the way of SEATO, as it was far too useful for that.
Washington, therefore, encouraged NATO to expand its membership, urged it to become more aggressive, and sanctioned “mission creep”, becoming involved in areas unrelated to its own.
In 1999, for example, NATO launched a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War. Before doing so, however, the US and its allies sought the approval of the UN Security Council. Although this was not forthcoming, NATO nonetheless unleashed its bombs in violation of the UN Charter, which, in Chapter VIII, prohibits the use of force without Security Council approval save for self-defense against an armed attack.
In 2011, moreover, a NATO-led coalition intervened militarily in Libya’s civil war, supporting rebels seeking to topple the country’s leader, Moammar Gaddafi. Although it was claimed that the intervention was designed to protect the civil population, it was apparent to many that it was actually about regime change, with Gaddafi having been, for many years, a thorn in the flesh of the US.
Indeed, in 1986, when Washington mounted its “Operation El Dorado Canyon”, 100 planes bombed Libya’s two main cities, Tripoli and Benghazi. The barracks containing the residential compound where Gaddafi and his family lived were specifically targeted, and although he survived, his infant daughter, Hana, reportedly did not.
Once conflict erupted in Ukraine in 2022, NATO insisted on getting involved, even though Kyiv is not a NATO member. Although, by recruiting states into NATO that border Russia, arousing its security fears, NATO had helped to provoke the conflict, it is now doing all it can, through proxies, to engineer Moscow’s defeat, such being Washington’s geopolitical objective. On Jan 30, 2023, for example, its secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, announced, “We have been providing Ukraine unprecedented assistance,” and “We must keep supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
Although Stoltenberg’s belligerence will have delighted NATO’s warmongers almost as much as it did the US military-industrial complex, it will do nothing to bring peace back to Europe, and he is focused on escalating the conflict. Indeed, after China, on Feb 24, released its 12-point peace plan, Stoltenberg immediately cast doubt upon it, taking his cue from the US president, Joe Biden, who inquired, “How could it be any good?” Stoltenberg, like his predecessors, is incapable of independent thinking, which suits Washington down to the ground.
As its de facto leader and principal funder, the US expects NATO to support its foreign policy objectives around the world, even if it means straying outside its defensive mandate. Thus, when Stoltenberg visited South Korea on Jan 30, 2023, he made a speech that could have been scripted for him by the White House.
He expressed the hope that NATO and Seoul could “do more together”, and said, “We may be oceans apart, but our security is closely connected”. Having welcomed Seoul’s participation, for the first time, in NATO’s summit in Madrid in 2022, Stoltenberg declared that “what happens here in Asia matters to NATO,” given “our security is connected.” He then assured his hosts, without providing details, that “you can count on NATO to stand with the Republic of Korea”.
After leaving Seoul, Stoltenberg flew to Tokyo, where he announced that “no NATO partner is closer or more capable than Japan”, meaning it has embraced US hegemony (it currently hosts about 50,000 American troops in 23 military bases). On Jan 31, when he met the prime minister, Fumio Kishida, he warmly endorsed Japan’s rearmament plans. He also welcomed Japan’s transition into NATO’s new Individually Tailored Partnership Program (ITPP), which is expected to elevate bilateral cooperation “to new heights that reflect the challenges of a new era.” The ITPP was first discussed in 2022, when Kishida became the first Japanese leader to attend a NATO summit, and it provides a framework that is tailored to each partner’s objectives for its relationship with the alliance.
In other words, NATO is seeking to weave Japan, together with South Korea, into its long-term planning for the Far East, and Kishida, as a US patsy, is happy to oblige. Whereas Seoul opened a representative office at the NATO headquarters last year, Tokyo will follow suit this year, and Stoltenberg applauded Japan’s intention to participate regularly in the North Atlantic Council (NATO’s principal political decision-making body) and the NATO Chiefs of Defense meetings.
In a joint statement, the two leaders announced, “We are convinced that the Japan-NATO cooperation will demonstrate its value under this severe and complex security environment,” meaning that Tokyo now sees its role as that of a US outrider, and Kishida even agreed to provide more support for Ukraine. Although NATO’s belligerent activities were welcomed by Kishida, others deplored their foolhardiness.
When, for example, on Feb 16, 2023, Quinn Marschik, a contributing fellow at the Washington-based think tank Defense Priorities, reviewed Stoltenberg’s “gallivanting” in Nikkei Asia, he pointed out that, instead of trying to de-escalate the Ukraine conflict, he “appeared ready to tie the alliance (NATO) into potential future conflicts in Asia, risking war with nuclear-armed China.” He explained that “NATO has no business in the Indo-Pacific region”, and should “stick to its North Atlantic mandate and avoid stoking powder kegs on the other side of the world”. Not only had Stoltenberg exceeded NATO’s geographic mandate, but he had also sought “to drag South Korea and Japan into the West’s inflammatory ‘democracies versus autocracies’ paradigm”.
Although Marschik’s analysis was spot on, it must also be remembered that Stoltenberg is not a free agent, given that NATO is now, more than ever, Washington’s baby. Although the US lost SEATO in 1977, it is now, instead of reviving it, relying on NATO to help boost its Far East strategy, which includes stoking regional tensions, recruiting new allies, and using Taiwan to provoke Beijing. In such circumstances, apparatchiks like Stoltenberg have little option but to fall into line.
Thus, on Feb 1, 2023, Stoltenberg told Nikkei Asia that NATO was concerned over China’s “threatening rhetoric” and “coercive behavior” over Taiwan. This was why “NATO has deepened its ties with the Asia-Pacific nations, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea”. As the US has also deepened its own links with those countries, it clearly expects NATO to play a complementary role, which should surprise nobody.
There are, after all, those in the US Congress and elsewhere who now openly advocate the transformation of NATO into a global alliance of nations who are prepared to follow the US, and it appears the likes of Stoltenberg are now busy laying the groundwork. On July 14, 2021, for example, then-US Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger said that “instead of creating a new organization,” it would be preferable to “bring some of these freedom-loving countries in Asia into the NATO construct”.
If this can be achieved, NATO will be able to enlist some of China’s neighboring states, thereby menacing it in exactly the same way it has threatened Russia. Although gullible states like Japan may play along, most Asian countries are self-respecting, and would not, whatever the inducements, sell their souls in that way.
What, therefore, NATO needs to do is to concentrate on its original mandate, promote European security and not allow itself to be led up the garden path by the US. If, as it claims, it wants a safer world, it should stop dancing to the music of the warmongers, who feed off conflict. It must understand that its aggressive shenanigans in the Far East are unwelcome, and prioritize peaceful coexistence in the Asia-Pacific region.
If, moreover, NATO imagines that, as a US adjunct, it can halt China’s resurgence, challenge its sovereignty or divide its people, it must think again. And the sooner it does so, the better, not least because it will promote the sort of global harmony to which its founding fathers signed up in 1949.
The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.