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Understanding the Permanent State of Emergency

By taking time to properly explain the purpose of NATO instead of swallowing whole its own press releases, James Foley responds to George Kerevan’s case for a pro-NATO Scottish independence in the Scotsman on Friday.

Without the referendum, the question of NATO would not even be on the agenda. This is no great compliment to the SNP. It is rather a sore indictment of Britain’s foreign policy elites. George Kerevan’s case for a pro-NATO Scottish independence is flawed. But let me start with a point of agreement. It is better the decision is “made on moral and rational grounds, not (as at Westminster) to curry favour with the White House, or sell arms at a profit,” as Kerevan says. Perhaps this should be a given, but in British politics it is not.

Scotland quitting the alliance now reduces Nato’s diplomatic credibility,” says Kerevan. He seems to think this is a problem. He says it would be a failure to “demonstrate that an independent Scotland will engage positively and responsibly with the global community”. This rests on the threat posed by “Russian nukes” and other security risks. He implies that Russian nukes would allow them to menace Scottish fishing fleets and oil supplies. Frankly, I think this suggestion is bizarre. Why would Russia want to do this? He provides no answer. He elevates Putin to an all powerful puppet master of global issues. While I find Putin odious, this is obviously an absurd version of real world politics, where Russia is sidelined.

Putting such kookiness aside, I disagree on two matters. The first is about NATO. I think it is irresponsible to shore up NATO when we have the opportunity to exit. To my mind, NATO is the means by which US interests sets the security agenda for Europe and beyond. Today, it functions like a foreign legion for the US “informal Empire”. If it was really an open multilateral forum, it would have joined the UN in condemning endless American atrocities and breaches of law. America uses NATO when it is convenient. It sets NATO aside and acts unilaterally at a whim.

The second is this whole idea of “security” that goes with it. The broad Yes Campaign has a responsibility to reassure the public on security questions. Fair enough. But the notion of “security” that is being adopted here is an ideological cover for US power. The real security problems for ordinary people are caused by the interests served by the American state. This includes climate change and pollution, civil wars, occupations, and economic crisis. This substantive sense of security is absent from the debate on NATO. Instead, “the other” is formalised as a security threat. The US military is always the solution. This inverts the real logic.

Nato is no longer a relic of the Cold War,” Kerevan says.“Twelve of the current 28 members actually joined after the demise of the Soviet Union.” An independent Scotland will thus have “allies” in NATO if it wishes to pursue peace, he argues. This is a highly optimistic idea of NATO democracy. It also presents the problem back to front, and it is shocking to see a respected pundit fall for such a naive notion. Although there are new NATO members who may favour a more pacific policy, these Northern states are not central to debates. The Eastern, post-Soviet states are far more bellicose than the old European powers.

Donald Rumsfeld slated France and Germany as “old Europe” when they failed to back Iraq. He went on to explain, “If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the centre of gravity is shifting East.” The ruling orders of “New Europe”, the Eastern NATO members, are far from dovish. They were the most uncritical supporters of the Bush doctrine (Blair aside). They have also engaged in a US process of encircling Russia. “Old Europe”, by contrast, has engaged in a selfish, but much more peaceful, policy of engaging Russia on energy matters.

Kerevan presents the NATO question as if it is all about getting nukes out of Europe. Of course, any sane person shares this objective. Any sane person, that is; just not any leading member of Labour, the Lib Dems, or the Tories. But a nuclear free Europe is not an end in itself. It is a means to put an end to brokering foreign policy on military force. Kerevan presents this problem in a one-sided fashion, in which Russia appears as the root cause of all aggression:

No-one these days thinks a nuclear war in Europe is a realistic possibility. But Russia’s invasion of Georgia (which has a population the size of Scotland), and its cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007, are proof positive Moscow thinks it can bully small countries and get away with it. Russia keeps tactical nukes as a diplomatic big stick. Pretending Nato is solely to blame for nuclear weapons is naïve.Pretending an independent Scotland that repudiated Nato could fend off Russian bullying in the oil-rich North Atlantic is a dangerous gamble.

I have no wish to fall into the trap of hailing Putin’s Russia as an ally for world peace. But Kerevan is presenting all of this the wrong way round. It betrays a massive misconception of the real function of NATO and the origin of contemporary geopolitical rivalries.

In the Cold War era and through the 1980s, NATO’s role was obvious to the superficial eye. It was, as the platitude went, a security pact against Soviet aggression. This is actually a half truth, misleading on two counts. Firstly, as generations of American revisionist historians have shown, Soviet foreign policyvis a visthe West was almost always defensive. Secondly, NATO had a broader purpose. As Lord Ismay, the first Secretary General of NATO, stated it was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

NATO was an alliance built on existing faultlines: intensifying American power in a Western Europe scarred by War’s effects on class and colonial conflicts. As De Gaulle’s exit from NATO military command proved, Europe’s rulers were never reconciled to American hegemony. But the “Communist threat” kept the rabble of European rulers in line, more or less. Menaced at once by Soviet competition and the democratic impulses of their working classes, America’s police functions often escaped political scrutiny.

After the collapse of the Soviet empire, and the retreat of working class threats, the function of NATO was less clear. For all the utopian grandeur of a “New World Order”, real conflicts remained. For the US, the nightmare scenario was what Kees van der Pijl has called “Rapallo syndrome”, the threat of a Eurasian continent under joint German-Russian hegemony with America sidelined.

America’s policy towards Moscow had this very much in mind. The eager imposition of “shock therapy” market policies was a huge economic disaster for Russia. It led to the biggest peacetime collapse of an economic system ever registered. But Russia’s economic catastrophe was a boon for US strategy. It ensured that the country was consumed with internal chaos and would not rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of the Cold War. Taking advantage of the crisis its economic policies had caused, NATO engaged in an aggressive policy of courting post-Soviet states to encircle Russia. Lured by the promise of Western “liberal democracy” and eager to assert their independence, it seemed like a good deal. In reality, it was the ultimate case of “bait and switch”.

To use a Bush era term, the US has spent the last two decades engaging in “preemptive retaliation” against Russia. It is mad to try and conceive Putin’s return to Russian nationalism without looking at this context. But this is what the likes of Kerevan are trying to do.

To take the case of South Ossetia, it is quite clear that this was Medvedev and Putin trying to gain some wriggle room. They had been backed into a corner by a US offensive in Eastern Europe. NATO entry for Ukraine and Georgia was pushed by the US but vetoed by France and Germany. All of this is about the US taking advantage of a period of Russian weakness. In the inverted logic of Kerevan, Russia is always the aggressor. In reality, South Ossetia was a response to two decades of provocative NATO moves to isolate Russia. It was thus yet another case of what the CIA calls “blowback”.

We have to presume that Kerevan is not a cheerleader of US power for its own sake. If this is the case, then he is very much tactically misguided. He constantly implies that “global citizen” Scotland would have all sorts of bargaining chips within NATO. This “blessing” seems to work at two levels. On the one hand, a security pact with the Americans on board allows us protection and influence on the question of risks, coming from somewhere to the East. But also, having the US “in the tent” will help us to save it from its own unilateralist tendencies: a policy of “constructive partnership”, and so on.

Neither position stands up to the facts. The first is based on the chauvinist position that it is always “us” (the West) who are threatened by “them”. It is only within this framing that a security pact of the West makes sense. On any other basis, why should we assume that Russia and China are less interested in peace and security than America?

Surely it is well established that “they” have much more to fear from “us” than “we” do from “them”. In order to elide the problems with this, the euphemism “security threats” gets thrown about. When it is convenient to do so, the concepts of “security” and “risk” get inflated to involve climate, energy, refugees, cultural rights, working conditions, and just about anything you like. This gives a broad cosmopolitan gloss to the narrow interests behind the West’s permanent state of emergency. But the narrow sense is always implied. And the message is reinforced by media spin in which the US is always noble (if misguided) while “the East” is always “a menace”.

The idea that US-led military pacts might present a security problem for the East doesn’t get a hearing. The idea that America might pose security problems for the West itself, despite abundant evidence, is an unthinkable notion. This shows the true ideological nature of “security” discourse. Let us make clear what Kerevan leaves unstated. The main aggressor in world politics is America. Most so-called security problems can be traced back as the intended or unintended consequences of US belligerence. NATO is not a democratic alliance; it is a legitimising cover for American military dominance.

But, many will reply, America is (mostly) a democracy. We cannot isolate democratic nations; we need to “positively engage” to ensure that extremist nationalists like the Tea Party won’t come to power. But the question remains. Why should “positive engagement” work for US aggression, while we punish Russia aggressions with isolation, as is de facto NATO policy? And if we could engage with Russia on an equal footing, what on earth is the point of NATO then? Why not just have the United Nations? The answer, of course, is that Western pundits are prone to slips of the mind. Every aggression by the Russians becomes a harbinger of new global tyranny. Iraq gets forgotten as a policy error.

Let us not forget that “partnership” with America was Blair’s agenda. It began with a whole lot of smoke about 21stcentury challenges and ethical foreign policy. It ended with the support for a bloody neo-colonial occupation.

Pretending a majority of Scots will vote for independence plus neutrality is political fantasy,” says Kerevan. There is a lot of sloppy thinking involved with this equation. The SNP was in power with an anti-NATO policy when support for independence rose above support for the Union. Since they have shown willingness to drop this policy, support has shrunk. I am not naive enough to think that anti-NATO policies causedScots to support independence before. But it is clear that eagerness to triangulate on these issues is not rallying much support either. It is going in the other direction.

There is a lot of ignorance about NATO. To assume in advance that “Scots won’t support it” shows how unaccountable our punditry has become. It is a failure to do what Kerevan promised – to argue on “moral and rational grounds”. Instead, he is engaging in misinformation and assuming public ignorance. “Those who have put out the people’s eyes reproach them of their blindness,” said Milton. Having poked their eyes out, Kerevan lauds their vision.

I have not seen one accurate article in the Scottish press that states what NATO is or what it actually does. Instead, we have a lot of complacent euphemisms, lifted from the textbooks of sophistry. This shames our Scottish establishment, who like to pretend, with a nudge and a wink, that “privately” they know all too well the crimes of the US-UK alliance.

Our Scottish pundits have, with a few honest exceptions, taken the illusions of the epoch as facts in this crucial debate. Having won the public over Iraq, we are now moving backwards. Under the cover of “global citizenship”, the dominant ideology of American power has found a lever in Scottish politics. It has captured key elements of the media. The Left needs to make this a priority. The term “manufacturing of consent” has never been so apt. If the SNP votes for this policy, it licenses them to negotiate with a mandate of “yes please” to more of the US-UK status quo.

This is not just about the meaning of internationalism, although it is certainly about that. It is also about class. While formally speaking NATO plays a military function, the content of NATO is US power. And the American state is at the vanguard of imposing neoliberal policies, commodifying natural resources, and privatising the commons. We cannot let them assume consent to more of this. To paraphrase Lord Ismay, the meaning of NATO is simple: keep the workers down, the Muslims down, “Old Europe” down, Russia down, and America in. This is not an agenda I would vote for.

This is not just a battle about the tactics to get independence. It is a battle for the soul of the 21stcentury. The SNP is full of principled people on global issues. This will not go through without a fight. The radical Left’s politics are all the more urgent amid the complacency of our media. We need to get out and campaign on overdrive to save the independence campaign from Scotland’s right-wing establishment.

James Foley