Philip Cunliffe – Brexit from NATO

“It is Russia that has invaded Ukraine, but it is NATO’s high-handed indifference to political reality that has provoked the war. Reckless is a polite way of describing NATO’s policy.”

Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent. He is also one of the founding editors of The Northern Star

This article originally appeared at The Northern Star

Press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson

Photo: NATO

The democratic logic of Brexit has always implied a radically new foreign and security policy for Britain. True national sovereignty means Brexiting from NATO. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has only confirmed this logic. The actions of the British government in response to the crisis, and the disasters wrought on Eastern Europe by the war, make clear that a sovereign Britain needs to end its participation in this warmongering alliance.

It is well known that ever since the end of the Cold War, Russia has been hostile to the expansion of NATO, and has consistently warned Western states against expanding the alliance towards Russia’s borders. Moreover, it was abundantly clear that NATO membership for Ukraine was a red line for Russia. Yet such was the thoughtless complacency of the post-Cold War liberal hegemony that its power-brokers took no notice. It is Russia that has invaded Ukraine, but it is NATO’s high-handed indifference to political reality that has provoked the war. While NATO refuses actually to admit Ukraine or to fight for it directly, its posturing has nevertheless deliberately antagonised Russia by inciting Ukrainian leaders to believe that membership of the Western elite’s club might be possible. Since 2008, NATO has repeatedly stated that it is open to Ukrainian membership, and encouraged Ukrainian leaders to aspire to it. US Secretary of State Blinken reiterated the idea as late as January 2022, even as Russian forces were massing on Ukraine’s border. Reckless is a polite way of describing NATO’s policy.

What is worse, NATO’s self-indulgent supranationalism weakened the prospects of democratic revival in Russia. As US Cold War strategist George Kennan argued, NATO expansion played into the hands of Kremlin strongmen by strengthening Russia’s revanchist nationalists at the expense of its aspiring democrats. If NATO’s strategic arrogance helped precipitate the war in Ukraine, it is becoming increasingly clear that NATO has no interest in ending the war either. By sending vast quantities of weapons to the Ukrainian government, NATO is now stoking a proxy war in the country. In so doing, Western powers seem to want to prolong this conflict in the hope that they can bleed Russia white by supporting a guerrilla war against Russian occupation. Defeating Russia in Ukraine will then provide Western elites with retrospective justification for NATO’s blundering into the war in the first place. It may even result in regime change in Russia, a process that has been an unmitigated disaster in other places where the West has pursued it with military means.

Despite this catalogue of reckless indifference to peace and security in Ukraine, it is already evident that NATO’s calamitous strategy has strong elite support across Europe, including in Britain itself. Here, swathes of the Remain-supporting middle classes still blame Russian president Vladimir Putin for Brexit. Though there is no evidence for the claim that Putin influenced the 2016 referendum, they refuse to accept the fact that their fellow citizens might have reached their own views about the EU without the meddling of a foreign power. While Remainers may be happy to shed Ukrainian blood in order to revenge themselves on Putin, it is incumbent on British democrats to formulate a policy that prioritises the interests of British citizens and does not displace our internal divisions onto other countries. Brexit from NATO will not only help us avoid NATO’s strategic misadventures, but, like Brexit from the EU, it will also strengthen democracy in Britain.

As Boris Johnson’s cackhanded comparison between Ukraine and Brexit suggests, the exact connections between the EU and NATO need careful explanation. After all, on the face of it, NATO and the EU look very different – one is a military alliance ostensibly organised on the principle of collective self-defence, the other, an overarching bureaucracy and fledging federal super-state. While an island nation withdrawing from a would-be continental super-state might seem understandable even to critics of Brexit, why compound British isolation by withdrawing from the world’s most powerful military alliance – an alliance that ostensibly helps to preserve British independence rather than dissolving it away? But such a view misconceives both NATO and the EU. The truth is that NATO and the EU are very similar, in respect of their origins, structure and their post-Cold War development.

Both NATO and the EU are treaty-based systems that formally preserve the independence of their member-states while compromising them in practice.  Both organisations were founded at the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, with the aim of cohering Western Europe in the face of Soviet might. After the Cold War ended, both NATO and the EU had to adapt by finding new roles for themselves. When NATO was founded in 1949, it was intended to preserve the US military presence in Europe, contain German rearmament, and deter Soviet expansion. However, as with the EU, NATO’s perpetuation beyond the geopolitical circumstances which brought it into being indicate that it now serves different purposes. As with the EU, NATO institutionalises permanent elite cooperation at the supranational level, at the expense of democratic representation at the national level. In both cases, supranational bureaucracy based in Brussels is deliberately designed to insulate policy-making from democratic input and oversight.

This is evident in NATO’s post-Cold War history. NATO found a rationale for preserving its military supranationalism by becoming the vanguard of EU expansion into Central and Eastern Europe. EU membership there consistently followed NATO partnership agreements and membership. Both NATO and the EU demanded swingeing changes to how these prospective member-states were governed, “guiding” their post-Soviet development from above.

With the collapse of Yugoslavia through the 1990s, and following the terrorist attacks of September 2001, NATO found another new role for itself, by propagating the “forever wars” for humanitarianism and democracy. Its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 and Libya in 2011 give the lie to the notion that NATO has any interest in preserving the territorial integrity or sovereignty of any state. Given this record, it is unsurprising that Putin has invoked NATO precedents so heavily in justifying his interventions in Ukraine both in 2014 and 2022. In 2014 he cited Kosovo’s separation from Serbia as a precedent for the Russian annexation of Crimea, and in 2022 cited humanitarian justifications for the Ukraine invasion.  The fate of Libya in particular, locked in permanent civil war since NATO’s humanitarian bombing, stands as a stark warning to Ukrainians about the reliability and ultimate outcomes of NATO military support. Forever wars are now the rationale for NATO’s continued existence, and a forever war in Ukraine will provide a ready substitute for the forever war in Afghanistan, which finally ended in 2021 after 20 long years.

In short, it is NATO that has opened up the path that Putin has subsequently followed, and NATO that has been the greatest military threat to state sovereignty since the end of the Cold War. As I argued back in 2020, if Britain is serious about the project staked out by the electorate in 2016 – that is, about reviving its national sovereignty – this requires creating an international order that is respectful of national independence. This means that we have to leave NATO. Its history of forever wars for human rights will always be an obstacle to that project and to British democracy. NATO entrenches liberal globalist priorities at the expense of our domestic concerns. Forever wars for democracy and human rights – especially if Ukrainians are the ones that are dying for them – will always prove more alluring for our governing classes than levelling up or democratising local government.

Whatever defence from continental hegemony NATO might once have offered Britain is long gone. Russia today is struggling to occupy neighbouring Ukraine. The notion that Russia could rampage across Eastern Europe, let alone sweep through Europe to the Low Countries to menace Britain from across the English Channel, is delusional. Following the democratic shock of Brexit, NATO has been a bulwark of foreign policy continuity for Britain’s disoriented political elites. With the war in Ukraine, NATO will not only be the vehicle for Remainers to wreak revenge on Russia, but risks the return of BRINO, Brexit in Name Only. The NATO proxy war in Ukraine strengthens all the forces of inertia and conservatism within Britain’s elites. European security will be invoked by Remainer civil servants to contain any political challenge by Britain’s elected representatives, as well as providing a reason for British governments to avoid the hard task of crafting the policies for regulatory divergence that would antagonise the EU. If the national democratic logic of Brexit is to be preserved and expanded, then we must Brexit from NATO.

Such a bold move to strengthen Britain’s national sovereignty would also give political inspiration to the partisans of true national sovereignty everywhere, including Ukraine.

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