Times change, and with that, so do policies. Except in the case of NATO, an alliance set up to counter the Soviet Union but which expanded rather than get disbanded when the world’s Communist superstate willingly collapsed. Bureaucracies seek to perpetuate themselves indefinitely, and it is small wonder that the NATO bureaucracy was reluctant to disband itself. The reality is that after Joseph Stalin, no leader of the USSR had the stomach to seriously challenge the NATO alliance militarily, even in the case of proxy conflicts, as that which took place in Afghanistan.
Nikita Khruschev had seen enough of the horrors of the 1941-45 war with Germany to make him averse to any risk of conflict, which is why he surrendered to President Kennedy over Cuba. His successor, Leonid Brezhnev, was even more phobic to military conflict on a large scale than Khruschev, and was careful throughout his decades in power to avoid situations where there could be a risk of conflict with the US and its allies, although of course he was fearless in the case of helpless states such as Czechoslovakia, just as his predecessors had been over Hungary, both of which were subdued by Soviet tanks in a matter of days.
After Chernenko and Andropov, who spent more time in hospitals than in the Kremlin, it was the turn of Mikhail Gorbachev, who conceded to the US and its allies almost all the gains won by Stalin during the 1941-45 conflict with Germany, retaining only a sliver of Poland taken over illegally in 1941. An army is as good as its fighting spirit, and as it was clear that there was zero possibility of a conflict with the USSR, a posting in NATO was as good as a well-paid holiday. While pretending to “defend the free world” while actually having a good life free of the risk of war, officers seconded to NATO naturally developed a strong vested interest in the continuance of the organisation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, President Clinton sided with those in his team who sought the total de-weaponisation of the rump Russian state.
Instead of accepting Boris Yeltsin’s pleas for an alliance, Clinton sought to denude Russia of its technological and military sinews, succeeding to a very substantial extent before generating the backlash which brought the nationalist Vladimir Putin to power. Had Bill Clinton done away with NATO in 1992,or allowed Moscow to join the organisation, global geopolitics would have changed. However, the Clinton thinktankers are gamblers, and they like to go for broke, to gran as much as they can, irrespective of the risk of failure. Aware that the size and brainpower of even the rump Russian state made it a potential rival, at the least to France and Germany, President Clinton kept Moscow out of the European Union, while he expanded NATO in a manner which clearly indicated that Russia was still the target of the alliance, irrespective of changes in the structure of governance of that nation. This error, of seeking to box in Russia rather than make it a military ally ,was among the numerous errors made by the Clinton team.
The reason why Team Clinton makes so many errors – and the pattern has been repeated by Hillary Clinton during her stint as Secretary of State – is that they take decisions in bits and pieces. They are swayed by a multitude of lobbies, so that policy gets sliced into small bits, each to feed a particular lobby. Such an approach is seen in the case of several national budgets, which are usually a compendium of concessions to individual groups packaged as an entirety. Had the Clintons taken a holistic view of the US national interest, rather than assume that this concept comprises of the interests of numerous lobbies stitched together, the policies of the Clinton administration would have been less toxic to the future than they have turned out to be.
The conversion of Russia into a rival rather than an ally was among the most egregious errors of the Clinton presidency, something that President Obama has to an extent sought to remedy, now that Hillary Clinton no longer runs US foreign policy. This process was significantly advanced because of the policy on NATO, which was to (a) retain its anti-Moscow focus, this time implicitly rather than explicitly and (b) expand the theatre of operations to continents such as Africa and Asia, rather than retain the Europe-centric view of the founders of the alliance. Both were errors of significant magnitude NATO has showcased its incapacity to win wars by failures in Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban and Al Qaeda have resurfaced, while ISIS has created pockets that are safe areas for the terror group. In Libya, the entire country has become a breeding ground for extremism, while NATO actions there and in Syria have resulted in a flood of migrants washing up at the shores of European states. These are the results of the Clinton technique of slicing an issue into smaller components and devising measures for each in isolation. Thus, in Libya, the fall of Muammar Kaddafy was planned independently of what needed to get down to prevent the vacuum from getting filled by extremists. Incidentally, a search will reveal that NATO gave assistance to groups and individuals who in their speeches and writings made no secret of their extremist linkages. This was because of the single-minded focus on removing Kaddafy, without a care as to the consequences.
It is precisely such a segmented approach to policy that Hillary Clinton brought to the Department of State, and will carry to the White House, should she jump over the controversies surrounding her and get elected. NATO needs to be an all-European alliance, and in like fashion, there need to be similar alliances in Africa and Asia, with local partners. The use of NATO in these continents needs to be avoided, and the responsibility for security needs to be in he hands of local players. The US needs to be involved with (an all-European) NATO as well as with the African and Asian variants of such a military alliance. The NATO monopoly over security needs to be eliminated, for the good of the western alliance itself .
— The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.