In response to the tensions inflamed by the massing of Russian troops on their border with Ukraine, on 14 February the UK Labour Party’s youth wing tweeted a statement calling for the UK to “withdraw from NATO” and to “stop backing aggression.”
NATOs acts of aggression both historical and present are a threat to all of our safety. Young Labours delegates from across our membership and affiliates voted that we should withdraw from NATO and pursue an international policy based on peace, adopting this as official policy.
— Young Labour (@YoungLabourUK) February 14, 2022
The words Russia and Ukraine were not even mentioned—as if it were NATO’s nebulous “aggression” alone that had stoked the conflict. Ten days later, after Putin had embarked on a war of conquest, Young Labour sheepishly issued a statement condemning Russia, while still accusing the UK of “warmongering.”
Young Labour condemns Vladimir Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The actions of Russia, the use of force and the contravention of international law is utterly reprehensible.
Working class people are overwhelmingly the victims of war (1/6)
— Young Labour (@YoungLabourUK) February 24, 2022
A day later, the adults at Labour HQ finally suspended Young Labour’s twitter privileges.
We regret to inform you that access to the @YoungLabourUK Twitter account has been restricted until further notice.
As an official channel for the Youth Wing of the Labour Party, we expect certain standards of behaviour from those with responsibility for this page’s output.
— Young Labour (@YoungLabourUK) February 25, 2022
Many will see the Young Labour Twitter account saga as yet another battle in the perpetual civil war between the left and the right of Labour, and as Young Labour—one of the last bastions of Corbynite socialist supremacy—attempting to undermine Keir Starmer’s leadership, which they see as a betrayal of Labour values. While Starmer’s moderation on economic policy, as seen in his attempts to reposition the Labour Party as business-friendly and his equivocations over tax policy, may be misplaced overreactions to Corbyn’s devastating loss in 2019, his return to foreign policy more in line with international norms certainly is not. Corbyn’s anti-American, “anti-imperialist” politics not only alienated much of the electorate (according to a 2020 poll, 65% of people in the UK support NATO), but were only dubiously progressive. The left was correct to call out America’s foreign policy blunders in Iraq and elsewhere—however, constructive criticism of American overreach has now been replaced by an overarching, hyper-reductive ideology that places America and neoliberalism at the centre of the world’s ills. Corbyn’s sympathy for Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime in Venezuela and his flirtations with Hamas and Hezbollah are symptomatic of this outlook. And there is no clearer example of the manifestation of this ideology than in the supposedly left-wing criticisms of NATO, which Corbyn himself espouses.
Young Labour’s preposterous idea that it was “NATO aggression” that precipitated the Russian invasion betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of NATO’s function. NATO troops were deployed in Poland and the Baltic states in a defensive response to the largest military build-up since World War II. This was not escalatory brinkmanship by the US trying to impose its will on the world. Unlike the Russians in Belarus and in Russian-occupied Crimea, the US offered no shows of force and undertook no “military exercises,” as they are euphemistically called. This was NATO operating at its most fundamental level: as an alliance for mutual defence. Countries that still bear deep scars from centuries of Russian imperialism were understandably concerned at the potential of spillover from any conflict in Ukraine and so—quite reasonably—requested additional support from their larger NATO allies. It is rather ironic that the “anti-imperialist” contingent of the left would have quite happily abandoned the very defensive commitments that have prevented these sovereign nations from being preyed on by a revanchist, imperialist Russia.
Some of NATO’s left-wing critics argue that it is the organisation’s expansion into Eastern Europe that has forced Russia onto a paranoid warpath, but this argument does not hold water either. Countries join NATO by democratic consent—a fact that only the most absurd CIA conspiracy theories can explain away. Had Russia been a good neighbour to its Eastern European former client and satellite states, perhaps NATO would not have expanded beyond Germany. Instead, Russian leaders since Boris Yeltsin have viewed Russia’s former sphere as the country’s birth right, crushing nascent separatist movements within Russia’s own borders with horrific brutality, while supporting pro-Russian separatist movements in Moldova and Georgia. This cynical policy would have collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions had it not devolved into the blood-and-soil imperialism that we see playing out in the invasion of Ukraine. Yeltsin may be remembered through rose-tinted glasses as a cheery drunkard, but his desperation to maintain Russia’s status as a superpower set Russian foreign policy on course to where it is today. Putin has now simply taken that foreign policy to its logical conclusion. No wonder much of Eastern Europe wished to join NATO, the one alliance that could give these nations credible anti-imperialist protection.
NATO is too often viewed reductively, as an American sphere of influence, in much the same way as the Warsaw Pact countries comprised a Soviet sphere of influence. It is true that a degree of alignment with some American foreign policy goals and values is implicit in NATO membership, but this is in no way equivalent to the influence the Soviets exerted over their client states during the Cold War. NATO members are sovereign states and have acted against US interests in the past. For instance, Turkey recently (wrongly) invaded America’s Kurdish allies in Syria. Likewise, NATO (rightly) refused US requests for assistance during the invasion of Iraq. As these concrete actions demonstrate, NATO is far more than an American-led sphere and has remained grounded in the democratic principles upon which it was founded, even though the US is able to leverage more power than it did at NATO’s founding in 1949. The characterisation of NATO as a tool of American imperialism, then, is demonstrably false.
Criticism of NATO is not limited to the realm of geopolitical machinations. Many on the left see it as a vessel for American business interests and neoliberal capitalism. History has shown otherwise. It was Clement Attlee’s British Labour government that signed the North Atlantic Treaty in 1947, founding NATO. And while Article 2 of the treaty stipulates that signatories should “eliminate conflict in their international economic policies” and “encourage economic collaboration,” this did not prevent Attlee’s government from being one of the most transformative in British history: it established the modern welfare state and continues to be widely celebrated by the Labour left today. Norway and Denmark, both founding members of NATO, are flourishing social democracies where social democrats and democratic socialists have spent more time in power than in opposition since 1949.
Clearly, NATO has not impeded progressive political movements within its member states. In fact, the existence of NATO has had positive repercussions for the European left. The unification of Western Europe under a single military alliance forced member states to abandon the nationalist and revanchist grudges that had dogged European politics for centuries. The political moderation this encouraged has meant that—even in those European countries where social democrats have not had much political success—the right-wing opposition generally takes the form of Christian Democrats, who are far more moderate than the reactionary, nationalist conservative parties that were prominent prior to World War II. At the same time, the strength of NATO’s collective opposition to the Soviet Union prevented that brand of highly authoritarian and reactionary socialism from gaining traction in Europe. Instead, leftist movements have been largely characterised by a more liberal tradition, which opposes state-sponsored violence and emphasises human rights.
Far from propping up the military-industrial complex—as NATO is often accused of doing—mutual defence and the guarantee of peace have allowed defence spending to be dramatically decreased throughout Europe. Part of this decrease may be attributed to the end of the Cold War—but defence spending has been on the decline since the 1960s and this is at least partly due to the peace between Western European neighbours that NATO has assured. In fact, defence spending has arguably declined too much. Most nations in the alliance have still not met NATO’s defence spending target of 2% of GDP, leaving America to foot the remaining bill. While this has meant that many European nations have been able to develop their welfare states, this has been at the expense of Americans, who still face a particularly vicious brand of capitalism with limited safety nets.
As Germany’s overnight policy shift following the invasion of Ukraine has shown, committing to the 2% target is not a tall order. It would enable us to maintain our collective defence while allowing America a much-needed financial reprieve. It would also diminish America’s influence upon the alliance, allowing European nations more of a say on collective defence policy and procurement. Hopefully, this would encourage a shift away from the American military-industrial complex and toward a more competitive, less monopolised defence industry, which holds less sway over governments.
History is often viewed as an inexorable march of progress and development from the barbarism of war to enlightened peace. This seems to be the underlying thinking of NATO’s left-wing detractors. But just as Rome fell, peace and progress are never inevitable, nor should they ever be taken for granted. Francis Fukuyama’s argument that we have reached the end of history has been widely derided by many on the left who find the idea that humanity will not progress past neoliberal democracy absurd. I agree with them—but in looking only forward, they have failed to look back. The fact that they see capitalist liberal democracy as the archenemy of peace and progress is not only extraordinarily privileged but terrifyingly dangerous. The west’s terrible interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have confirmed this narrative for many. This thinking explains Young Labour’s tweets: NATO is to blame for Putin’s invasion, since neoliberalism is the sole force of evil in the world. However, as the tanks rolled into Ukraine, history returned once more to remind us that there are far darker, more dangerous enemies of progress. It is these enemies that NATO continues to forestall and, in doing so, allow for the peace and progress of which we Europeans are beneficiaries today. While it is a tragedy that it has taken the whiplash of war for us to look back at history, I hope these events may foster newfound gratitude for NATO and the peace and progress that it has helped achieve. I look forward to the day when the progressive left—of which I am proud to be a part—will view NATO, alongside the NHS and the welfare state, as one of Labour’s greatest achievements.