The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is celebrating its 75th birthday this week in Washington, D.C., and there is no doubt much happy talk about how tirelessly the alliance works for peace, democracy and world stability. 

A new and timely book reminds us that NATO is not very good at any of those things. “NATO: What You Need to Know” is a concise and caustic introduction to the world’s largest military alliance, written by longtime peace activists Medea Benjamin, a founder of the peace group Code Pink, and David Swanson, an author and talk-radio host. The two cover a lot of territory, including how and why NATO was formed, the way it has metastasized since the collapse of its Soviet rival (and original raison d’etre), the havoc it has wreaked, and the grim future it holds out. In the authors’ telling, NATO’s demonstrated skills have little to do with peace and stability, and everything to do with drumming up wars, disenfranchising the average citizen, nurturing the international arms trade and dragging us ever closer to a species-level annihilation event.

You would never guess it from U.S. press coverage, but around the world, NATO has few fans. Benjamin and Swanson describe a Gallup poll conducted 10 years ago, across 65 nations, which found that people everywhere considered the United States to be the world’s gravest threat to peace — a wolf dressed in NATO sheepskin. Gallup’s findings, the authors note wryly, were widely shared, “and the lesson learned: Gallup never did that poll again.” 

“NATO: What You Need to Know” is a concise and caustic introduction to the world’s largest military alliance.

Here in America, views of NATO are vaguely positive but substance-free. For many of us, NATO is hazily conflated with the United Nations. Outwardly, the similarities are uncanny. NATO was set up just four years after the U.N. was established. Both are international structures that authorize the movements of thousands of soldiers into troubled foreign lands — as “peacekeeping forces” — and both are headed by a “general secretary.” NATO’s North Atlantic Council is designed to mirror the U.N. Security Council, and NATO has a Parliamentary Assembly based loosely on the U.N. General Assembly. The briefly worded treaty that created NATO — which the U.S. Senate ratified and then President Harry Truman signed in July 1949 — even opens with a statement that all signatories “reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments.”

This all sounds wonderful. But as Benjamin and Swanson recount, NATO genuflects toward peace and stability, and pays the U.N. the compliment of imitating it in style and comportment, but its agenda is something else. Over the years, the U.N. has frustrated Washington by becoming an independent and unpredictable world organization. NATO, by contrast, has become Washington’s pet — a homunculus created in the U.N.’s image, sitting docilely on the Pentagon’s shoulder.

Benjamin and Swanson note that NATO is useful for insulating Washington’s war-machine from the influence of the American public, which can be suspicious of the latest expensive and horrifically destructive war. “The more NATO becomes the entity that is understood to be taking actions in the world, rather than the U.S. military, the harder it is to oppose those actions,” they write. “People cannot get upset with and vote out their local representative to NATO because there is no such thing.”

In the modern era, this is in fact Washington’s preferred way to go to war, because a scheme hatched in the Pentagon can be gussied up as a noble, internationally authorized project involving a “coalition of nations.” NATO has thus repeatedly announced a military conflict that it has solemnly declared to be authorized by no one but itself. When it does this, NATO asserts an authority no one actually granted it, and disrespects the U.N. Security Council and international law.

NATO approval of a military action “serves in U.S. discourse as a legal justifier,” write Benjamin and Swanson. “When the U.S., U.K., and three other nations attacked Yemen in January 2024, NATO helpfully published a statement declaring the action to have been ‘defensive.’ If NATO and the United Nations are a bit conflated in your mind — they are both international and have something to do with war — this sounds like a judicial finding, whereas in reality it is simply a bit of rhetoric.”

This is more than just an academic point. Washington, disguised as NATO, is getting ever-closer to provoking a true world war, perhaps even a nuclear war. As Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs observes in the introduction to “NATO: What You Need to Know,” the organization is “a war machine run amok” with an “utterly dismal track record” of military forays that

have led to years, and sometimes decades, of destabilization in the targeted countries, including Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan, Libya, and Ukraine among others. In Orwellian fashion, all of this violence and instability has been justified as defending ‘the rules-based order,’ even as NATO has repeatedly violated the core precepts of the UN Charter. … NATO, we are told by our governments, is peace-loving, even as it provokes one war after another. NATO, we are told by our governments, is defensive, even as it violently topples other governments.

Why does NATO do this? As a U.S. Marine Corps major general once famously observed, “War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious.”

In the racket known as international wars, NATO acts as the marketing and sales division. It hounds each of its member states to spend 2 percent of all annual economic activity on the military (and then insists that at least 20 percent of that gets spent specifically on arms and equipment). NATO calls this its 2/20 goal: 2 percent of each nation’s gross domestic product for the military, with 20 percent of that specifically for defense contractors. That works out to hundreds of billions of dollars a year — and when it’s time to spend the money, NATO has an entire Support and Procurement Agency to help line up the arms deals.

Never mind that this entire 2/20 spending goal is a made-up, arbitrary target arrived at “in a totally undemocratic fashion in 2006, without a vote by elected governments — much less the consent of the taxpayers in their countries.” Military spending “famously requires enormous trade-offs,” write Benjamin and Swanson:

It would cost about 3% of U.S. military spending to end starvation on Earth, a bit over 1% to provide the world with clean drinking water, about 7% to end poverty in the United States, and other small fractions to transform education or green energy. Prioritizing bringing military spending up to levels decreed by a club of militaries and never put to a public or even a congressional / parliamentary vote anywhere is a choice, but it is not the only choice.

What are some of those other choices? Benjamin and Swanson end on a positive note by suggesting what the American people could do instead of signing off on, and paying for, NATO-branded worldwide military adventures.

There are, for example, existing international treaties to foster peace that the United States still ignores — including treaties to ban landmines, cluster munitions and even nuclear weapons. (A ban on cluster munitions, which are notorious for killing children disproportionately, would be particularly appropriate today, after a Ukrainian-launched, U.S.-supplied missile, filled with U.S.-supplied cluster bombs, recently rained down on a civilian beach in Crimea and killed several, including children.) There are also new treaties in the works to limit space-based weapons and cyber wars that would also be in our national interest.

In the racket known as international wars, NATO acts as the marketing and sales division.

“This, of course, would be a radically different approach to the world that would require a radical reorientation of priorities,” write Benjamin and Swanson. “But when the status quo is making nuclear apocalypse increasingly likely … a radical shift is essential.”

​​But don’t expect to hear any of this counter-narrative during media coverage of NATO’s international summit and 75th birthday party this week. Instead, the main event will be a Joe Biden-led vacuous celebration of NATO’s massive expansion across Europe. As for criticism, the only thing to pass for that will be the grudging acknowledgement of a Donald Trump-associated call that “Europeans need to pay their fair share” of that massive expansion, and buy more American defense contractor output. Not one American media or political figure of note is likely to publicly review the billions wasted, or to ask any NATO leader to justify the millions killed in NATO-fed wars from the Middle East to Central Europe. For that, we need voices of honesty like those of Benjamin and Swanson.

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