On August 4th, I wrote an article criticising a NATO video that purported to debunk two “myths” about the organisation. The video claimed that “NATO is a defensive alliance” and “NATO does not seek confrontation”. I described these claims as “false” on the grounds that NATO has carried out several offensive operations.
Logically, if an organisation has carried out offensive operations, it cannot be “defensive” – at least not wholly defensive, which is what “not seeking confrontation” implies.
Ian Rons has criticised my article. He begins by disputing that the invasion of Afghanistan was an offensive operation, noting that 9/11 was “the only time in NATO’s history when the mutual defense clause, Article 5, was invoked”.
What he fails to note is that NATO’s operation in Afghanistan was not based on the invocation of Article 5. The only two NATO operations based on the invocation of Article 5 were Operation Eagle Assist and Operation Active Endeavor – as explained on the organisation’s website. Having said that, it is true the US invasion of Afghanistan (and the subsequent NATO operation there) were launched in response to the 9/11 attacks.
Does this make them defensive? Arguably not. The 9/11 attacks were carried out by a transnational terrorist organisation, Al-Qaeda, not by the state of Afghanistan. (Neither Osama bin Laden nor any of the 9/11 hijackers were Afghans.) Invading and then occupying a foreign country where a terrorist organisation happens to be based is not “defensive”. The NATO airstrikes of June 2007 that killed at least 45 Afghan civilians plainly weren’t.
Note that prior to the invasion, the U.S. refused to negotiate with the Taliban. As the New York Times noted last year, “some former diplomats say that by repeatedly shutting the door to talks, the United States may have closed off its best chance of avoiding a prolonged and extremely costly war”.
However, even if the NATO operation in Afghanistan was defensive, the other two examples I cited clearly weren’t. Ian suggests they were “legitimate and morally just” but that is irrelevant. As I stated in my article, “you can argue those operations were justified, but you can’t argue they were defensive”. Neither Serbia nor Libya had attacked a NATO member.
I was therefore correct to describe the claims that “NATO is a defensive alliance” and “NATO does not seek confrontation” as false.
Next, Ian disputes my interpretation of a statement made by the U.S. concerning the recent security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands. And he accuses me of “quote-mining and distortion of reality in order to paint U.S. or NATO actions as sinister – or at least hypocritical”. While I don’t accept that I “distorted reality”, I was attempting to show that U.S. actions are hypocritical.
Ian then cites something Putin said about Kazakhstan in 2014 as if this has any relevance to my article. In any case, I don’t dispute that Putin is an imperialist.
Ian writes, “if Noah believes that Putin’s denial of Ukrainian statehood and the invasions since 2014 were really NATO’s fault, he should have an explanation of why Putin is so clearly unconcerned about Finland joining NATO”. This again is irrelevant to what I said in my article, although it is relevant to claims I have made elsewhere.
My view on exactly what is “NATO’s fault” is more complex than Ian suggests, and to avoid repeating myself I will direct him to an article I wrote back in June.
As to why Putin is less concerned about Finland joining NATO, I would say the following. This is not some startling new revelation. We’ve known since at least 2008 that the Russian elite considers NATO membership for Ukraine to be an absolute red line. As Ambassador William Burns wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice:
Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.
Burns also warned that bringing Ukraine into NATO would “create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine”.
Why the Russian elite would care more about NATO membership for Ukraine than for Finland is obvious: Ukraine’s border is less than 500km from Moscow; there are millions of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine; and Russia requires access to its naval base in Sevastopol. Note: I’m not saying these are valid reasons. I’m simply explaining why the Russian elite cares more about Ukraine.
In conclusion, neither of the main points I made in my article has been refuted. It is “mostly false” that NATO is not aggressive; and it is “highly debateable” that NATO made no promise that it wouldn’t expand.