The Expansion of NATO and the Contraction of Eurasia

Author: Chris Hann
September 26, 2014

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in South Wales held 4–5 September 2014 was heavily mediatized in member countries as a “wake-up call” for this military alliance, for Europe, and even for Western civilization. Violence in eastern Ukraine, for which Vladimir Putin alone was allegedly responsible, was said to be catapulting the world back to the polarization of the Cold War. Yet when one looked more closely, Putin’s propaganda was restrained in comparison with the inflammatory rhetoric of the retiring NATO secretary general and the hyperbole of the US State Department and numerous European politicians with only one thing in common: They knew little or nothing about the history of Ukraine.

Of course, whatever politicians and pundits may proclaim, there can be no way back to the polarities of NATO’s glory years. The coverage of this summit concealed both radical changes in global political economy in recent decades and more insidious changes in political imaginaries. In this contribution I concentrate on the latter, but before I turn to contentious notions of Eurasia, I must explain my personal motivation for following this summit particularly closely. I was born in the Welsh capital Cardiff and attended primary school in nearby Newport, where the leaders of the alliance gathered. My secondary education was at Croesyceiliog Grammar School, a few miles to the north, and my father still lives in the vicinity. When I visited him in August, local residents were just beginning to realize that this summit would bring more disruption than the Ryder Cup golf tournament, held at the same location in 2010. For me, it brought back waves of memories of my school days. I recalled that morning in the late 1960s (it might have been toward the end of that special year, 1968) when we were surprised to find a large caravan parked in the middle of our schoolyard. When its doors opened, NATO information officers expounded the message of the posters on display inside and distributed leaflets. However, they underestimated the political consciousness of the sixth-formers of that era. None of us wanted to defend the Soviet intervention in Prague, still fresh in our minds, or repression of the uprising in Budapest in 1956. But we looked at the map and pointed out that USSR militarism was limited to neighbouring “allies” in Eastern Europe, whereas NATO members seemed to think they had the right and duty to be active on the world stage, from Suez to Vietnam. In short, we were skeptical toward the message brought by that caravan.

Perhaps my decision some years later to carry out research as a social anthropologist in countries behind the Iron Curtain was a delayed reaction to this early exposure to Cold War propaganda. At the time, we debated the issues with a wise English teacher, Mr. Phillips. The political essays of George Orwell were prescribed texts for A-level examinations that year, and of course we also read his popular postwar novels Animal Farm and 1984. I think most of us found Orwell’s perspective on political language refreshing, but some of us questioned whether the NATO publicity flyers were any more transparent than their Soviet equivalents. We asked, “Could global politics really be painted quite so black and white: the free West versus the totalitarian East?”

Of course, a great deal has changed since the 1960s. For one thing, NATO has expanded in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. There were seats at the conference table in the Celtic Manor Hotel for politicians from Budapest and Prague, not to mention Baltic States that used to form part of the Soviet Federation. But some things have not changed. Now, as in the 1960s, it is asserted that serious threats to world peace emanate from Moscow. The Kremlin leader is pilloried in virtually all segments of the western European media, from The Sun to The Economist, from Bild-Zeitung to Die Zeit. Now as then we have been told that military spending must be increased in order to preserve the values of freedom and civilization.1

The trigger in 2014 has been Ukraine. Following the integration of most of the former Warsaw Pact states into both NATO and the European Union, Washington and Brussels policymakers have long targeted Ukraine for “preferential partnership” and eventual incorporation into the Western world. This policy was bound to lead to disaster. The proportion of ethnic Russians in Ukraine is not higher than in the Baltics, but the larger numbers and the interwoven east Slav history make the Ukrainian case very different. All sections of the population have suffered under corrupt power holders of varying hue over the past two decades. By dangling dreams of European prosperity and forcing Ukrainians to choose either the West or Moscow, Brussels must bear much of the responsibility for this misery. If we truly cared about creating a transparent liberal democracy within the boundaries of this sovereign state, we should long ago have made it clear that in no circumstances would Kiev be able to accede to NATO, the EU, or any other Western association until identical forms of integration had been negotiated with Moscow. This simple edict would have spared Ukrainians the agonies of senseless partisanship that has benefited only the oligarchs. It would have opened up the vista of a genuinely new political unity embracing all of Europe, in which the rights of linguistic, ethnic, and religious minorities would be guaranteed. Those Cold War ghosts would have been banished at last.

Instead, the ghosts have returned to seize the political agenda. Behind the politicians, the new Cold War has been prepared by intellectuals on multiple fronts. The late Samuel Huntington is being credited for his diagnosis of a civilizational fault line dividing eastern from western Ukraine (Huntington 1996). The reality is one of many complex regional differences but nothing a genuinely democratic political opening embracing other eastern Slavs could not handle. Instead, in 2014 the West lined up behind a new government widely perceived in Ukraine to have no more legitimacy than the regime it replaced. When these predictable reservations are endorsed in Moscow, the response is to demonize Moscow. The best way to accomplish this is to claim the whole of Ukraine for the West and associate the Kremlin with all those forces opposed to an idealized model of liberal Europe. In 2014, US historian Timothy Snyder has been making this case in the New York Review of Books and similarly influential journals in Europe. He argues that populist parties in the West, such as the UK Independence Party in Britain and the Front National in France, are the fifth column of an authoritarian Russia. Thus a vote for Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen is in effect a vote for Vladimir Putin, whose vision of “Eurasia” is the antithesis of everything civilized Europeans stand for (Snyder 2014).

Snyder is one of those backstage intellectuals shaping the contemporary moral geography of territories far more vast than the eastern European borderlands where he has great professional expertise. What is this Eurasianism that, in a move Orwell would surely have considered breathtaking, Snyder equates with populist and neo-fascist movements in western Europe? Putin’s recently formed (though long in gestation) Eurasian Economic Commission with Belarus and Kazakhstan has so far barely been registered in the Western media. This is unsurprising, since in terms of population, gross domestic product, and trade flows, the sums remain small in comparison with the figures for the EU, not to mention China. But nowadays, thanks to the media and academics like Snyder, the term “Eurasia” is being taken up more widely. Its sudden prominence has prompted me to think back to my A-level history course at Croesyceiliog, which was divided between British history (Mr. Watkins) and European history (Mr. Thomas). In the latter we learned a little about Renaissance Italy and Spain in the age of Philip II but nothing about those parts of Europe that happened to be behind the Iron Curtain, or about Asia. I do not recall any use of the concept Eurasia. I did not come across it until much later, in the works of anthropologists, archaeologists, sociologists, and world historians (Hann 2014b).

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