Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Ramesh Thakur  |  25 July, 2023

NATO Enlargement Enthusiasts Look to the Indo-Pacific

Image: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, April 2023.
Alexandros Michailidis/

Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary-general (SG), famously said the purpose of NATO was to ‘keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down’. The end of the Cold War raised hopes of significant changes to the basis of international relations and world order. Instead of fading gently into the twilight of history, however, NATO became an alliance looking for a new role. Its purpose was twisted to keep Americans in, Russians down, and the United Nations out. Now that Russia is a much-diminished power―an impoverished, geographically and demographically shrunken shell of its superpower glory―NATO’s purpose might be changing once again to kick the Russians while down, help the Americans out, and box the Chinese in.

Should Australia put on the deputy sheriff star once more to ride with the NATO posse? Instead, Australia might be better advised to look for ways to dissuade the US from going to war over Taiwan, and to refrain from committing to that war effort in advance should it eventuate.

NATO’s Indo-Pacific delusion

NATO created and sustained the environment of military security, political stability and intensive economic cooperation among the great historical enemies of Europe like Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Its supporters also credit the alliance with having deterred the Soviet Union from attacking a member, although there is no evidence that they ever had any such designs. In the historic transition from the Cold War to a new, undefined era, the military, bureaucratic, organisational and political assets created by NATO over four decades were a force for stabilisation during a period of turbulence and rapid change, and also a tool for sculpting the emerging new order. But then its leaders were seduced by the temptation to turn what had been a purely defensive alliance inside Europe into one for projecting collective military force outside Europe.

Jens Stoltenberg took office in 2013 as the 13th NATO chief. In an interview with Bloomberg in November and again at the 2023 Munich Security Conference in February, he warned NATO counties not to repeat with China the mistake they made with Russia, of over-dependence on an authoritarian regime. The Ukraine war, he said, ‘demonstrates that security is not regional, it is global. What is happening in Europe today could happen in Asia tomorrow’.

His predecessor as NATO SG, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in an Al Jazeera discussion on 17 April 2015, described NATO as ‘the most successful peace movement the world has ever known’. Former Supreme Commander NATO, US Admiral James Stavridis (ret’d), wrote in Time magazine on 15 April 2019 explaining ‘Why NATO is Essential for World Peace’.

This may have been true in the past but is delusional in present circumstances.

The de facto leader of the military alliance is the US. Since 1945, it has bombed more countries and engaged in regime change of foreign governments by means of sanctions, subversion and military interventions more often than any other country. According to the annual report from the Congressional Research Service on 7 June, between 1798 and April 2023, the US deployed force overseas (as distinct from the actual use of force) a total of almost 500 times, with 57 percent of these occurring after the end of the Cold War. The US by itself accounts for around four-fifths of all foreign military bases. According to Everett Bledsoe of The Soldiers’ Project, the US operates some 750 foreign military bases located in around 80 countries, compared to 145 British, around three dozen Russian, and five Chinese. Currently the US is estimated to have around 170,000 military personnel deployed overseas.

US-led NATO military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was an act of aggression that violated international law, the UN Charter and NATO’s own charter. The no limits enlargement of NATO, that has taken it relentlessly closer to Russia’s borders directly, failed to deter and instead provoked a Russian military operation. What if the neocons, back in charge in Washington and deeply immersed in the playbook of militarised responses to foreign hotspots, are engaged in preparations to repeat the manoeuvre vis-à-vis China over Taiwan?

NATO is limited by its charter to the North Atlantic

In Article 5 of the treaty, NATO states parties ‘agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all’ necessitating individual or collective response, including the use of force. Article 6 clarifies that an armed attack under Article 5 ‘is deemed to include an armed attack: (i) ‘on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America’, and (ii) on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe’ (my emphasis in both clauses).

The Asia-Pacific Four (Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea) seem willing accomplices to the globalisation of NATO to protect US primacy and contain China. They are also entering into the so-called ‘global partners’ group with individually crafted arrangements with NATO, or supplementary pacts like AUKUS that provide a hinge to NATO. Japan concluded a new partnership agreement for NATO to open an office in Tokyo.

However, President Emmanuel Macron of France blocked the alliance’s planned extension to Asia, including an office in Tokyo. Insisting that this would shift the remit too far from its original focus, an Elysée Palace official said: ‘NATO means North Atlantic Treaty Organization’, adding that NATO Articles 5 and 6 are ‘geographic’. NATO then removed the mention of a Tokyo office from its communique.

There’s also the problem of the readiness with which the US weaponises trade, finance, and the role of the dollar as the international currency; and its history of regime change by means fair and foul. Many countries in the rest of the world now perceive the willingness of Western powers to weaponise their dominance of international finance and governance structures as a potential threat to their own sovereignty and security. 

At a press conference in Brussels on 3 August 2009, Rassmussen said NATO ‘is a community of democracies defending common values: freedom, peace, security’ that ‘is doing more, in more places, than it ever has before’. Yet, dreams of extending its coverage and footprint to Asia and the Pacific might be the latest manifestation of a revanchist neocolonial mindset.

Firstly, Portugal was not democratic when NATO was founded in 1949. Second, not all of Europe’s longest established democracies are members of NATO. Switzerland has jealously protected its neutrality. Nevertheless, it is true that almost all the other democracies in the North Atlantic are NATO members.

Moreover, not all NATO members have a colonial past. But it is the case that all the historical European colonial powers are members of NATO: in alphabetical order, Belgium, France, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the UK. Many Western countries are currently convulsed by demands to decolonise and cleanse their history, statues, museums and curricula of remnants and reminders of colonial sins. How odd then that they should risk reviving memories of colonialism with a collective move into the Indo-Pacific on the security dimension. Weren’t the optics bad enough, when AUKUS was first announced in September 2021, of three stale, pale and male Anglo-Saxon leaders asserting the intent to shape the destiny of the Indo-Pacific?

Related articles:

US allies look for their place in the emerging global order (3-minute read)

China-Strategy: Transatlantic and European Cacophony (3-minute read)

Whom Does the Shift from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific Serve? (3-minute read)



Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general, is emeritus professor at the Australian National University, Senior Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute, and Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He is the editor of The nuclear ban treaty: a transformational reframing of the global nuclear order.