Making women's opposition visible to NATO

NATO's continued 'mission creep' demands a degree of militarization that masculinizes and deforms everyday life. The forthcoming NATO Summit in Lisbon will launch a new Strategic Concept. Cynthia Cockburn says we need to be alert
Cynthia Cockburn
18 October 2010

In April 2009 NATO celebrated its 60th birthday with a meeting of Heads of State in Strasbourg. Several thousand women and men from antimilitarist movements of France, Germany, the UK and other NATO countries flooded into the city to picket the Summit and protest against NATO’s continued existence and its ever-more threatening policies. Among those present in Strasbourg that weekend were a group of around forty women responding to a call put out through Women in Black against War, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the German association Women and Life on Earth e.V. We organized a workshop in Strasbourg on ‘the feminist case against NATO’ and participated in the rally and demonstration with a silent women’s vigil, with banners in several languages.

In our home countries, however, the events of the NATO Summit passed without attracting much attention, even in our movement. In Strasbourg we were struggling to make women visible to NATO. But, conversely, perhaps NATO was insufficiently visible to women? NATO can seem an abstract and distant entity. When it comes to lobbying, campaigning and action on the street, we find it easier to mobilize popular opinion against national militarization in our member states, while NATO, the structure in which it is framed and constrained, features less naturally and less frequently in our analysis and actions. NATO deserves a bigger place than it has on our antimilitarist agenda.

A Cold War anachronism

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization came into being through a treaty signed in Washington in 1949. It was the Cold War institution. In a sense, its creation just clinched the anti-Soviet posture that the US, Britain and allies had taken up as World War II ended, even before Japan surrendered, and the Soviets – the always-already enemy - were no longer needed as allies-of-convenience. The general objective of the states that signed the North Atlantic Treaty was to ‘safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples’. Decoded, that meant to keep ‘us’ free of communism. Its specific value for the USA was to ensure that war against the USSR would be fought on European, not American soil.There were twelve member states at the start. They were joined by Greece and Turkey three years later, and by West Germany in 1955.

President Truman had promised Stalin that West Germany would not be included in NATO. The betrayal of this agreement prompted the USSR to set up the Warsaw Pact, an opposing military alliance of those countries that would soon be called ‘the Eastern Bloc’. There followed a 35-year stand-off between the two alliances, during which no direct war was fought. Instead war was displaced to many proxy countries around the world, including Korea and Vietnam.

In 1990 the Soviet Union began to disintegrate and the Warsaw Pact was dismantled. In Cold War logic this would have been the moment to disband NATO. Instead, a NATO declaration issued in London that year affirmed its existence. It talked about extending a hand of friendship to the countries of East and Central Europe, against whom NATO’s weaponry had till then been targeted, and spoke of the Alliance helping to ‘build the structures of a more united continent, supporting …the peaceful resolution of disputes.’ But to a lot of people it was a mystery why a military alliance should be seen as necessary to peaceful conflict resolution. Gradually the politicians’ reasons for hanging onto NATO became clearer. As the USA proclaimed its vision of ‘the new American century’, the dawn of a unipolar world, NATO was going to serve both as a framework in which to hold its allies into military ‘inter-operability’, and as international camouflage to obscure the pursuit of US strategic interests, which, in turn, are cover for the interests of global capital.

Since then the trends observable in NATO have become more and more worrying, more threatening to world peace. A shift of direction was already detectable in the Strategic Concept documents of 1991 and 1999, and it has been clearer still in NATO’s policy statements and actions since the events of 9/11. Now, at the forthcoming Summit in Lisbon, a new Strategic Concept is to be adopted and launched. It is expected to confirm the following kinds of development over the next decade.

An ever larger NATO

First, there is a clear intention to enlarge NATO’s membership - but in a particular way. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the priority was to recruit the old Warsaw Pact enemies. Naturally, Russia, seeing that it was going to be isolated and surrounded, was deeply disturbed by these developments. But NATO’s Secretary General hastened to say that even the risk of deteriorating relations with Russia must not be allowed to ‘derail NATO enlargement’, which ‘is not negotiable’.There is pressure now to include Sweden and Finland in NATO – because, with the melting of the Arctic ice cap, the far north is becoming an economically strategic zone. Particularly worrying is talk of Israel joining NATO. Israel desires this – and some political leaders of NATO states are in favour.

In 1994 NATO established what it calls its Partnership for Peace, a device for holding close a group of more than twenty countries, stretching from the North Atlantic into the Caucasus and Central Asia. Since then they have set up a ‘Mediterranean Dialogue’ and an ‘Istanbul Initiative’ drawing in many more. This enlargement strategy is beginning to make more sense if, instead of asking ‘who’s in it?’, we ask ‘who isn’t?’. It is clearly about lining up the world behind the USA in defining and isolating certain perceived enemies – among which Iran is very significant.

A more expeditionary NATO

A second negative trend : NATO is behaving in ever more expeditionary and belligerent ways. Already in the nineties it was engaged in Bosnia and Kosovo. From 2001 it began to be evident that NATO would soon become involved in military actions even beyond the borders of Europe. When US targets were attacked, supposedly by Al-Qaeda, NATO’s Secretary General invoked Article 5 of the Treaty, which states that an attack on one member will be considered an attack on all. As it happened, NATO did not join the US assault on Afghanistan at that time, nor was it involved in the invasion of Iraq. However, in 2003 NATO did for the first time exert military force outside Europe, by accepting strategic command of the UN-mandated force around the Afghan capital Kabul. This was at first defined as a peace-keeping force. But we have seen what followed - NATO is now fighting a hot war in many parts of Afghanistan.

NATO’s tendency to ‘mission creep’ is not disguised. It has publicized the recent launch of a NATO Response Force of fighting units with sea and air support, contributed on rotation by member states, which are on constant standby to deploy anywhere in the world within five days. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the new NATO Secretary General, said earlier this year in a speech in Poland that quote ‘today’s risks and threats are increasingly global in nature, and our Alliance must reflect this fact’.

Trying to look ‘international’

A third problem with NATO is its pretention to be a genuine international structure similar to the United Nations. In fact, Roland Weyl, of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers has set out several ways in which NATO breaches international law. Besides, tokenistic though it may be, there is a trace of global democracy in the United Nations. The membership of the Security Council is carefully designed to ensure inclusion of countries of the global South as a brake on the powerful states of the global North. NATO embodies just the opposite principle. It is clearly an alliance of relatively rich northern states, heavily dominated by the USA. Together NATO’s member countries account for three-quarters of total world military expenditure. More and more it is a matter of the US and other rich countries and their ‘clients’ excluding and controlling ‘the rest’.

A strange development in September 2008 illustrated this pretension to an ‘international’ character for NATO. Although the UN and NATO are totally different in purpose and composition, NATO Secretary General (it was then Jaap de Hoop Scheffer) and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon signed a UN-NATO Joint Declaration of Co-operation. It was not widely publicized, there was barely any media comment. What was it about? It spoke of ‘effective and efficient coordination between our Organizations’, and went on, ‘Further cooperation will significantly contribute to addressing the threats and challenges to which the international community is called upon to respond. We therefore underscore the importance of establishing a framework for consultation, dialogue and cooperation, including, as appropriate, through regular exchanges and dialogue at senior and working levels on political and operational issues’. The Transnational Foundation has made a cogent critique of this move.

Militarizing the European Union

A fourth and very serious worry about NATO is the pressure it is bringing to bear for EU militarization. The desire of the USA is that Europe carry its weight, as Europe, in the project of the ‘new American century’. At the same time, since the EU should in no way seek to rival US power, it should act in compatibility with NATO. And the EU is responding in this spirit. Close co-operation between NATO and the Western European Union began soon after Maastricht. In 1996 foreign ministers agreed to build up what they called a ‘European Security and Defence Identity’ within NATO. In 2004 France, Germany and the UK launched the idea of establishing EU rapid reaction units composed of joint battle groups. From 2004 the EU has actually ‘done’ military. It has undertaken an operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 2008 it took over counter-piracy operations from NATO.

The US thinking behind all this is expressed very neatly by Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, in a speech in February this year. He moaned that ‘large swathes of the general public and political class [of Europe] are averse to military force and the risks that go with it’. ‘The demilitarisation of Europe’ he said, ‘has gone from being a blessing in the 20th century to being an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st.

The insistence on nuclear weapons

The fifth problem NATO represents is the impediment it represents to multilateral nuclear disarmament. The Alliance’s nuclear capability encompasses that of France (348 warheads) and the UK (160 warheads) as well as the massive stockpile of 10,500 warheads in the USA. Further, the USA has the co-operation of European countries in the deployment of its highly controversial space shield, the ‘missile defence’ system. It uses British facilities at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill and has put pressure on Poland and the Czech Republic to house its radar stations. This prompted massive popular resistance in both those countries, and brought about a political crisis in the Czech Republic in March 2009.

Recently, five countries, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway and Germany, have called for a debate about the withdrawal of US warheads from Europe. But it appears to be non-negotiable. Hillary Clinton said in a speech at the foreign ministers meeting in Tallinn in April 2010 that ‘As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance; as a nuclear alliance, sharing nuclear risks and responsibilities widely is fundamental.’

What’s more, first strike is still not out of the question. American Friends Service Committee peace analyst Joseph Gerson wrote in his book, Empire and the Bomb, that during at least 40 wars and international crises since Nagasaki, US presidents have prepared and threatened to initiate nuclear war. In a radical 150-page manifesto for a new NATO published in January 2008, influential military thinkers close to NATO called for the Alliance to consider a ‘first strike’ policy in situations of severe international tension and to pre-empt threats from nuclear-armed enemy states. CND responded to their proposal as ‘an insane and illegal prescription that would ultimately lead to nuclear disaster’.


The foregoing is a very brief sketch of just some of the problems inherent in NATO. The case against NATO has been developed much more fully in the context of the transnational movement opposing NATO. NATO has meetings of heads of state every two years or so. These have always attracted protest. But the last one, in April 2009, which was not only a 60th anniversary celebration but also attended by Barack Obama, gave rise to a sizeable protest movement. It was made up of antiwar groups and left political parties mainly from France, Germany, the UK and other NATO member states, and called itself ‘No-to-NATO’. It had an international coordinating committee, which devised a plan of protest action for Strasbourg over the weekend of the Summit meeting. The idea was to mount a three-part programme. First, there would be a ‘counter-Summit’, a big two-day antimilitarist conference with a wide range of international speakers. Second, space would be provided for a peace camp, from which non-violent direct action would be organized, specifically blockading approach roads to the building where the Summit would be held. Third there would be a mass rally and march.

Making a ‘feminist case against NATO’

A group of women attending the No to NATO actions in Strasbourg organized a workshop at the counter-Summit conference, where we began to develop a ‘feminist case against NATO’. It is important to stress, at the outset, that feminists start from the very same base-line case made against NATO by all its opponents. In other words the workshop did not fail to address the problematic nature and development of NATO as set out above. However, to this general critique of NATO was added a gender critique.

Firstly, it is a critique of NATO as an international actor. NATO is a massive military alliance of nation states. Nira Yuval-Davis and other feminist theorists have shown how the concept of ‘nation’ is profoundly gendered, how nationalism and patriarchy are structurally interlocked, and how nations and nationalists use and exploit ‘women’. Full citizenship is often linked to military service. NATO is the product of Cold War thinking, the concept of a globe divided into two ‘blocs’ of nation states, champions of rival ideologies. Some feminist contributions to the Strasbourg workshop talked about the ‘patriarchal logic’ of blocs, a brotherhood of nations in arms seeking out fantasy foes long after the original enemy is dead and buried.

Secondly, women have been making a feminist case against NATO’s military bases, installations and production facilities in our countries. Although, for the most part, these belong to the national armed forces of member states, they are in effect part and parcel of NATO resources in Europe. Several women wrote workshop papers about the damaging effect of military installations on the lives of women in neighbouring communities. They described women’s non-violent direct action outside the razor wire and security checkpoints, protesting against the toxic pollution, the danger of radiation, noise and blighted landscapes brought by militarization. Women also protest against sexual exploitation and violence against women by military personnel. In Bosnia and Kosovo, UN and NATO-led forces not only generated a massive sex industry, but individual soldiers (along with NATO contractors and UN police) were actively involved in the trafficking process, receiving trafficked women and girls at borders, smuggling them into military bases and acting as pimps. Although NATO adopted, in 2004, a Policy Against Human Trafficking, no suspected NATO traffickers have been prosecuted.

Third, the persistence of the ‘NATO system’ after the collapse of the Soviet Union has prevented the European demilitarisation so many women struggled for throughout the eighties. The populations of Europe could at that moment have gained a ‘peace dividend’ by softening international postures, reducing military spending and channelling more aid to the global South. Instead they have been required to sustain a degree of militarization that masculinizes and deforms everyday life. It has been argued that the EU is converting to this ‘hard’ masculine image in response to the chiding of US policy-makers that Europe is a feminine, soft, civilian power. European leaders want to play ‘with the big boys’. A commitment to contribute to a European force as well as to NATO calls for high military budgets in EU member states. Feminists argue that this drains funds from the education, health and housing services badly needed by women, the sex that still carries a very high proportion of the burden of domestic life and care. In response to the current financial crisis the British government is making brutal cuts to the 'social' budget. So disproportionately do they bear on women that the Fawcett Society, a women's advocacy organization, is taking the government to court under sex discrimination law.

Finally, feminist antimilitarists make a case against NATO as a perpetrator of wars. The effects of war are dramatically gendered. There is a growing trend to civilian casualties, disproportionately women and their dependants. Women are the majority of the displaced and refugees, trying to maintain their families in impossible circumstances. Thousands are widowed, deprived of a viable existence. Sexual violence redoubles in and after war. We see all these effects in NATO’s war in Afghanistan.

NATO’s gender hypocrisy

Improbable as it may seem, NATO prides itself on ‘mainstreaming’ gender into its structures and activities. ‘NATO and its Partners’, they say on their website, ’are promoting the role of women within NATO-led operations and missions’ and increasing the knowledge and skills available on ‘gender and diversity’. Last year the Strategic Commands received guidelines for the integration into the NATO Command Structure of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on ‘Women, Peace and Security’. There is a NATO Office on Gender Perspectives, and gender advisers have been appointed. An implementation report on 1325 is to be published in time for the Lisbon Summit.

The Alliance’s self-professed gender sensitivity can only deepen feminist cynicism about ‘gender mainstreaming’. Here is an alliance of powerful Western states exploiting the manly notion of ‘liberating Afghan women from oppression by the Taliban’ as one of its justifications for invading the country. Women’s insecurity is multiplied in the chaos and brutality of a decade of armed conflict. Then the intruders announce plans to make their escape by negotiating the re-entry to power of – the Taliban. Afghan women certainly have a feminist case against NATO. And so do women in NATO member states.

Forthcoming NATO Summit

Another NATO Summit is almost upon us. It will be held in Lisbon 19-21 November 2010. It will be notable for the launch of a new Strategic Concept, the first since 1999. The signs are that this will recommit NATO to the strategies about which concern has been expressed in this paper - membership enlargement, military expansionism, militarization of the EU, and the retention of nuclear weapons. We need to be alert to what goes on in Lisbon. We aim to use the media attention it will generate to make our case as women against NATO, in coordinated actions in a number of cities to make ‘the NATO problem’ more visible to the public in our countries, especially the women, and at the same time make our opposition clearly visible to NATO.

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