NATO and the Intelligence-Technology Complex

The question for the alliance isn’t “Who’s the enemy?”. It’s “What are we going to do about it?”

Justin Trudeau, Twitter.

Lisa Van Dusen/For The Hill Times

November 4, 2019

When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization marked its golden anniversary in Washington 20 years ago, there was bickering, but it was mostly behind the scenes at the Ronald Reagan Building and at the nearby Willard Hotel, among surrogates still un-nannied by smartphones.

At the time, in April 1999, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia over Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Muslims had been underway for a month. Then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair was agitating for ground troops and U.S. President Bill Clinton remained balky. The tension made for a palpable tetchiness (I was desking it for UPI).

That was nothing, apparently, compared to the vibe at NATO’s 70th anniversary this week in Watford, U.K., billed by The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall as the “birthday party from hell.”

In a content drop of punkish irony at a time when history’s most powerful military alliance is being outgunned by the industrialized bullshit of narrative warfare, French President Emmanuel Macron set the scene in an Economist interview two weeks ago, in which he described NATO as “brain-dead.” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey helpfully refreshed the headline days before the party. “These statements are suitable only to people like you who are in a state of brain death,” Erdogan said of Macron, followed by the Turkish equivalent of “Nyah, nyah, nyah nyah, nyah.”

All of this—the chaos, the rhetorical toddlerism, the apocalyptic expectations—is, of course, enabled by the presidency of Donald Trump, who has leveraged his own neurological idiosyncrasies to render possible what, previously, would never have even been plausible and who refused to be outdone on the trash-talking front during the actual meeting. Even calling House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff a “maniac” and Justin Trudeau “two-faced” won’t eclipse Trump’s status as the first American president to normalize the undermining of NATO by pining publicly for its demise long before Macron’s diagnosis.

Standing by his comments last week and demanding a review of strategic priorities, Macron identified NATO’s problem with a question: “Who’s the enemy?”

Since the preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty states that its signatories’ role is to “safeguard the freedom of their peoples,” “founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law,” the enemy would presumably be any leader, nation, group, or organization that poses a threat to those principles. At this point, that list includes parties both present in Watford and listening at a distance. NATO’s value at the moment is most clearly quantified by the apparently immeasurable value of its absence to those parties.

Like so many multilateral institutions of the liberal world order, NATO was blindsided by a revolution that was just beginning to register its impact 20 years ago, when the alliance was still fighting over bombs versus boots. Since then, the military industrial complex Dwight Eisenhower warned about has been replaced by a more insidious intelligence technology complex. Wars are now waged with smoke-screening propaganda and misrepresentation of intent, affiliation, and interest, and are “won” based on democracy-degrading outcomes achieved without fingerprints traced or true stakes declared.

America’s degradation under Trump has been secured without a shot being fired or a bomb being dropped. Brexit will decimate Britain’s economy and squander its influence without an annexation, occupation, or blitz. China has, for two decades, built the economic heft that has enabled its expansionism, belligerence, and anti-democracy activities by cyberpoaching intellectual property while Western intelligence agencies, by their own account, were “sleeping.” How do you invoke NATO’s Article 5 on collective defence against a borderless onslaught of weaponized corruption and tactical deception?

NATO isn’t brain-dead. Democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law are all under attack, which is why the institutions defending them—including a free press and unadulterated elections—have become targets. It’s the enemy, and the weapons, that are not what they used to be.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.