Photo by Filiep C: Arrested activists and police at NATO headquarters.

Photo by Filiep C: Arrested activists and police at NATO headquarters.

Photo by Teirlinck P: Activists at the NATO summit in Strasbourg, France, April.

Photo by Teirlinck P: Activists at the NATO summit in Strasbourg, France, April.

Photo by Teirlinck P: NATO protesters blockade a road to Strasbourg in April.

Photo by Teirlinck P: NATO protesters blockade a road to Strasbourg in April.


The Cold War

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) was established in 1949 as a defensive military alliance between the United States, Canada and 10 Western-European countries. NATO’s goal was to defend its territory against the Soviet Union. NATO considers an attack on any member as an attack on all. The organization constitutes a system of collective defense whereby its member states agree to mutual defense in response to an attack by any external party. The first NATO Secretary General, Lord Ismay, stated the organization's goal was, "To keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down". When West-Germany became a NATO member in 1955, the Soviet Union responded by forming its own military-treaty organization, the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, more commonly known as "the Warsaw Pact."

During the Cold War, the United States deployed nuclear warheads in several NATO-countries. A key feature of NATO's deterrence policy is “nuclear sharing,” which involves member countries — without nuclear weapons of their own — in the planning for the use of nuclear weapons by NATO, and provides for the armed forces of these countries to be involved in delivering these weapons in the event of their use. These sharing agreements were made secretly between governments at the highest level of power, without debate amongst elected representatives or the public. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Warsaw Pact dissolved, NATO lost its original reason for existence. The organization had to re-evaluate its purpose and legitimacy, as well as approach new allies in eastern Europe, areas formally within the Soviet Union.

Peace through the barrel of a gun

Today, NATO has 26 member countries and 24 partner countries. In its Strategic Concept of the Alliance approved by the 1999 Washington Treaty, NATO says:

NATO's essential and enduring purpose … is to safeguard the freedom and security of all its members by political and military means. … The Alliance embodies the transatlantic link by which the security of North America is permanently tied to the security of Europe. … Solidarity and cohesion within the Alliance, through daily cooperation in both the political and military spheres, ensure that no single Ally is forced to rely upon its own national efforts alone in dealing with basic security challenges. … Alliance security interests can be affected by other risks of a wider nature, including acts of terrorism, sabotage and organized crime, and by the disruption of the flow of vital resources. The uncontrolled movement of large numbers of people, particularly as a consequence of armed conflicts, can also pose problems for security and stability affecting the Alliance.

This means that NATO is no longer a defensive, but an offensive organization that considers military intervention it’s core mission — not only within its own territory, but in every single country in the world — if one of the members feel that its interests are at stake. Peace activists from Belgium, who participated in the Strasbourg protests in April, criticize the organization.

“We can clearly see what that means to NATO: they are bringing peace and democracy in Afghanistan through the barrel of a gun and the bomb bay doors of an aircraft,” said the group Vredesactie (Peace Action) on its website. “A military alliance that operates worldwide, that owns nuclear weapons and that is prepared to use them first, is a danger to world peace.”

NATO’s illegal weapons of Mass Destruction

NATO has also changed its nuclear strategy. It used to argue that nuclear weapons would only be used as a threat against other nuclear states. In 2000, under U.S. pressure, NATO declared that its nuclear weapons could also be used against countries that “may” be in possession of weapons of mass destruction, such as biological and chemical weapons. This means that countries deemed “potentially” threatened by nuclear attack increased enormously. In five European countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey) NATO stocks 150 to 240 nuclear warheads. According to a 1996 humanitarian law by the International Justice Court and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the presence of these weapons and NATO’s “nuclear sharing agreements” are illegal.

United Nations of the Willing

“NATO embodies the trans-Atlantic bond that ties the safety of Europe and the safety of the U.S. together,” NATO outlines in its 1999 Strategic Concept. This can be a good thing, depending on what the exact vision and strategy is on crucial security issues. NATO's current strategy of proactive, worldwide military interventions is questionable and also among NATO members, differences in opinion are present, notably on global matters such as Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa. European governments, and the general European public, fear that the United States uses NATO as a means to get Europe deeper involved in U.S.-led military operations, such as the occupation of Iraq.

Moreover, the United States wants to evolve NATO from a Euro-Atlantic alliance to a worldwide military security force, a “United Nations of the Willing,” including other Western nations such as, for example, Australia and Israel. This would give the United States what the United Nations doesn’t give: a military alliance that operates globally, without having to take into account states with other interests. Many U.S. politicians and military leaders would happily see the United Nations abolished and replaced by something that better represents U.S. interests. The creation of an enlarged NATO could lead to a marginalization of the United Nations — our worldwide peacekeeping, humanitarian and security organization today. Most European countries do not share this U.S. viewpoint, but as Europe lacks consensus and cannot offer an alternative vision on security policy, many Europeans fear that the United States will have its way.

NATO Game Over

On March 21, NATO’s Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, was besieged by a thousand non-violent peace activists, who rallied against nuclear weapons in Europe and asked for the termination of NATO. More than 400 demonstrators were arrested as they tried to enter NATO property to seal gates, windows and doors. Meanwhile outside the base, demonstrators symbolically buried NATO during a farewell ceremony performance. The organization Vredesactie said, “By entering the NATO headquarters, we commit a small crime in order to prevent a much bigger one: the use of nuclear weapons. We want to close NATO down, we don’t want to be part of such a global military force and its wars all over the world.”

Strasbourg Summit

From April 1 to 5, tens of thousands pacifist activists from 600 associations within 33 countries gathered in Strasbourg. They formed a coalition, The Strasbourg Collective, and held a so-called “counter-summit” where they analyzed NATO politics and discussed alternatives to NATO. The activists organized non-violent demonstrations and committed acts of civil disobedience, including blocking strategic roads.

Despite severe security measures, which cost almost $150 million, the havoc and violence between militant activists and police in Strasbourg were indescribable. Peaceful demonstrators were herded together by police together with a group of aggressive people wearing masks and then attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets. The many non-violent groups suspect malicious intent from the French riot police. “Or the French Police are completely incompetent, or they put in scene this apocalyptic spectacle, using the peace demonstrators as involuntarily figurants,” an activist wrote soon after in an editorial in a Belgian newspaper.

International media focused strongly the burning buildings and heavy riots, while thousands of peaceful demonstrators with a clear message for their leaders, weren’t heard.

Activists who witnessed the actions and demonstrations said, “France and Germany [who hosted the NATO-summit] showed themselves as police states that violated the right to demonstrate. NATO goes abroad to defend the Western values, but meanwhile they throw these values overboard in their own countries. Sarkozy [the President of France] succeeded in criminalizing the whole Anti-NATO movement.”

While these riots were going on, the NATO-members celebrated and assigned a new secretary-general. U.S. President Obama called for an increased NATO-commitment in Afghanistan. And the only “change” Obama offered compared to the Bush administration, is a plan for increasing the number of NATO troops. Obama’s request received a tepid response.

The only slightly positive news coming from this summit was Obama’s April 3 announcement to work towards "a world without nuclear weapons." Germany and the Netherlands promptly announced new negotiations regarding NATO-nukes in their own countries.

The final declaration from the Strasbourg summit shows that NATO has hardly decided to change the course. The only new thing is the selection of a new secretary-general. The brief one-page declaration only provides a summary of NATO’s ongoing activities. The role that NATO will play in the future remains unclear. The organization appears lacking direction, and has plans to work out a new Strategic Concept in the future. Taken the many different visions amongst NATO-members, it could take a long time before they reach consensus.

Additional Resources:,1518,616547,00.html

Sites from action groups in Strasbourg: