16.09.2014 Author: Seth Ferris

NATO in Cardiff: “We Don’t Care for the People”

45353453When Aldo Moro, the former Italian Prime Minister, was kidnapped and ultimately executed by Red Brigades terrorists he seemed an unlikely target, as he was a Catholic Socialist and had authored the Historic Compromise which had created a government supported by the Italian Communist Party. Any other Christian Democrat politician would have been a much more obvious target for those seeking to overthrow the “establishment” and all it stood for.

However Moro was selected because every other Italian politician had impenetrable security, while Moro’s was there largely for show. The CIA, which was determined to stop US allies co-operating benignly with Communists, knows why. But that was the Italian political culture of the time: politicians were impenetrable figures, as detached from the public as possible, and no one would ever open their door to one. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Red Brigades came to exist in the first place.

The residents of Cardiff, which has a significant Italian community, may well have been reminded of this during the NATO Summit. Warships were stationed in Cardiff Bay, where not much of anything happens apart from some patches of tourism. Checkpoints were established in shopping streets and armed police in paramilitary-style vans roamed the streets very visibly. Locals may well have wondered: have the NATO leaders been to Cardiff before?

Chasing shadows

Cardiffians are like Canadians: they may not know who they are, but they know very well who they are not. You don’t accuse a native of Cardiff of coming from the Valleys, about ten miles away. Its centre is full of clubbers every night of the week, and the city comes to a halt for the partisan rugby crowds, and to a lesser extent soccer crowds, on international weekends.

But everything is very good-natured. Cardiff is a city where people say hello to strangers walking down the street. If the natives then decide you are weird, they just leave you alone. If they can relate to you they engage in friendly banter. Welsh patriotism is always noticeable, and even more so amongst the many non-Welsh who live there and like the city, but it is never aggressive. The locals are more concerned about being Welsh than attacking other countries, which they rarely notice the existence of unless their ancestors came from there or they are sending a sports team to town.

In such an environment, what need is there for oppressive security? If someone was up to no good the natives would spot them, and stop it, because that person wouldn’t look like a local. Few locals would have any argument with a NATO leader, whatever their politics, as even an unpopular British Prime Minister is merely dismissed as “English”.

The local police deal with the clubbers every night and are surrounded by a vast array of immigrant and exile communities, who tend to replay their domestic political conflicts in the UK. They and the central UK authorities are perfectly capable of dealing with any potential threat without resorting to the measures NATO expected of them.

So is the security surrounding the NATO Summit simply a projection of NATO’s self-importance? Or is something more sinister going on?

Protecting the shadow

US Presidents might have a justified fear of being assassinated in public places, as four of them have been. All four were shot. Yet still US Presidents go out in public and still the Constitutional Right to bear arms is vigorously defended by most Americans who claim that guns protect them from “crazies”, apparently oblivious to the irony.

Furthermore there is some kudos in being shot: it was widely reported that the elderly Ronald Reagan “walked into the hospital” when he himself had been shot, and he stated when he emerged a few days later, “I walked in here, I’m gonna walk out.” During the disturbances in Paris in 1968 it was widely believed that President Charles de Gaulle was parading through the streets expecting to be slain, as this would be the surest way of depriving his opponents of public support and going down in history as a martyr.

So the security which turned central Cardiff into a no-go zone because some fancy foreigners were coming to town was not motivated by a genuine desire to ensure the safety of the world leaders meeting there. It was designed to show the natives that they don’t matter, and never will.

Cardiff makes a point nowadays of saying how important it is, as it is now home to the Welsh Assembly and one of the few UK cities seemingly improving despite the financial crisis. But that is everyday life, and this is global security. The rules have to be different because global security is a matter for politicians, not the people they are accountable to.

The Summit is another NATO display which is threatening precisely because there are no tanks involved. NATO is trying to show the world that it is on another planet, not encumbered by things like respect for the taxpayers who fund it or the vagaries of public opinion. NATO is trying to show the world that it makes its own rules and everyone else just has to put up with them. So what exactly is the alliance defending by behaving this way?

One man no vote

Politicians and military leaders like to think of themselves as tough. Time and again however they fail to understand that going it alone is actually a confession of failure. The history of warfare has shown that collective rather than individual action triumphs time and again.

Winston Churchill is regarded as a great war leader, as is Australia’s John Curtin. But both were obliged to work within democratic traditions and use a system invented from scratch by David Lloyd George, ironically a Welshman, in the First World War. Effective decisions are made precisely because several people are involved, each with a particular focus of responsibility, and each of these is ultimately accountable to a wider public which has every reason to be concerned about the conduct of the war being fought in their name.

Churchill and Curtin were up against Hitler and Hirohito. Each of those leaders felt obliged to take personal command of their armies, and we know what happened as a result. Lloyd George was up against Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm, who did the same. Neither were militarily incompetent, they just thought that supreme command was more effective. Chiang kai-Shek made the same mistake in Nanking against Mao, Eden brooked no opposition or advice during the Suez Crisis, the list goes on.

NATO does indeed act through committees and structures. But these are increasingly resembling those of the structure-ridden but notoriously impenetrable EU. NATO has published a number of manuals over the years which have been studied by military analysts and international affairs students, all of whom must by definition have had the appropriate clearance. Now people are being jailed for repeating their contents.

Dr. Vakhtang Maisaia, who knew what Georgian troops would do during the 2008 Georgia-Russia war because he had been a US Defense Fellow, was prosecuted for this reason. Georgia of course entered that war when Saakashvili overrode the previous planning and command structure and took a personal initiative.

Cold War-era Communist rhetoric maintained that the bourgeois were a self-perpetuating elite, accountable to no one, which denied power to the people. NATO said the same about the Communists, and fought against them continually. Now NATO, having won that battle, is going out of its way to show the world that it is exactly the unaccountable power, making its own rules, it once accused the defeated opponent of being. So what does it expect the outcome of this to be?

NATO doesn’t yet have an all-powerful supreme commander, but has created the conditions under which one can emerge. It thinks that by making its own exclusive rules which separate it from the public it is being strong rather than weak. One individual, most probably a US President, developing this idea to apply to himself alone is the obvious next step.

Pots and kettles

Whenever security is heightened people seem to think it is justified. Armed guards at airports are justified on the grounds that terrorists might attack. They still do, because they have thought of this possibility and make sure they can do whatever they want without the armed guards being able to come near them. Nevertheless, it is still assumed that more security is always the answer.

Norway had every reason to be security conscious, after its sufferings in the Second World War when it was on the naval and intelligence frontline despite being neutral. There you see the Prime Minister walking down the street eating an apple, and not just in the surroundings of parliament or his residence.

Of course the Norwegian Prime Minister has security with him, unobtrusively, but he knows his greatest security lies in engaging with people. Americans are familiar with the “Celebrity Black Syndrome”, in which people ill-disposed towards black Americans idolise black entertainers or sportspeople because they have something other than those people’s colour to relate to and admire. People are protected by showing they are human, and that automatically means treating everyone else as human too.

As this is a fundamental principle of democracy NATO should be doing the same. But it is having none of it. When NATO comes to town the world changes radically whether you like it or not because NATO will not operate by the same rules as the world around. It thinks this makes it strong when in fact it shows its weakness. It thinks it makes it important, but in fact it makes it too scared to even seek public approval because it has nothing positive to offer. All this while it is supposed to be protecting the world from enemies it claims are wrong because they behave in exactly the same way.

It is probable that some of the NATO dignitaries stayed at the Angel Hotel near Cardiff Castle. In 1972 it hosted the touring New Zealand rugby team. During the after-match dinner after its victory over Wales a fight broke out and Keith Murdoch, prominent player and borderline psychopath, seriously injured a very large security guard and was sent home from the tour. He then got off the plane while it was refuelling in Australia and disappeared for several years, identified only when he threatened an intrepid reporter with a machete.

They still talk about this in Cardiff. But as they point out, the New Zealanders came to beat the locals. What does the future hold if we are all treated as potential murderers by those allegedly protecting us?

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.