One nice thing about being a college graduate is that I no longer have to spend my Sundays finishing all that procrastinated homework for Monday classes. So – after going to church in the morning, of course – I decided to head downtown to see what all this NATO ruckus was about.
I am characteristically not much of a protestor. Maybe it is a personality thing. But I am intrigued by those who chant and shout and fight for something, who are not afraid to make public demands for some sort of justice.
Of course, there are some basic details about NATO that need to be cleared up before I continue. The best description of NATO I have heard was from J.D. Bindenagel, who spoke at Fourth Presbyterian Church’s “Michigan Avenue Forum on NATO in the 21st Century” a little over a month ago.
NATO is an international military alliance, consisting mostly of North American and Western European countries, although in recent years NATO has expanded to include countries such as Lithuania and Albania. It was formed in the context of the Cold War as part of a geopolitical strategy to deter Soviet influence in Europe. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, NATO had seemingly served its purpose.
That is when history began to take an interesting turn for NATO. Genocide began to emerge in Yugoslavia, and the world order refused to ignore tens of thousands of unjust deaths. The idea of “humanitarian intervention” was born, as the United Nations called on NATO – dormant military strength existing without a clear direction in a post-Cold War context. Humanitarian intervention returned this past year NATO intervened in the Libyan civil war by aiding the forces that were fighting to overthrow the dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
9/11 resulted in another ironic moment for NATO. The alliance had been formed so American military strength could bolster and protect Western Europe, with the treaty stipulating that “an attack on one is an attack on all.” But this first time this principle came into play, it was America that was attacked. Nonetheless, a promise is a promise, and NATO came to America’s defense. Unfortunately, the enemy was an ambiguous one: a terrorist group that did not belong to traditional categories of nation-state international politics. So began our rather convoluted and exhausting campaign in Afghanistan.
(Many of the protestors today were rather irked about Iraq, although NATO was not a relevant force in the Iraq War. Oh well.)
What this history lesson suggests to me is that NATO remains a military alliance suffering from an identity crisis – it was born to fight the Cold War, but now it has stuck around as a rather violent historical souvenir. Quite a number of protestors were concerned about what conspiracies the world leaders were concocting behind the closed doors of today’s and tomorrow’s summit; I feel slightly encouraged that NATO leaders are actually sitting down and talking about what NATO actually is, to hopefully avoid the knee-jerk reactions that have characterized NATO in the recent past.
Of course, I’m not an insider into international politics. Perhaps the whole thing is corrupt, like they say. What I witnessed today was not the NATO summit, but rather a protest movement in reaction to the NATO summit.
The NATO protest has an interesting history. This last fall, it was obvious that military and peace issues had been overshadowed by economic issues: anti-war protests had given way to the Occupy movement. So when the G8 summit – a meeting of elite economic interests – was promised to be in Chicago the days before the NATO summit, wheels started turning to create the most intense protest that Chicago could remember in recent history. Even though the G8 summit was ultimately not held here, the fight against economic inequality still married and brought new life into the anti-war crusade: as one protest motto rang, “NATO is the army of the 1%”.
Throughout the rallies, personal testimonies were juxtaposed with conspiracy theories. I could hear the sincere story of a veteran solider suffering from PSTD, moments later see someone wearing a “9/11 was an inside job” button. In the midst of the noise, it was hard to separate the fact from the fiction.
Many believed today’s demonstration could be ushering in an era of peace. I am skeptical about this. At one point, the crowd started cheering for the various groups represented. The speaker mentioned an umbrella of groups, and after mentioning the labor unions and ethnic solidarity groups, got cheers for “my socialist brothers, my communist brothers, and my anarchist brothers…” It was a moment that revealed the inadequacy of this protest, as it should be general knowledge that there is an inevitable ideological conflict between socialists and communists on one side, anarchists on the other. But here they were, united.
At the end of the rally, the more organized protestors were shouting for the crowd to go west – towards a large field with porta-potties and mass transit. But other protestors, the “black bloc”, were pushing towards the east, towards McCormick Place, where the NATO summit was being held and security was ridiculously high. This was the tense moment – around 5:00pm, when the street permit for the rally expired – that I decided to get the heck out of there. Apparently there were some scuffles with police following my departure.
The protestors today could benefit from learning the lesson NATO didn’t. NATO ended the Cold War, but soon learned that anti-war is not the same thing as pro-peace. Because peace is something that has to be constructed, through relationships of trust, channels of communication, and rituals of conflict resolution. Perhaps even divine intervention. The protestors may aspire to end the Afghan War, or a NATO-dominated world order, but I am pessimistic about their odds for unity once the conflict that kept them united has disappeared.
I yearn for a day without warfare. Maybe that desire is what motivated me to stroll the crowds today. But, despite some bright moments achieved by particular individuals, what I saw overall left me with little hope, and instead the bitter taste of witnessing a mass identity crisis.