NATO Polices the World for Imperialism: A Look at its Roots

by John Catalinotto, published on International Action Center, June 5, 2024

According to the self-serving description on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s website, the military alliance “strives to secure a lasting peace in Europe and North America, based on its member countries’ common values of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

Reading that statement provides an impulse to retch. In the last 25 years, NATO has killed, wounded or displaced more than 10 million people while destroying Yugoslavia and Libya and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. NATO also provoked the war in Ukraine against Russia.

That should be enough to make the world question the virtue of those “common values.” But the wealthiest and most powerful NATO members — the U.S., France, Germany, Britain and Italy — have added an additional crime. They have armed and politically supported Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza and have even repressed anyone who objects to the genocide or expresses solidarity with Palestine.

By supporting a genocide that the world can see daily on social media, the NATO countries’ rulers have forced everyone to search for the real “common values” shared by their states. A place to start that search is to examine the class character of those states along with their history. What did these countries and their rulers have in common that caused them to found NATO?

The class character of NATO’s founding powers

According to the NATO website, when NATO was established on April 4, 1949, its “founding member countries were: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom [Britain] and the United States.”

These countries were and remain capitalist countries where the capitalists, who own the wealth and especially the means of production, are the ruling class. State power is wielded to serve the interests of this exploiter class. The government and the military serve that wealthy class, which exploits the workers inside their borders and wherever they hire labor throughout the world.

The major powers among the NATO founders are imperialist countries that held vast colonial possessions. At the beginning of World War II, they ruled over most of the world, exploited its people and pillaged its resources. If the population of “their” colonies dared to revolt, they ordered their armies to fire on these uprisings.

For example, while Britain was itself a small territory, in 1940 the British Empire contained a quarter of the world’s population and a fifth of its landmass. These included Australia and Canada, settler states that decimated the Indigenous peoples and seized the land they lived in; all of what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, plus Burma, Malaya and Thailand to the East; and large parts of Africa, including what is now Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania.

French imperialism was second largest, with colonies throughout North and West Africa and also in Indochina. Until 1960, the rulers of small Belgium held the vast Congo, an area nearly 80 times the size of Belgium itself. Those who ran the Netherlands ruled most of the immense archipelago of Indonesia.

Portugal, a weak imperialist power in 1940, nevertheless ruled over Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau in Africa and half of one of the Indonesian islands, East Timor. Denmark “owned” Greenland, some 50 times the size of the Scandinavian kingdom.

U.S. imperialism, which by the end of 1945 was the richest and had by far the most powerful military of all the NATO founders, had spread across North America by slaughtering Native Americans, stealing their lands, and forcing some tribal nations onto reservations. Its colonies included Alaska and Hawai‘i — which were later absorbed as states — and Puerto Rico and the Philippines, whose peoples the U.S. occupation force had slaughtered after the U.S. seized the islands following the 1898 Spanish-American War. Washington also dominated most of the Western Hemisphere, but indirectly and economically rather than as colonial possessions.

In brief, these imperialist powers plundered and pillaged “their” colonies, superexploited the colonial workers and greeted every popular protest with repression that should have made the whole world revolt, had its people seen it on video. That’s what the ruling class of these NATO powers had and still have in common — their shared ruling class interests in exploiting humanity and the world’s wealth.


At the end of 1945, U.S. imperialism produced half of the commodities in the world. The U.S. had the most powerful military, was the only nuclear-armed power, had 8 million troops in arms and occupied the defeated imperialist powers Germany, Japan and Italy. However, the U.S. ruling class faced the following challenges, specifically in Europe:

  1. The Soviet Red Army occupied most of Eastern Europe, including eastern Germany, and there had been communist-led revolutions in Yugoslavia and Albania. To the chagrin of the capitalists who ruled what was to be the NATO countries, where the Red Army had liberated countries from Nazi occupation it was possible for workers’ parties to take over the governments and to seize the means of production from the capitalists.
  2. In some of the West European countries, communist parties had led the partisans fighting against German occupation during World War II. These parties were popular and in some cases were armed. This was especially a problem for the capitalists and their political parties in Italy and France. Workers’ revolution was possible. Washington also strove to keep communist parties from taking part in any of the governments in Europe, as U.S. strategists believed that such participation would benefit the Soviet Union.

U.S. imperialism and imperialism in general faced other challenges worldwide, including the Chinese revolution and revolutions in Vietnam and Korea and attempted revolutions in Malaya — all led by Communist parties. Plus there were movements of national liberation, revolts and revolutions in India, Indonesia and in Africa and West Asia against colonial powers weakened or exhausted by World War II.

Within Europe, Washington’s instrument for intervention was NATO. The main task of this military alliance was to maintain capitalist rule of Western Europe. It also aimed to keep the rulers of the European capitalist states and their armies lined up behind U.S. leadership and hostile to the Soviet Union.

Taking advantage of its position as a superpower in 1949, Washington locked in its military control of the Western European states by making this control part of the NATO structure. U.S. generals have always commanded NATO, whose members were committed to “defend any member under attack,” which in effect meant they all had to join any U.S.-led battle against the Soviet Union.

As of a 1950 decision, NATO’s military forces followed the orders of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). Dwight D. Eisenhower was named the first SACEUR, which he retired from in 1952 to become the U.S. president. A U.S. general has always been the SACEUR, and the same general who was the SACEUR has always also been the commander of U.S. forces in Europe.

NATO’s anti-worker role in West Europe

NATO forces never challenged the Soviet Red Army directly, nor did they battle the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, which was founded in 1955. NATO did, however, intervene against workers’ movements in Europe. U.S. officials in NATO maintained connections with reactionary elements in the other NATO militaries, including those who had served fascist regimes.

The best-known NATO interventions were in Italy, Greece and Portugal.

In Italy, the U.S. conspired with anti-communist officers to maintain a “strategy of tension” and prevent the very popular Communist Party of Italy (PCI) from entering the government. In the mid-1970s, the PCI was getting a third of the vote. The strategy of tension involved terrorist acts that caused train wrecks and blew up train stations that killed dozens of people.

In Greece, NATO strategists helped plan the military coup of the colonels in 1967. The coup brought a military regime to power for the next six years.

During the 1974-75 revolution in Portugal that overturned the decades-long fascist regime, NATO warships entered the harbor in Lisbon, the capital. This was a barely disguised threat that NATO would intervene with military force if the Portuguese working class attempted to overturn capitalism.

When the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact alliance dissolved in the early 1990s, Washington adapted its approach to NATO to the new situation. It became imperative to keep the European imperialist powers behind U.S. leadership instead of developing their own military intervention force.

And the U.S. did use NATO to intervene first in Eastern Europe (in 1994-95 in Bosnia, part of the former Yugoslavia and with the 1999 war that destroyed Yugoslavia) and later to extend NATO’s reach to Africa and West and Central Asia. But reviewing these developments would require another article.

The important message of this article is that the “common values” extolled on the NATO site are not what drives the alliance. It is instead the common interests of their imperialist ruling classes. NATO is a police force for imperialism against the working people of the world. Whether in Palestine, in Africa or in Eastern Europe, NATO and its leading powers, especially U.S. imperialism, are the enemy of the workers and oppressed peoples.


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