Posted on April 13, 2022

NATO Was Founded to Protect ‘Civilized’ People. That Means White.

Amoz JY Hor, Washington Post, April 12, 2022

The invasion of Ukraine has been horrifying to witness.

Early on, some observers repeatedly expressed the idea that the invasion of Ukraine is especially horrifying because, as CBS reporter Charlie D’Agata, who was in Kyiv, put it, “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully too — city.” {snip}

People of color are not surprised. A large body of research finds that Whiteness informs who is deemed deserving of welfare, protectionism, property, security, freedom, humanitarianism and more. NATO’s very inception — too — was birthed through appeals to Whiteness.

To understand the selective empathy toward Ukraine, here are four historical examples that illustrate how race has always mattered when it comes to NATO and the concept of Western civilization, drawn from a large body of scholarship as well as my own dissertation research.

  1. NATO was born out of a fear of White slavery

American commitments to NATO were born out of the fear that communism would spread in Europe. However, communism was seen to pose a threat not just to “freedom” — but specifically to White freedom, as historian Tyler Stovall and others have shown.


  1. Defending European democracy meant reinforcing colonization elsewhere

NATO was born as an alliance that protected — and even funded — European colonization. As explicated during the 1948 congressional hearings on the Marshall Plan, the United States believed that Europe’s postwar economic recovery was crucial to resisting communism. Britain, for instance, was to recover through recolonizing Malaya and its strategic resources — rubber and tin. British-controlled Malaya was the second-highest exporter to the United States before Japan’s takeover in World War II. Reestablishing this “triangular trade” was so important that the United States indirectly assisted the suppression of independence movements in colonial Southeast Asia, culminating in the Vietnam War.


  1. Western civilization is code for Whiteness

In ways similar to the selective empathy shown toward Ukraine today, early advocates of establishing NATO argued that communism posed a threat to “Western civilization” — a dog whistle for Whiteness.

“Race” has never been denoted solely by skin color but has always been defined in ways relying on a wide range of physical characteristics such as the shape or size of someone’s nose, eyes or even skull. It has always relied on cultural markers, such as clothing, diet, behavior, origin, ancestral heritage or other cultural traits to mark one group as distinct and inferior or superior from another.

“Western civilization” is a term that posits liberal ideals as the unique heritage of White people. {snip}


Because “Western Civilization” was (or is) understood to be exclusively made up White “races,” the term could function as a surrogate term for “Whiteness,” including in the preamble of the North Atlantic Treaty: “The Parties to this Treaty … are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples.” (Note: Emphasis is the author’s)


  1. “Slavs” were considered “not quite White”


In the United States, Whiteness — initially restricted to Anglo-Saxons — was defined by the constitutional right to not be enslaved. {snip}

Slavs — Russians, Ukrainians, Poles and others — were likewise considered “not quite White.” {snip}