My Lords, this week marks 70 years since 12 nations put their signatures to the North Atlantic Treaty and agreed that an attack on one was an attack on all. It is a privilege for me to open this debate celebrating the founding of that august institution, and I look forward to hearing the informed contributions of noble Lords who have had direct involvement in NATO, whether militarily, diplomatically or politically.
It is surely apt to use this moment to reflect on the achievements of what is rightly hailed as the most powerful defensive alliance the world has ever seen. During the Cold War, an age of unprecedented risk from atomic weapons and Soviet expansion, NATO provided the nuclear umbrella that is our ultimate deterrent, and a vital conventional shield against aggression. It is worth asking ourselves: but for NATO’s deterrence, would the Berlin Wall have fallen some 30 years ago? Would the values of the West have triumphed? Would millions in eastern Europe have been given the opportunity to live lives that are freer, more secure and more prosperous?
In signing the treaty seven decades ago, President Harry Truman was moved to express his belief that had NATO,
“existed in 1914 and 1939 … it would have prevented the acts of aggression which led to two world wars”.
It is of course impossible to test Truman’s hypothesis, but there is little doubt about the role NATO has played over the last seven decades in sparing us the terrible prospect of a third world war. Nor is there any doubt about the significance of the UK’s involvement in alliance successes. We were one of its 12 founder members; we were the providers of both of its first headquarters in London; and our great wartime general, Lord Hastings Ismay, was NATO’s first Secretary-General.
Today NATO is much more than the entity it was under Lord Ismay. For one thing, it has grown. Last month we marked the 20th anniversary of the accession of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, and the 15th of the accession of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Yesterday it was the turn of Albania and Croatia to celebrate their 10th anniversary as part of the alliance.
At the same time, as the threats have developed, so NATO has adapted. I remember some arguing, during my first stint as Defence Minister in the mid-1990s, that NATO was no longer all that relevant in a post-Cold War world. But in the modern era the alliance has repeatedly proven its worth, from ending conflicts in the western Balkans to supporting the United States after the atrocity of 9/11. On that occasion, the allies invoked Article 5 for the very first time, leading to the international response in Afghanistan designed to stop that country becoming a haven for terrorism. Significantly, NATO personnel remain there today, training local forces and creating the conditions for peace.
NATO has always stepped up, and I argue that today it is more relevant than ever. Consider the dangers we face. Russia is once more resurgent. Its pattern of aggression over the past decade—from illegal activity in Ukraine and Crimea to its interference in the sovereign affairs of other states and its deployment of nerve agents on the streets of Salisbury—undermines its claim to be a responsible international partner upholding the rules-based international system. At the same time, we are wrestling with a multitude of threats emanating from NATO’s southern periphery, including terrorism, instability and illegal migration. With Russia’s more challenging activity in the high north and the Atlantic, it can truly be said that NATO now has a 360-degree focus.
We often say that NATO represents the bedrock of European security. Equally, though, the commitment of the United Kingdom to that security remains as steadfast as ever. We have always been at the forefront of the alliance, benefiting as we do from Europe’s largest defence budget. As we mark 50 years of the UK’s continuous at-sea deterrent, it is also worth reflecting that we are the only ally to assign all our nuclear forces to NATO’s defence, which we have done since 1962. All member states benefit from our nuclear capability, which gives the alliance another centre of decision-making to complicate the calculations of our adversaries. Indeed, the Brussels summit declaration last year recognised that critical NATO contribution.
At the same time, we hold the posts of deputy supreme allied commander Europe and chairman of NATO’s Military Committee. We host HQ MARCOM at Northwood; the HQ of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) at Imjin Barracks, Innsworth; the NATO Intelligence Fusion Centre at RAF Molesworth; and the Joint Electronic Warfare Core Staff at RNAS Yeovilton.
Besides the nearly 1,000 British personnel serving in NATO’s command structure, we are contributing across alliance operations. As part of the Enhanced Forward Presence, we have forces on the ground commanding a battalion-size battle group in Estonia and a reconnaissance squadron in Poland. Our troops are also strengthening the security infrastructure of nations stretching from Iraq to Afghanistan. In the skies, our air force is policing the airspace above the Baltic and Iceland, and we have recently made a significant contribution to NATO’s Readiness Initiative, adding Apache attack and Wildcat reconnaissance helicopters to our Estonian presence. Significantly, the UK was also the first ally to offer offensive cyber capabilities to the instruments at NATO’s disposal.
The central proposition that I seek to advance today is that NATO’s importance is increasing. The world is becoming more complex and unpredictable. We have entered a new age of constant competition. It is an increasingly grey zone of proxy war, cyberattack and fake news. The boundaries between peace and war are blurring. We do not know what dangers lie down the line.
Since the Wales summit of 2014, the UK, alongside the US, has taken a leading role in making the alliance fit for purpose. Major strides have been made. The alliance is evolving rapidly. It has developed a stronger, larger command structure—influenced by senior British military officers in NATO—and has agreed to augment its current staff with more than 1,200 extra personnel. It has upped its spending. Non-US spending increased by $87 billion between 2014 and 2018. It has also widened its geographical focus to take a 360-degree approach to security, ensuring that the alliance is able to respond to threats and challenges from all directions. This includes contributing to NATO’s missions in Afghanistan and Iraq to build long-term stability, and anticipating growing competition in the Arctic.
However, given the pace of change and the persistence of our adversaries, the alliance cannot afford to rest on its laurels. Indeed, it must inject greater pace into its transformation. So in December the UK will host NATO heads of state and government. This will be an opportunity to do three things. First, we should remind parliaments and the public across the alliance of the need to show unity and resolve in the face of determined aggressors whose game plan is to divide and rule. In the short term that is about standing up to the Kremlin’s breaches of the INF Treaty and dealing with the threat of new Russian missiles. In the long term it is about continuing to show that adventurism has its cost. We should never forget that, as Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said:
“NATO is 29 allies … friends. Russia doesn't have that, China doesn't have that”.
Secondly, it will be about demonstrating that our words are matched by action. Central to this is NATO’s Readiness Initiative, which will enhance our deterrence by improving the alliance’s readiness and responsiveness, as well as its ability to reinforce. It will also be about getting to grips with NATO governance, which in the past has suffered from inefficiency and poor project management. It will be about reforming the headquarters function to speed decision-making processes and enable even faster reactions on the ground, and it will be about strengthening NATO-EU co-operation so that effort is complemented and not duplicated. Significantly, work is already under way to bolster a joint approach to hybrid warfare.
Above all, achieving such bold ambitions will require bolstering burden sharing. All allies have committed to spend 2% of GDP on defence and 20% of that on major equipment by 2024. This will be the most significant strengthening of NATO’s collective defence in a decade, but we must maintain our momentum if we are to adjust to new and evolving threats. Despite important progress, the US still accounts for approximately 50% of the allies’ combined GDP and more than 70% of their combined defence expenditure. Expecting US taxpayers to keep picking up the tab is unreasonable, especially when other allies are running up big surpluses.
This brings me to the third item on our December agenda. This is simply to recognise the pivotal role that the US continues to play in transatlantic defence. It is true that the security of Europe and the security of the United States are intimately bound together, united as they are by the common threads of democracy, liberty and the rule of law, and it is true that NATO is the living embodiment of our transatlantic bond—but it is also true that we take these links for granted at our peril. Any weakening of those bonds would make us all less secure.
Back in 1949, 12 allies gathered together and vowed never again to let conflict devastate the continent. As President Truman said in his historic speech:
“If there is anything inevitable, if there is anything unconquerable in the world today, it is the will of the people of all nations for freedom and peace”.
Since those days, NATO has proved the best guarantor of that peace and that freedom. It has been tried and tested; it has never failed. But in some senses, of course, I know that I am preaching to the converted. Most, if not all, Members of your Lordships’ House grew up in the chill of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union was casting its long shadow, we had abundant cause to be thankful for NATO’s defensive shield, yet in today’s very different world of more opaque dangers, a new generation does not have quite the same affinity for our treasured alliance, despite its self-evident importance.
So, in this anniversary year, we must seize the opportunity to remind both parliamentarians and the wider public at large about the value that the alliance brings. Indeed, we are already doing just that, not simply through debates such as today’s but through other means, for example a NATO 70 campaign run by our Armed Forces, our representation on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, whose current president represents Bridgend in the other place, and the leaders’ meeting in London in December. For seven decades NATO has safeguarded our people and our prosperity. By renewing our pledge to empower the alliance, we will ensure that it continues to protect us all for 70 years and more into the future. I beg to move.