NATO - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:53 pm on 2nd April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Labour 3:53 pm, 2nd April 2019

My Lords, we should all be grateful to the Minister for arranging this welcome debate, even if the short notice given has deprived us of a number of wise contributors who might otherwise have wanted to join us.

Those in 1949 who contemplated or even wanted a North Atlantic Treaty that would be time-limited would have been stunned but hugely impressed, 70 years on, at this anniversary today. NATO is simply a remarkable and unique alliance of free nations. Originally forged in response to the European dominoes tumbling to Joseph Stalin, NATO was, without firing a shot in anger, to see off its main adversary, the USSR. We then saw it become the bridge between the post-Soviet world and the West in the Partnership for Peace. Then we saw it using its military and political power to stop the carnage in Bosnia and to end and reverse the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. After that, we saw it join up with the European Union to prevent a bloody civil war developing in what is now known as North Macedonia—a good new story to cheer us in the 70th year of NATO, with that new country coming into the alliance. After the trauma of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States and, as the Minister said, the invoking for the very first time of the treaty’s Article 5, the alliance took over organising the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. That has been a quite remarkable evolution: from the birth of NATO in Washington in 1949 to the security challenges of today and tomorrow. Those challenges are, in many ways, as difficult and complex as those in NATO’s successful past, but they are challenges that, frankly, only NATO can face. NATO is our most precious and unrivalled asset in our fractious, unstable and highly unpredictable world.

No defence alliance in the history of our planet has survived, or indeed thrived, as long as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and I believe that it has done so for three principal reasons. The first is because NATO has the capacity to evolve and transform to deal with changing security landscapes. The second is because NATO has maintained its military credibility and deterrence capacity. Thirdly, NATO has nurtured and protected that towering strength which is the value set of its constituent nations: the rule of law and an independent judiciary; free speech and a free press; sustainable democratic institutions; separation of church and state; and a tolerance of contrary views. These are the foundations of our free societies and are what give us our moral authority and political advantage in the world. However, as the Minister said, none of these reasons can be taken for granted and NATO will always be a work in progress. So long as the world keeps changing and new threats to our societies emerge and mutate, then NATO, too, has to change.

As the Minister told us, the first Secretary-General of NATO—like me and like Lord Carrington, who came after him, a former British Cabinet Minister—was Lord Hastings Ismay, one-time general and chief of staff to Churchill. In his final speech in Bonn before he stood down, he said that,

“a defensive shield has been built up which, though not yet as strong as might be wished, is an essential feature of the deterrent to aggression. Who would have believed that sovereign States would entrust their precious armed forces to the command of nationals other than their own in times of peace? But this is what has come to pass”.

It was indeed extraordinary then and it was true as well, and it is just as remarkable and true today.

What should NATO do now? And what should the United Kingdom—whether in or out of the European Union—do to pay more than lip service to what government Ministers constantly call the cornerstone of Britain’s defence? Priority number 1, in my view, is to maintain the military effectiveness and deterrent strength of the alliance. The bad news is that the 2% of GNP target is met by only five of the 29 members of NATO, with some countries lamentably behind the freely made commitments that they took on. I was in Slovenia the week before last and Prague the previous week making the point about their inadequate responses to the 2% target—doing it in person and in theatre. However, gross figures do not tell the whole story, as 2% spent on the wrong capabilities adds very little to effectiveness. Of course, the good news is that, since the Wales summit, there has been a growth in collective defence expenditure in Europe of $87 billion, with half the countries now spending over the target of 20% on equipment.

Priority number 2, in my view, is addressing our weaknesses—the soft underbelly of an alliance which, in spite of the burden-sharing debate, is still formidable and outspends any potential adversary. That is why these adversaries, whether in states or as individuals, have turned their tactics to interfering in democratic processes, exploiting splits among us, hijacking public debates, dominating the cyber world and subverting electronic communications. That is why, in NATO and in its nations, we need more investment in intelligence, in cyber professionalism and in information dissemination. That information campaign might start here in this country. Can the Minister tell us why, while the Russian embassy has sent out detailed briefings to MPs and Peers on the Russian position on the INF treaty, and while parliamentarians receive in their post China Daily on a daily basis, we get little or nothing on NATO positions from our own Government?

Indeed, I took the opportunity of looking at the section on NATO and the UK on the Foreign Office website today. It has only two items dated 2019, although we are now into April, and both were dated 21 January: one was connected to the statement on Salisbury and the other to the Prime Minister’s statement on Brexit—that was one of very many statements on Brexit but only one is on the website. The only item on the INF treaty, on which a hugely important debate is ongoing in Europe and the United States at the moment, was dated 4 December and was simply a restatement of the NATO Foreign Ministers’ statement. We are not doing anything like enough to disseminate information about what is happening in NATO.

My priority number three is maintaining the nuclear element of the alliance. The American, British and French nuclear forces, along with the other weapons on European soil, have been the backbone of a posture that has made conventional war unthinkable. They are as important today as they ever were,

My priority number four is Russia. The NATO-Russia Council, of which I was the first chairman, should still be a powerful venue for dialogue. Resuming the formality and depth of the NATO-Russia Council would not in any way be seen as a concession to wholly unacceptable Russian behaviour in Ukraine, Crimea and Salisbury; instead, it would be a recognition that, in a hair-trigger nuclear world, we need to talk about what we agree on as well as why we disagree on other matters. The Russians and plenty of others in the world need to be reminded that NATO is, and always will be, a defence alliance; it does not represent a danger to any country or group that does not attack, threaten or subvert us. That message is as powerful and true today as it was on that April day in Washington in 1949.

My final priority is a plea for a return to American leadership. One of the saddest features of the Trump Administration has been their abdication from a global leadership role. Even America’s critics would concede that you do not really miss American leadership until it has gone. NATO is America’s best security bargain in its history. Let us hope that President Trump will take that point on board when he comes to London in December, and I hope that he will take on board, too, the point made to him today when Secretary-General Stoltenberg meets him in the Oval Office.

NATO is a precious legacy, left to us from a previous generation to be ours today. It is therefore our solemn responsibility to reinvigorate and reinforce this remarkable, irreplaceable alliance for the challenges that will face the next generation. That has to be the enduring message of this 70th anniversary.