NATO - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 2nd April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Labour 4:45 pm, 2nd April 2019

My Lords, 70 years ago the world was emerging afresh from the ashes of the Second World War, a conflict in which Britain and her allies suffered many great losses. Four years after the end of the conflict, it became clear that the free world needed to band together in military unity to fend off future threats. So it was that NATO was founded on 4 April 1949 to create an alliance in support of democracy and humanity—and, especially, to assure mutual protection from the Soviet threat.

At its core, there was no more ardent supporter of NATO than the Labour Government, with Prime Minister Clement Attlee chief among its European champions. He and Foreign Secretary Ernie Bevin took on the task of persuading the United States to back the creation of NATO. When I reflect on the task Bevin undertook to persuade the Americans of the value of creating NATO and think about the challenges that the present incumbent of the White House poses to it, I remember the first American President, George Washington, who, some 160 years before NATO was founded, said in the first State of the Union address:

“To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace”.

I hope that those words will be remembered at the NATO summit in London in December, because they have rung true: NATO has helped secure peace among the world’s great powers and Britain’s security for seven decades.

It is not NATO’s mere existence that allows peace to prosper, but the training, weaponry and tactics that the alliance provides. Ultimately, the alliance matters not without constant training and nations working closely together, as we are in Estonia, Poland and across the Baltic. A military force is strong in conflict only if it has it spent time training during peace. I would like to see NATO do far more training. The unexpected will occur, and a force whose training is just adequate will not be capable of either defensive or offensive action.

More widely, the unexpected has already occurred. NATO has internal problems in its relations with Turkey. Turkey’s willingness to purchase the S-400 missile defence system from Russia puts Ankara’s commitment to NATO’s mission in questionable territory. The summit in December will have to address this.

Here at home, as Britain faces an uncertain future, we must keep our defence spending under constant review. Yes, we spend around 2% of GDP on defence, but £l billion of that includes pensions for civil servants and others. This may be allowed under NATO rules, but we all recognise that it is wrong to count the payment of pensions as defence spending.

The last NATO summit ended badly, with disagreements on defence spending at the heart of the problem. Britain is hosting the December NATO summit, and we should take the lead and pledge to devote a genuine 2% of our GDP to defence. Moreover, we need a sharp focus on what we spend on. Spending without direction is a waste of both time and resources. My noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen made a remarkable and powerful contribution when we opened this debate. Commenting on the 2% spend on defence some while ago, he stated that,

“the 2% only makes sense if it is spent on the right things—deployable troops, precision weapons, logistics and specialist people”.

My noble friend is so right. He speaks as a former Defence Secretary and Secretary-General of NATO and knows what he is talking about. For my part, I would now add cybersecurity to his list of the right things to spend on. We must make sure that our 2% is spent well, smartly and efficiently to guarantee that NATO maximises its utility.

It is easy to slip into party-political point scoring in debates such as this; I confess that I have done that myself in the past, but today I will resist. These past weeks have shown our country divided enough, without adding more division. I simply say to the noble Earl the Minister that, over 13 years of Labour Government, we recognised the role that NATO played in delivering global stability, helping to safeguard humanity and democracy worldwide. I believe that the Government in which he serves share that view: on that we are united. Labour spent an average of 2.5% of GDP on defence. I do not ask the Minister to commit to that today, but I suspect that he and I would both like to see that level of defence spending now. It is in the best interests of the United Kingdom to increase our defence budget, thus outwardly reaffirming our commitment to the alliance.

In the same vein, one of our strongest allies—previously our most dependable ally—has expressed doubt about the NATO mission. President Trump has made his view of the world, and his lack of understanding, abundantly clear over the past two years. Under Mr Trump, sadly, America is not as reliable as it once was. Whether in a barrage of tweets, rambling speeches or behind closed doors, the President has made his views known. He uses words that make him sound more like a mobster demanding protection money rather than the leader of the free world, and that is greatly troubling.

Across this House, there is a strong belief that NATO is as essential as ever before. We must reaffirm our commitment to it. Although there is no longer a Soviet threat, that is not to say we are without potential adversaries. The growth of Chinese naval power, as shown in increasing numbers of surface vessels and submarines and its attempt to own the South China Sea, is worrying. The instability produced by North Korea and the terrorist threat posed by ISIL—no matter that the caliphate is defeated—remain real.

Then there is Russia. Russia under Putin acts like a gangster state run by gangsters for the benefit of gangsters. The regime has extended its tendrils far across Europe, whether with the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal on British soil, the illegal annexation of Crimea or the meddling in foreign elections, as demonstrated in the 2016 US election and the Brexit campaign. Putin is a gambler, determined to reassert Russian power and influence. Edward Lucas, the distinguished writer, commentator and journalist, called Putin “Russia’s best asset” and added:

“Putin is decisive; we are not. He is willing to break the rules; we are not. He is willing to use force; we are not”.

Putin is never to be underestimated.

We must stand united and be decisive in our unwavering support for NATO. We must be decisive about using force if needed and never faltering in NATO’s mission to secure peace. NATO is an indispensable part of Europe’s freedom and the world’s security. On the 70th anniversary of its formation, we should unite with one another and once again affirm our commitment to this essential alliance.