NATO - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:47 pm on 2nd April 2019.

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Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative 5:47 pm, 2nd April 2019

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for so skilfully introducing today’s debate. He has painted a rosy picture, and in many respects, he is entitled to, because there is a good story to be told. As noble Lords have observed, the UK has a record to be proud of, and I am sure we will continue to be a stalwart supporter of NATO. I agree with everything that my noble friend has said—in particular, his assertion that the importance of NATO is increasing. The noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, touched on the risk of war. He contrasted our naval military situation at the end of the Cold War with our parlous situation now. Being ill prepared for the unexpected—the noble Lord, Lord Patten, referred to dogs that bark in the night—is a sure recipe for being confronted by unexpected conflict. I have said before that at some point, we will get our posterior kicked hard. If the noble Lord, Lord West, cannot succeed in getting the British public to understand that point, I have no chance.

I have some humble, direct experience of NATO. In the halcyon days of winter 1997-98, when the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, was Secretary of State for Defence, I was serving with Sixth Battalion, REME, on Operation Lodestar with SFOR. I can assure the House that my role was very junior indeed—however, it shows that we in this House have experience at all levels. During that operation from time to time, I would travel down from Šipovo to Split. Noble Lords should not underestimate how much pleasure it gave all of us to see yet another house with its roof back on each time we went along the main supply route. It was the security and stability that NATO provided that made this possible.

Not everything in the NATO garden is rosy. In his excellent speech, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, suggested three or four reasons why NATO has endured. I would suggest another: economics. Each NATO state would have to expend far more on defence than now, only to achieve less in terms of deterrent and security.

I think we all agree that Trump has a valid point about some members not paying their club fees. The most obvious candidate for criticism in this respect is Germany, and I was grateful for the comments made by my noble friend the Minister on that point. Sadly, it is not Germany’s only disappointing policy; she has carefully surrounded herself with what many term as Article 5 buffer states, then gaily signs up to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which will leave other vulnerable countries horribly exposed to interruptions in energy supplies.

Like my noble friend Lord Patten, I am bound to say that Turkey is also a cause of concern on a number of fronts. I hope that we can succeed in keeping that country on the course of democracy. In this context, I remind the House of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, regarding the need for a free press. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, mentioned the air defence problems.

Some noble Lords have touched on Brexit in the context of NATO and I am sure that they are right to do so. However, while the EU will never have anything like the role of NATO, not least because it does not include the United States, it should not be underestimated how much work NATO does by means of its standardisation agreements—STANAGs. There are about 1,300 STANAGs in existence. When I was running an NGO in Rwanda in 1995, we conducted a joint logistic operation with the Canadian component of UNAMIR. One of my team asked me for a relevant telephone number and without looking up, I replied: “Last page of the operation order, look under the heading ‘Command and Signal’”. My team was very surprised at my understanding of the Canadian staff work until I explained that this was a standard NATO orders format—in other words, a STANAG.

The point is that you can have a military operation under EU political direction and control, but it will nevertheless be run under NATO technical standards and NATO standard operating procedures. There is nothing else, and it would be pointless to develop anything else when we have the NATO procedures. So I cannot see why, post Brexit, we could not contribute to an EU military operation if it was in the UK’s wider interests and if we had a say in developing the policy. I do not see that as much of a change because there never was an absolute obligation on the UK to contribute to any EU operation. It would be very odd if, in the event of a European crisis in which the US did not want to get involved, the EU did not involve or consult the UK. It is also hard to think of a potential EU military operation where the UK would not be able to provide some crucial capability, be it in carrier strike, nuclear submarines, combat air power or strategic airlift—I could go on.

Many noble Lords have touched on how we should handle Russia. I agree that we could have handled Russia better during the post-Cold War era, while we ought to understand that the map of the world in the Kremlin is very different to the map that we look at. Nevertheless, I heartily agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, about the characteristics of President Putin: he is leading his country to ruin by wasting its meagre economic resources on strategic adventures.

My noble friend the Minister will once again skilfully and convincingly trot out the statistics to show that we are doing very well in terms of defence effort and that a good measure is the percentage of GDP spent on defence. Of course, the weakness there is that it is not adjusted for the lower cost of running defence in a country such as India or China. However, the key point is that the fact that we are doing much better than most of our EU partners does not prove that we are doing anything like enough to meet or deter the threat.

What should we do? I make no apology for banging on about my next point, which builds on a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig. If we cannot increase our defence capability, we should test and demonstrate that the capability we think we have really works. We can do that by means of medium- or even large-scale overseas deployment exercises. Yes, it would be expensive, but we would get a much greater effect than expenditure on a small increase in capability. In a crisis, our friends, allies and opponents would be in no doubt of our capability. On the other hand, if we have limited and untested capability, we surely have much less international clout and are less valuable to NATO.