NATO - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:55 pm on 2nd April 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat 5:55 pm, 2nd April 2019

My Lords, I am delighted from these Liberal Democrat Benches to join the bipartisan support for NATO that has been expressed this afternoon. As other noble Lords have pointed out, NATO has enjoyed cross-party support for decades. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem sends his apologies. He is a member of the bureau of the parliamentary assembly of NATO, and is therefore currently in Washington DC at the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of NATO. He would have spoken in this debate, and begs your Lordships’ understanding of why he is not here.

It is perhaps timely to mention something that I would not normally do. I looked down the list of speakers and noted that not only am I the only Liberal Democrat speaking, I am the only woman Peer. I find it somewhat surprising that, while when NATO was created 70 years ago all the founding fathers were been male, there has been so little interest among women Peers in participating today. That is markedly at odds with yesterday’s debate about Yemen, when so much of the discussion was led by women Peers, and people commented on the fact that women and children were the most vulnerable people in Yemen.

Although we have talked about NATO in quite abstract terms, a crucial thing to remember is the importance of the peace that has been secured. It matters not only to policymakers and politicians but to ordinary citizens, who for many generations have not had to think about this country going to war. Certainly, my father and his generation felt the importance of the ending of military service: he did not have to go through it, and peace seemed to have been secured. I suggest that that was secured through the twin tracks of NATO and the European Union.

It is a pleasure to participate in a debate where there is, in many ways, so much agreement. The disagreements have been on points of detail rather than substance, and, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth pointed out, this is an ideal opportunity to celebrate, because peace on our continent is so important: it should be valued and never taken complacently. I will come back to that point at the end.

As several noble Lords have pointed out, NATO is the most successful alliance in history. The noble Lords, Lord West of Spithead, Lord Judd and Lord Touhig, reminded us of the vital role of the United Kingdom in setting up this alliance—again, in marked contrast to the European project, where the United Kingdom always sat somewhat on the sidelines. With NATO we were at the forefront, urging its creation, very much led by a Labour Government, with Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin playing key roles. It is hugely important that the Labour Benches, as well as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, take the defence of our realm seriously. It is clear that the Labour Benches in this House take defence seriously, as does the shadow Secretary of State. I hope that the Leader of the Official Opposition also takes defence seriously.

The American dimension has always been crucial to NATO, even if it was the United Kingdom that had to persuade the Americans in the first place. During the Cold War, Josef Joffe referred to NATO as “Europe’s American pacifier”. As several noble Lords have said, Lord Ismay’s point about keeping the Americans in Europe was crucial. However, over decades we have heard that the Europeans do not contribute enough; they do not pay enough or pull their weight. It is very easy in 2019 to think that the criticisms are unusual, and that Donald Trump’s insistence that the Europeans need to stand up and be counted and double their expenditure comes from him because he is a bit of a maverick. But this is not the exception; it is what we have heard from American leaders at least since the late 1960s. In many ways there is a sense of déjà vu; essentially, the Europeans have been seen to be free-riding on American security.

In his article of 1994, Josef Joffe argued that, in the post-Vietnam world, liberals—an odd word in an American context—and the new right had begun to come together and,

“have unintentionally joined hands in a new-found resentment of Western Europe. Both believe that West European countries long ago acquired the resources to defend themselves. Both resent the West Europeans’ security parasitism”.

So Donald Trump is not entirely new in thinking that the Europeans do not step up to the plate.

During the Cold War, the idea of the United States leaving the continent of Europe was, of course, unthinkable. So every time the Americans said, “Please step up to the plate”, the Europeans said, “We will, as long as we can endeavour to have our own European security identity and autonomy”. That always drew the reaction of, “No, no, that’s not what we meant. We want you to pay more but we don’t want you to be autonomous”. On each occasion during the Cold War, it was clear that the American pacifier would remain.

With the end of the Cold War, the future of NATO and America’s ongoing presence in Europe looked to change. There was an expectation that there needed to be a fundamental reappraisal of the alliance. Yet that never fundamentally happened, so in 2019 we have a NATO that is still dominated by European member states, most of which do not yet pay their 2% of GDP towards defence expenditure.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Judd, I think we need to be a little bit careful about using percentages when thinking about defence expenditure. The Liberal Democrats, like the other parties, have committed to the NATO commitment of 2%. Yet we need to think about what is being spent. The House has already heard that some of the 2% goes on pensions, not just for military veterans but for retired civil servants as well. Should that really be part of the 2%? There is a question about what the 2% is formally allowed to be spent on, under the NATO rules, but we also need to think about what goes into it and look at procurement. We need to think about whether the 2% should be focused more on current commitments and less on pensions and about what our procurement procedures look like. Are they fit for purpose? Is Her Majesty’s Government getting value for money? I have asked the Minister this on various occasions, but I might just ask him again. Is our 2% well spent? We are delighted that it is being spent, but is it being spent correctly? As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, asked, what are we procuring for; what provisions are we making?

As other noble Lords asked, how far are we looking towards cyber as part of our NATO commitment? We clearly already have offensive cyber, but how far is that in our thinking? If, as the Prime Minister has suggested, the United Kingdom wants to play a leading role in NATO, how far are we going to lead on cyber? Do the Government already have an agenda for the leaders’ meeting that will take place in this country in December? It is all very well to say that the UK wants to play a leading role, but for decades we said the same about the European Union, and that never happened. Our record on NATO is much stronger, but there is nevertheless always the danger that rhetoric will not be met by reality.

NATO has clearly been a success. It is a community of values—democracy, human rights and the rule of law—as the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, made clear. And yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, pointed out, there are question marks over some of its members. He identified Turkey, but there are also EU member states whose approach to human rights, press freedom, the rule of law and the role of judges might come into question. If we are, as Jens Stoltenberg put it, an “alliance of friends”, are we critical friends? Can we be critical friends? Are we doing enough to make sure that our alliance of 29 is working in the same direction? Can we persuade Turkey to look elsewhere when procuring equipment?

Finally, I fully concur with the Minister’s comment that it is vital to educate those who do not even remember the Cold War, far less the Second World War, who do not appreciate that peace cannot be taken for granted and who might be tempted to think that NATO does not matter. It is a source of great regret to me that those of us who are passionate advocates of European integration failed over the years to make people understand the importance of the integration process as a peace project. It would be catastrophic if, as a country, we became complacent about the peace that has been brought about by NATO. It is vital that we keep talking about NATO, that we keep contributing to it and that we make sure that future generations benefit from it as we all have done.