NATO: A Trusty Shield and Friend under Threat

Since Russia in the later years of the post Cold War period has become increasingly bellicose and especially since the Russian incursions in the Ukraine, NATO has been facing severe challenges. The situation has been aggravated by several powerful factors, including the resurgent EU bid for a military function and status. Britain’s loss of say in EU defence issues with Brexit, the erosion of democracy in Turkey, and the advent of President Trump with his iconoclastic attitude to European and North Atlantic defence .All these factors are threatening an institution that has served Europe well, protecting the existence of independent European countries since the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949 and the creation of SHAPE in 1951. Among its achievements, NATO has to its credit the attrition of the military power of the Soviet Union, a main factor in the demise of that bloc, and, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, facilitating the re-integration of East Germany , and the Central European and Baltic countries in the democratic community.

From the outset,Britain has played an important role in NATO. It was the British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, and Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, who took the key initiative with the US in launching the North Atlantic Treaty signed in April 1949. Since then, British support of NATO has been steadfast. For those of us living on the Continent outside of the re-assuring insular security of the British Isles, the importance of NATO, and its present problems and tasks, emerges in particularly sharp focus.. The Munich Security Conference of February 2017 provided an incentive to re-consider Britain’s position within NATO and present threats to the security of the democratic world.

The situation in 2017 is unfavourable. For the first time in its history, the role and future of NATO has been called into question by the President of the USA. He has exchanged reassuring words with the British PM but confidence in the long-term commitment of the US to NATO has been undermined and President Trump is a long way from determining clearly what will now be the strategy of the US as leader of NATO. His policy on NATO is unpredictable and what he says about NATO often seems arbitrary and even incoherent. At the same time, mainly with a view to expand EU Commission and Parliament activities into new areas, arguably for the sake of EU expansion anywhere regardless of purpose or utility, EU leaders are attempting to build military structures to replace or compete with NATO structures. This process is being accelerated and encouraged by Brexit because the UK had been until now the anchor of EU countries within NATO. At the same time, the EU Commission , although keen to become a player in the military sphere, is not encouraging its members to spend more on defence. On the contrary, perhaps, because Mr. Juncker forcefully rejected the US plea at the Munich Security Conference that EU countries should meet their NATO 2% of GDP defence spending commitment. He argued that EU countries were doing much in development aid and the like which absolved them from their expenditure NATO commitments. This is damaging for all EU and NATO countries but particularly dangerous in a German election year. It suggests collusion and support of the Commission with the SPD in its election campaign. The SPD Foreign Minister in the German government and Juncker’s mutual support friend in the EU, the SPD Chancellor candidate Schulz, has echoed and amplified Juncker’s dangerous message while Chancellor Merkel and her Defence Minister, Ursula van der Leyen, have responded positively to the US plea for greater respect of the 2% commitment.

Russia, in the meantime, is expanding its military budget rapidly, regardless of the crushing poverty of much of its population. In Georgia, the Caucasas, Syria and elsewhere, it is achieving its military and political objectives. In the Ukraine, Russian forces posing as indigenous Russian speaking patriots are consolidating and expanding their positions. Although exact numbers are difficult to obtain, there is ample evidence of the presence in the Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea of huge numbers of Russian tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery, rocket launchers and aircraft. The expansion of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea and Mediterranean area is also clearly apparent. EU and NATO support for the Ukraine has been lukewarm and ineffective. Further expansion by Russia might meet only token resistence. In the meantime, Russian minorities in the Baltic countries are being ‘stirred up’ to an extent that Putin could justify intervention to ‘protect’ them. NATO forces in the area are being expanded, particularly by Germany and Poland. While welcome, the numbers involved are unlikely to impress Russian strategists Overall, Russia is making huge investments in its nuclear arsenal, high-tech air defences, already massive armoured strength, submarines and other warships. It is testing the NATO shield with frequent ‘buzzing’ and incursions, continuously probing to test what it can do with impunity. On the IT front, there is strong evidence of Russian meddling in the French presidential election and the German Bundestag election. More generally, Russia is rapidly building its capacity for cyber warfare. This involves the whole gamut of cyber weapons. Cyberthefts of confidential government files attributed to Russia have been reported in many countries including the Ukraine, Germany and the USA. Use of cyberweapons and malware against government and power supply systems has been reported from the Ukraine. A former Russian intelligence officer has described mechanisms used for Russian disinformation and disguised propaganda in the US.

The weakening of NATO in Europe is also being aggravated by the strong development of extreme nationalist political movements in Europe. Unthinkable some years ago, the Front National is now a strong and well-established force in France. Similar movements are thriving in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere, some of them distinctly friendly towards Russia and indifferent to the fate of the Ukraine and the Baltic States. Britain’s own UKIP has one foot in this club. Paradoxically, these ‘right wing’ movements are often sympathetic to Russia. As at the time of the Ribbentrop/Molotov Pact, a common loathing of ‘decadent bourgeois capitalism’ is a unifying factor between forces of the extreme left and right.

Britain can claim to make one of the strongest contributions to NATO of any EU country It is one of only four countries of 28 meeting their NATO budgetary commitments. (Another is Greece, an economy held on life-support by its creditors, which spends huge amounts defending itself against Turkey, a NATO partner.) In fact, the British record on defence is unimpressive, qualitatively if not quantitatively. Successive strategic defence reviews have accurately diagnosed the growing proliferation of security threats to Britain and her allies. Governments have responded perversely by imposing an arbitrary limit to defence spending. It was approached from the wrong end in that they opted for, not what was needed to do the job, but what seemed the plausible minimum. Threats to British security and interests have increased dramatically but the defence budget has been severely constrained. The peace dividend has long since proven to be a chimera. New threats emerge constantly from rogue states, terrorism, territory grabbing and piracy, all often backed by sophisticated weapons. . Britain is unable to respond effectively to these threats. Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine, for example, constitutes almost a carbon copy of the Nazi takeover of the Sudetenland but it has drawn little more than raised eyebrows from Britain which has preferred to remain on the sidelines and witness France and Germany coming away from meetings with Russia about the Ukraine clutching re-assuring pieces of paper.. Meanwhile, ex-German Chancellor Schroeder actively promotes the increasing dominance of the European gas market by Gasprom, an economic and political arm of the Russian government, notably by promoting the gas pipeline from Russia to Germany via the Baltic, avoiding Poland at great cost.

In several recent dangerous situations , the British government could have sent a clear diplomatic and military message if it had possessed the army, air force and particularly, naval forces available for speedy movement to the danger zone. Compared to a continental country such as Germany or Poland, there is an obvious and natural naval vocation for Britain. Moreover, naval forces are needed because of their ability to deploy vessels flexibly in international waters without diplomatic clearances. If they were available, naval response groups could provide the ability to operate aircraft in locations chosen by the government ,virtually British islands mobile in the high seas with major control and command potential. As of now, Britain has neither the carriers nor the aircraft. The scarce resources available should at least to be used efficiently and effectively in naval task groups held in a permanent state of readiness for rapid response . In particular, aircraft carriers and their supporting frigates, destroyers and submarines, have been neglected to an extent completely incompatible with Britain’s pretensions to act as a naval power.

More generally, however, with naval, land and air forces, Britain and its European allies should build on the success of NATO which has held the line since soon after the Soviet takeovers of the then democratic countries, Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the late 1940s, the blockade of Berlin and the salvation in the 1950s of countries such as France and Italy which seemed ripe for Communist coups d’Etat.

Within the British military budget, there is much evidence that limited resources are being used badly. Drones ordered twelve years ago are not yet available for frontline service, tanks do not fit into the transport aircraft intended to carry them and the much-vaunted Type 45 destroyers are so noisy that they are easily detectable by Russian submarines at great distance. They also have defective diesel generators which will take many years to replace. The Type 26 frigates have had to be re-designed to provide landing for SAS helicopters. The one aircraft carrier appears to have no suitable aircraft to carry. Britain now has fewer front line troops than Poland. (Top marks to the Poles!) More generally, the MoD has a firmly established tradition of downgrading, tinkering with obsolete technology and inefficient extension systems.

NATO is now some 66 years old and has many achievements to its credit. In spite of EU Commission claims, most serious historians attribute the ‘Cold War Peace’ and the eventual crumbling of the Iron Curtain to NATO, not the EU. Indeed, a key EU member and important but volatile military power, France, withdrew from the military organisation of NATO from 1966 to 2009, and weakened NATO politically by ‘playing footsie with the Kremlin’.

While NATO was never able to compete with the Soviet Union/Russia in terms of men and tanks, the technical superiority of the US, including the nuclear shield, were overriding factors. NATO did a good job, ask the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Latvians, the Estonians. They will tell you that NATO is more important to them than the EU, in spite of the lavish subsidies..

While Putin and Trump are, in their very different ways, an existential threat to NATO, a real immediate danger in Europe comes from the EU Commission and Parliament. For political, super state aspirational reasons implausible players such as Mogherini and Juncker, aspire to an EU military command in Brussels/ Strasburg which would arrogate to itself powers siphoned off from the NATO military and political organisations. Among the principles of William of Ockham, there is one of profound banality but great importance, ‘entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem’, that is, you should not create entities of any kind unless they do a job that was not being done before. An EU military command would be less efficient and a worse use of resources than a body within NATO looking after European interests. Moreover, it would risk discouraging the military and political commitment of the US, and encouraging President Trump to downgrade the US NATO commitment which dwarfs anything available from EU countries. From the viewpoint of France , for example, that might perhaps appear politically desirable. Other EU countries should beware. We need NATO to guarantee our existence. We should beware of the EU using new defence arrangements as a building block for a European super state.

NATO has been doing a good job for some 66 years but that is of little importance for those who wish to use defence as a means to expand the operations of the EU to new areas gradually covering all the responsibilities of the nation state regardless of mandate or efficiency. Brussels sees the control of armed forces as essential to its aim of creating a United States of Europe. The European Parliament on 24 November 2015 even endorsed a report recommending that the Security Council seats of Britain and France should be abolished and replaced by one for the European Union.. The call for a European army is political, not based on efficiency or the basic necessity for European countries to ensure their own survival. Against the background of Trump’s unpredictable policies, Britain should use all its powers of persuasion and diplomacy to ensure the cohesion and strengthening of NATO. It should also play a much more convincing operational role by increasing its defence budget and, above all, ensuring that its military capabilities are modern and fully efficient. Britain has a solid military and diplomatic tradition. It should be providing a model to other European countries. Such policies and actions would provide desperately needed encouragement to Britain’s friends and allies in Europe, helping to restore Europe as a paragon of freedom and democracy in a world where these precious qualities are under threat.

Until 2011, the UK and both EU and non-EU countries had an excellent fall-back mechanism for European cooperation on defence and foreign policies in the shape of the West European Union. It was prematurely deemed to be superfluous, largely because of the continuing UK integration in to the EU at that time. The WEU survives in its inter-parliamentary European Security and Defence Association which regains importance as Brexit takes effect. It deserves urgent support from the UK.

During her speech to the Republican Party in Philadelphia last month, Prime Minister May said of Britain’s commitment to its NATO and EU allies ‘we cannot stand idly by when the threat is real and it is in our own interests to intervene’. Whatever individual positions on Brexit, which has sorely divided the Conservative Party, the PM’s position on NATO and defence is surely one that the whole of the Party should endorse wholeheartedly. The erosion of the free territories of Europe cannot be ignored nor sacrificed to the vainglory of EU empire building.

Peter Huggins
BCiP Member

In publishing this article Peter Huggins also wishes to acknowledge the considerable help received from his RN Association friends in Paris, notably Captain Colin Cameron, RN, former Head of the WEU Secretariat, and his Coder Special Baltic/GCHQ friends with whom he has kept close contact after some sixty years. Sir Roger Carrick, of that group, was particularly helpful on the political side of the draft. Robin Baker also helped but we agreed to differ on matters EU.