As Western leaders meet in London to mark 70 years since Nato’s foundation, the future of the Alliance is the subject of fierce debate.
Emmanuel Macron has stirred things up with his recent comments about Nato’s “brain death” – a claim that has been flatly rejected by Angela Merkel. The German Chancellor told the Reichstag last week that “the preservation of Nato is in our fundamental interest, even more so than during the cold war” and that “Europe can’t defend itself on its own”.
Merkel is undoubtedly right, but she must acknowledge that both hers and Macron’s governments are guilty of undermining the alliance. Research from James Rogers of the Henry Jackson Society shows that France and Germany, along with Italy, Belgium, and Spain, are part of a group of 20 “shirkers” who have not met the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence. Had they done so, it would have meant an additional $504 billion for our collective defence.
That makes it particularly galling that Macron should criticise the organisation itself, or indeed the US, whose heavy spending continues to underwrite Europe’s defence.
Britain, on the other hand, along with the US, Greece, and others, is surpassing the commitment, and the Conservatives have pledged to carry on doing so. Though they have dropped Theresa May’s manifesto commitment to maintain the overall size of the military – a target which was missed due to severe recruitment issues caused by outsourcing – Boris Johnson has insisted it will not be cut. Nonetheless, they should be going further.
Army numbers are always been a hot topic in the debate about defence, but claims that the Governments wants to downsize simply to save money are misleading. The debate between having a smaller, more agile force or a larger, less mobile one is not new, and will only continue as new challenges arise. Among these, according to the 2015 National Security Strategy, is the risk that an emboldened Russia could start offensive operations against Nato states in Eastern Europe.
That makes the position of the current Labour leadership particularly worrying. It is not hyperbole to point out that Jeremy Corbyn has spent his entire career railing against Nato and backing up enemies of the West. In a speech last Sunday he spoke about Nato needing to “reduce tensions” and “de-escalate conflict with Russia”, as though the Alliance is responsible for Vladimir Putin’s aggression. Labour’s stance has all the hallmarks of Corbyn’s communications chief, Seumas Milne, whose back catalogue includes this extraordinary piece blaming Nato and the Ukrainian government for the annexation of Crimea.
Great power politics
Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are seeing a return of great power competition in areas such as space and cyber warfare. But more conventional threats are re-emerging too, and Britain must be prepared for them.
The Royal United Services Institute has argued that the Army needs to prioritise upgrading its “critical shortage” of artillery capability which undermines its conventional deterrence, and that Britain, which is at the forefront of Baltic defence, should have an expansive strategy of a ‘Wider North’, linking the security of Baltic allies to that of Nordic ones to more effectively balance against Russia.
Should the Conservatives return to Parliament and see through our exit from the EU, Britain’s leadership in Nato will become an increasingly valuable national asset. The EU’s attempts to create an alternative defence force have amounted to little – however much some Brexiteers may worry, a ‘European Army’ is simply not on the table. The real problem is that chronic European free-riding means much of the EU is reliant on Britain for its security.
If Johnson does win, his new government would do well to emphasise the importance of Nato and the work it does in deterring Russia, combating terrorism, and projecting stability. Countries such as Greece and Latvia, which do hit the 2% target,. clearly see its value, probably because they are among the nations vulnerable to a variety of security threats. While France and Germany continue to argue among themselves while avoiding paying their fair share, others will look to Britain for leadership in this area.
Remember, after, that it was Britain which was instrumental in setting up Nato. As we enter the Alliance’s eighth decade, the next British government must continue to demonstrate international leadership and renew Nato’s impetus by encouraging others to stop free-riding, and by formulating a bold foreign policy based on defending our interests, values, and allies.
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