Richard Black is a freelance journalist.
Controversy has surrounded Donald Trump’s recent description of NATO as an “obsolete” organisation. He has also threatened to abandon allies who refuse to give their “fair share”.
However, any outstanding fears about the White House’s ideological commitment to the Atlantic alliance must now be dispelled by James Mattis’s initial meeting with Jens Stoltenberg, Michael Fallon, and their counterparts in Brussels. America’s new Defence Secretary stated clearly that: “the alliance remains a fundamental bedrock for the United States and the trans-Atlantic community, bonded as we are together.”
Rather than echo Trump’s suggestion of the withdrawal of military support, Mattis also made the perfectly reasonable demand that NATO member states must meet their commitment to spend two per cent of their GDP on defence. He added it was “a fair demand that all who benefit from the best defence in the world carry their proportionate share of the necessary cost to defend freedom”.
Alongside requests to reform NATO’s decision-making apparatus, the Defence Secretary’s comments should be warmly welcomed. To put this all in perspective, the US commits 3.6 per cent of her GDP on defence, a total that is more than double the amount provided by the other 27 NATO member states (even when their combined GDP outweighs the US).
The issues that he has identified are not substantively new. In his recent biography of Henry Kissinger, Niall Ferguson has shown how Kissinger, in his position as a National Security Advisor, warned the Kennedy administration during the early 1960s about the American domination of NATO and resulting European complacency. This was part of a running political crisis that eventually led Charles de Gaulle to withdraw France from NATO’s integrated military command in 1966.
Mattis’s demands also neatly accord with our own Government’s policy. Theresa May’s call for joint US and trans-Atlantic commitments were key aspects of her recent meeting with Trump. Moreover, we live in an increasingly perilous world – whether these threats come from ISIS and its international networks of terror, Russian militarism and expansionism in Crimea and Ukraine, or recent ballistic missile tests by Iran and North Korea. The eastern and southern flanks of Europe are especially vulnerable to terrorism and military expansionism.
America’s Defence Secretary is especially cautious about Russia. He is likely to exert a helpful influence on Trump in the aftermath of Michael Flynn’s dismissal as the new President’s National Security Adviser over his links to Russian officials. Hopefully, Trump will now continue the Obama administration’s conduct of military exercises, and deploy additional forces to vulnerable Baltic and Eastern European states.
While it is true that the overall defence spending of Canada and European states increased by 3.8 per cent last year, NATO allies must also shoulder the burden of developing Iraqi state-building and defensive capacities against ISIS. It is in the interest of such countries as France, Germany, Turkey and Italy to bolster states such as Iraq and Libya which are critical in the development of a long-term solution of the refugee crisis.
When NATO major member states such as Germany and Canada spend paltry sums on their military capacities – 1.19 per cent and 0.99 per cent of their GDP respectively – an unacceptable signal is sent to the smaller members of the alliance. Angela Merkel has proposed a Franco-German EU planning staff that would work with NATO, but far more investment is needed to bolster conventional forces on the European mainland. France, meanwhile, continues to miss its NATO defence target, but maintains a nuclear deterrent, permanent military garrisons across the world and the largest aircraft carrier outside the US navy.
Here at home, we are one of only five countries that honours its defence commitments to NATO (alongside Estonia, Greece, Poland and the United States). But while the UK has long prided itself on meeting its targets on defence spending, recent news has highlighted a litany of areas which are highly embarrassing for the Ministry of Defence. Bad procurement deals, inadequate equipment, falling levels of recruitment, a lack of sea vessels and a host of other issues have damaged the preponderance of British power in the eyes of America, our NATO allies and other key strategic partners.
On top of this, the International Institute for Strategic Studies recently published a report which argued that UK defence spending fell to 1.98 per cent of GDP last year – a claim disputed by the Ministry of Defence and by NATO itself. However, this statistical point is not the substantive issue. The UK must seriously up its game. Our own national security rests on the support of our Atlantic and European partners. It is time for us to not only meet our NATO targets – which were originally designed for more reluctant members – but to exceed them in order to maximise our vital strategic and tactical need.
Our withdrawal from the EU must not overshadow the new conventional, unconventional and cyber threats that we face. The opening of a new £1.9 billion National Cyber Security Centre at GCHQ, which intends to coordinate its work with private companies, is necessary on the cyber front. But it is also imperative to maintain the UK’s credible nuclear deterrent and a strong conventional force. This requires not only more military spending – perhaps even three per cent of total GDP – but also full attention to ending bureaucratic waste and to improving the UK’s capacity to rapidly respond to threats with credible force.
When it was first created in 1949, NATO’s founding principle was that of collective defence – the idea that if one ally was threatened or attacked, the others would rush to their aid. This guiding ideal cemented Anglo-American leadership and European cooperation throughout the Cold War. The threats to today’s global stability – ISIS, Russia, Iran and North Korea – are not so far removed from the Soviet and Chinese aggressive actions that provoked the alliance’s birth in the first place.
With a prosperous economy, a revival of national sovereignty and a strong network of allies throughout the democratic and Western world, now is the time for the UK to rise to the challenge of leading NATO into a new stage of genuine mutual democratic defence.