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Artillery Row

NATO’s unhappy birthday

The world is growing more dangerous and its members need the will to confront new challenges

“Peace is breaking out across the World.” Perhaps you remember the double page headline in a British Sunday paper of January 2000? The “peace dividend” following the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 seemed to have delivered the goods. Working as a defence analyst and war professor, I thought I’d soon be out of a job. Capitalism had triumphed over Communism — hadn’t the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama already told us so in his 1992 book The End of History? In it he argued that humanity has reached “not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. 

How cocky we were, and uncaring of the little-known Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin acceding to the post of Russian Prime Minister on 9 August 1999 under President Boris Yeltsin. The Western way of life and its defensive umbrella of NATO had seemingly triumphed over the Big Bad Bear. Yet on 15 January this year, I listened to a live briefing at Lancaster House in London where the new Defence Secretary, Grant Shapps, appointed last August, was setting out his priorities for 2024. “The world,” he declared, “was at the dawn of a new epoch, moving from a post-war to pre-war world”, and “the era of the peace dividend is over”. Shapps observed: “An age of idealism has been replaced by a period of hard-headed realism … Back in the days of the Cold War, there remained a sense that we were dealing with rational actors. But these new powers are far more unstable.” 

Born in 1968, Shapps, like the Foreign Secretary David Cameron (born 1966), is of a generation barely able to remember the Cold War, and for whom the Russians represented friendship and opportunity when they became young adults. Perhaps this is why his contemporaries across Western Europe have been slow to recognise that “If you put it all together, these combined threats risk tearing apart the rules-based international order established to keep the peace after the Second World War”. By threats Shapps meant the way the West’s enemies, “who are now connected with one another, with Russia and China conducting regular joint exercises and Putin relying on Iranian drones and North Korean ballistic missiles to fuel his bombardment in Ukraine,” are helping the many regional wars which are mushrooming or threatening across the globe, in a way unseen since 1945.

You know the current areas of tension: Ukraine, Gaza, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Taiwan, Sudan, Myanmar, Ethiopia, the trio of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso in the Sehal, Haiti, North Korea, Armenia-Azerbaijan and criminal violence in Central America, Mexico and currently Ecuador. Many of these are ‘hot’ wars, in other areas, such as Taiwan, conflict is threatened, while the mess that is Haiti, the Sehal region, which stretches through North Africa from the Red Sea to the Atlantic, and large chunks of the Middle East are seemingly on a downward spiral

I do not believe these regional clashes are about to morph into World War III, as some who should know better predict. Nor do I see a master villain, be it Russia, China or a nuclear-ambitious Iran, engineering crises around the globe. They may be helping one another for temporary transactional reasons, but that is not the same as acting as puppet-master. These simultaneous armed contests are being fought for a variety of reasons: religion, terrain, oil, regional influence, control of the sea. In the future, wars will be fought for water and food, due to climate change.

Sitting comfortably in your general’s armchair, you might label the threat from most of these as distant, and define the conflicts as local. Yet, from their perspective, Ukraine is in a total war, fighting for its very existence. Russia, in the gradual mobilisation of its full resources is heading in the same direction. Neither state is ready to talk, or forgive each other for the hundreds of thousands of casualties the Russian invasion has caused. Israel is mortgaging goodwill and drawing impossibly heavily on the blank cheque of the USA in a one-in-a-generation fight to destroy its opponents and secure its borders. Arguably it is trying to achieve the impossible in killing an entire vintage of anti-Israeli commanders; the multi-headed Hydra will just grow more heads, dedicated to the same existential task in the future. North Korea is a permanently-militarised state led by a character straight out of Alice in Wonderland, while Iran is in the grip of the fanatical Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (curiously yet to be designated a terrorist organisation by the UK), a state within a state, answerable only to its spiritual leader and bent on the export of terror.

The recently-emerged threat to world shipping by the Houthis of Yemen has a perfection in its simplicity. With limited resources, the aggressors don’t actually have to kill anyone or hit any ships to achieve a strategic effect. The merest threat of casualties or damage, plus a gigantic hike in marine insurance premiums, has caused most of the world’s maritime corporations to reroute all their vessels around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope. Cue shortages of everything from car parts and computers to clothes and toys, a general rise in prices and inflation, just when we thought we had recovered from the double-whammy of Covid and Ukraine. The issue also directly affects the UK as the only part of the UN’s infrastructure housed in London is the International Maritime Organisation. Like Israel-Gaza and Russia-Ukraine, there is no simple solution to the Houthis. With the rebels’ seemingly-innocent fishing dhows watching the waters intently, monitoring every merchantman carrying containers, oil or liquefied natural gas, the few warships of the current 12-nation coalition comprising Operation Prosperity Guardian cannot be everywhere at once. 

It is notable that none of these wars or threatened conflicts directly affect the 29 European and two North American states that comprise the NATO alliance. Established on 4 April 1949 as the Washington Treaty, the hallmark of its collective security system is the guarantee of members to defend each other against attack from third parties. During the Cold War, that meant the menace posed by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact satellites. NATO’s unofficial doctrine was “to keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in”. Seventy-Five years later, two of those three propositions need revisiting. With the Russians up to their old tricks, the Germans need to re-find their military backbone (risky I know, but their own legendary reluctance is explained by more than a generation of anti-militarism and self-distrust), whilst in this American election year we may well wake up after 5 November with a transactional, isolationist president dedicated to shaking the Old-World order and removing his country’s forces from Europe.

Back in 1990, several Western leaders may have given private assurances to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO “would not expand further east”, yet, the final text of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, signed in Moscow on 12 September 1990, contained no mention of this, nor did the Russians insist, despite Mr Putin’s later assertions to the contrary. The Russian leader’s own record on grappling with historical truth is one of the wonders of the modern age. This was the document which supplanted the 1945 Potsdam Agreement and paved the way for German reunification on 3 October 1990. Despite retrospective Russian interpretations, none of the parties at the time proposed or demanded inclusion of a formal curtailment of NATO’s future membership. 

In addition to NATO’s 12 founding countries, four others joined during the Cold War: Greece and Turkey (1952), West Germany (1955) and Spain (1982). Afterwards, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999), Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia (2004), Albania and Croatia (2009), Montenegro (2017), and North Macedonia (2020) were all ushered safely into the NATO fold. Prompted by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Finland joined last year, while Sweden (currently held up by Hungary and Turkey), Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, and Ukraine have applications pending. In every case the lure has been one of collective security against precisely what Russia is doing to Ukraine at present, and future procurement collaboration. 

NATO standards of training and equipment are the envy of the world. When I was last in Lviv, before the 2022 invasion, I found a sticker affixed to the front door of the apartment block in which I was staying. It was placed there by a dodgy private military company seeking to recruit unemployed Ukrainians for foreign military adventures. Apart from modern kit and high rates of pay, it advertised Стандартная подготовка НАТО (NATO-standard training). Yes, even Russian mercenaries then regarded the alliance as the gold standard of military expertise.

NATO further reinvented itself in 1994 with the still-current Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme, aimed at creating trust and cooperation between members and (currently 19) others, mostly the remaining post-Soviet states, plus nations like Austria, Bosnia, Ireland, Malta, Serbia and Switzerland. It also engages with 7 other countries through its Mediterranean Dialogue initiative. During this era, NATO extended its activities into political and humanitarian situations that had not formerly been its concern, notably intervening during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Its first ever military deployment since establishment was to Bosnia in 1995, for which I was the official historian, headquartered a few hundred metres away from where the Austrian Archduke met his fate 81 years earlier, in Sarajevo. 

For a seventy-five-year-old institution, NATO has shown itself remarkably resilient in taking on new roles, reflecting the concerns of the post-Soviet era. Since 1997, it has fostered the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, comprising all 31 NATO members and the 19 PfP countries. The same year saw the establishment of a NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, though Moscow’s mission to NATO was suspended in October 2021, along with that of the alliance in Moscow. With Finland becoming the 31st member state on 4 April 2023, and the application of Sweden pending, NATO is bigger than ever. Yet it is not cumbersome or ossified; its thinking and doctrine are regarded as world-beatingly agile. However, as Grant Shapps outlined on 15 January, the challenges are bigger than at any period during its life. This was the same day that Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent, spotted an electronic billboard in the Russian capital. Next to Putin’s face, it read “Russia’s borders do not end anywhere”.

it has taken ten years for a UK government minister to formally acknowledge that the world has changed irrevocably

Although the “peace dividend” effectively ended with Russia’s annexation of the Donbass and Crimea in March-May 2014, it has taken ten years for a UK government minister to formally acknowledge that the world has changed irrevocably. In this election year there is one elephant in the room which neither party will address in any detail. Defence spending. Currently standing at 2.3 per cent of GDP, the national credit card is already maxed out on the NHS, transport, police, education, local government, justice and the rest. There is no more money in the pot, and although £50 billion may sound a lot, it isn’t. According to the World Bank, in 1960, we spent just over 7 per cent of GDP on defence; by 1970 this had declined to 5.2, and in 1990, to 4 percent. In 2017-18, we hit a low of 1.9 per cent of GDP. The largest chunk is spent on its workforce, military and civil service.

The combined militaries of all NATO members include around 3.5 million personnel, with much standardised equipment and logistics. More than enough to take on any global competitor. Yet, such protection and its main headquarters in Brussels, with various cutting edge command centres around Europe, do not come cheap. NATO’s requirement is that all member states contribute a minimum of 2 per cent of their GDP on defence. Only ten member states do this, including Britain, the USA, Greece, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, Romania and France. Of these, America spends vastly far more ($811 billion) than the rest of the alliance put together. This imbalance feeds directly into the Republican narrative that Europe is freeloading on American muscle and goodwill. Not even the prospect of a Trump presidency seems to have shaken the non-compliant member states out of their somnolence. If this eventuality arises in Washington DC, and America starts to renege on its commitments to Europe and Ukraine, it will fall to Britain to lead NATO in Europe. 

France and Germany? Well, France has always had a semi-detached relationship with the alliance. De Gaulle booted it out of his country in 1966, hence the main military HQ located in Mons, Belgium. Only in 2009 did France return to full membership and rejoin the NATO Military Command Structure. Germany shows little political interest in stepping up to supreme military or political command. This also conveniently scuppers the viability of NATO’s only possible Western rival, a European Army. On 15 January, Grant Shapps announced that due to escalating international threats, his department would strive to reach 2.5 per cent of GDP on defence “as soon as possible”. Hardly alliance-leading stuff. However much Shapps and Co. recognise the era of the peace dividend is over, the era of the peace dividend defence budget is most certainly not. There is a growing disconnect between the UK’s global responsibilities and the means to achieve or sustain them.

Though our people are among the best-trained and best-equipped in the world, there aren’t enough of them

Though our people are among the best-trained and best-equipped in the world, there aren’t enough of them, or the platforms they man. We punch above our weight because we maintain every capability, deployable for any conceivable global theatre of operations. The RAF’s combat and transport aircraft, with their tanker fleet, can reach further, quicker, than any other air force, apart from the USAF. Few other nations can field this wide range of military options, preferring to fund only niche capabilities. It is true that fewer personnel can achieve greater strategic effect through cyber, information and media operations, but Ukraine has surely taught us that boots, wheels and tracks on the ground also count, just as the Houthis are shaming us into the admission that we don’t have enough ships, or crews, to counter even a modest maritime threat

It is heartening to know, as the Defence Secretary outlined, that Britain has trained 60,000 Ukrainians, playing a very real role in the survival of that state, or that 20,000 regulars and reservists will shortly join 30 nations on the forthcoming Exercise Steadfast Defender, a modern equivalent of the old Lionheart and Crusader NATO exercises, this time designed to “provide vital reassurance against the Putin menace”. I wish I were going with them, but my soldiering days are over. With Yemen, the Prime Minister has warned of “the risks of inaction… which would send a dangerous message that British vessels and British interests are fair game”. The coda running through all of this is that a lack of defence spending or the will to radically increase the military and security budget, will likewise send signals of weakness from whichever party is in power to Beijing, Moscow and Tehran.

And Professor Fukuyama? By 2014, he had fully revised his End of History thesis. His updated argument instead suggested an “end to the End of History,” and that he was “less idealistic than he had been during the heady days of 1989”. Fukuyama warned of “political decay which could be as big as the Soviet collapse” in established democracies, and presciently, of the “threats from resurgent populism in a post-fact world”. The remarkably resilient, chameleon NATO is the only bulwark that can save the West against external aggression, and possibly from itself, for the Professor concluded, “Twenty-five years ago, I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward. And now I think they clearly can.”

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