Strength and stability

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Denis Tunnicliffe on the ongoing success of NATO, 70 years after its creation

For more than 500 years, collective defence alliances have tended to last for around 15 years. On 4th April, the NATO celebrates its 70th anniversary – cementing itself as one of the most successful defence treaties in history. Peace and stability have been able to flourish over seven decades, and the collective security of the Alliance remains the cornerstone of the UK’s defence policy. 

For Labour, it’s an extra special celebration – given that the leadership of Clement Attlee and his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin was so instrumental in setting up NATO in 1949. Bevin said that members: “shall act as custodians of peace and as determined opponents of aggression, and shall combine our great resources and use them to raise the standard of life for the masses of the people all over the world.”

Deterrent was, and remains, the purpose of the pact. It sent a message to potential adversaries that NATO’s members were not weak, divided nations but a united front, bound together in collective self-defence. To this day, such common cause is sort through peaceful resolution and collective responsibility for action. The original twelve members has grown to 29, and its missions around the world range from training soldiers in Afghanistan to detecting terrorist activity in the Mediterranean. 

While NATO members are encouraged to meet a spending guideline of at least 2% of GDP on defence, the UK barely scrapes over the line. Pensions have been added into the target, and the Ministry of Defence has said its Equipment Plan faces an affordability gap between £7 to £15bn. Treasury-driven cuts have also resulted in a recruitment free-fall as well as a decline of morale across our armed forces. This lack of investment and care for our forces, along with uncertainty over spending commitments, undermines the UK’s role in NATO. 

Today, the Alliance is adapting to new and resurgent threats. Russia’s recent actions in Crimea and Salisbury demonstrate its abhorrent disregard for democracy and human rights. Actions that have led to a renewed focus on the need to secure NATO’s eastern border, as well as the wider security of the Alliance area.

Technology is also opening up whole new dimensions for warfare. Cyber-attacks remain a huge concern but NATO is taking some welcome steps and last year agreed to set up a new and responsive Cyberspace Operations Centre. As the Alliance also strengthens such cooperation with the EU, it represents a key area where the UK must continue to help coordinate action post-Brexit.

Artificial intelligence (AI) will also be at the heart of most – if not all – future cutting-edge technologies in both the military and civilian worlds. Machine learning will enable new modes of warfare, including various forms of autonomous and semi-autonomous weaponry. And those investing early and aggressively may end up in a position of military supremacy. We must therefore, explore how NATO and the UN can work together to develop an international governance framework to provide oversight to military use of AI – including the ethical and moral implications. Only then will AI be viewed as a global public good.

On its 70th Anniversary, NATO’s success in maximising collective security is undisputed. Labour will ensure it remains the cornerstone of the UK’s defence policy, while adapting as necessary to the changing state of warfare and conflict resolution.

Lord Denis Tunnicliffe is Shadow Defence Minister in the House of Lords

Published 1st April 2019

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