Don Touhig on NATO and Covid-19
In 2001, the then NATO Secretary-General George Robertson rightly told a conference on Globalisation that in the 21st Century, Europe and North America ‘are destined to work together’.
But realising this ambition has been challenging in the past few years with government-by-tweet in Washington and a populist tide in Europe.
Those who would threaten our freedom, security and way of life continue to do so--Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China and ISIS have not gone away.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reported a ‘significant Russian naval presence’ in the North Sea and a large military exercise in late March. Such actions remind us that NATO must not be marginalised.
Now, the whole world is facing a terrible new threat - Coronavirus. This awful pandemic has shown that there is a blatantly clear gap in global leadership, a powerful point made recently by Gordon Brown.
China and Russia are capitalising on the West’s vulnerability and uncertainty, while the US is nowhere to be seen.
We should not forget that NATO exists to give us security against unforeseen circumstances and can vastly improve our coordination and logistics of deliveries.
Everybody was taken off guard by the scale of the pandemic, yet NATO has managed to coordinate an impressive response while some countries have struggled to get a grip.
NATO defence ministers met on 15 April for a special session on COVID 19, which was the second ever virtual ministerial meeting.
Since then, its disaster response centre has been at the forefront of the Alliance’s response by coordinating logistics and over 100 missions and airlifts have been completed to deliver critical supplies.
Like the Government’s overall response to Coronavirus, it’s been slow to recognise NATO’s role.
Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey was spot on when he called on Ministers to better use NATO and its resources to combat the pandemic.
His message to put greater NATO cooperation at the heart of our international response makes sense.
Greater use could be made of NATO's Rapid Air Mobility process to quickly airlift supplies.
Resource-sharing also needs to be stepped up to alleviate shortages of PPE and testing kits.
Unfortunately, so few special ministerial meetings have taken place during the crisis.
Since we’ve all become Zoom experts, surely our NATO defence and foreign ministers could be meeting virtually more regularly to help coordinate the Alliance’s response.
In the longer-term, Coronavirus must not undermine collective security. Alliance countries need to counter the myriad of disinformation opportunities which the pandemic offers our adversaries.
Despite no nation being able to avoid harm, it won’t stop this virus being weaponised.
NATO could also look at developing a standing defence plan for pandemics, like those against a near-peer competitor or terrorist threats.
Each day as we face growing Russian and Chinese menace and the spread of misinformation, NATO must ensure that Coronavirus does not undermine security in the long term.
The Alliance must be better prepared for this kind of crisis in the future.
While NATO has maintained our national security through international cooperation for over 70 years, Coronavirus has reaffirmed its importance in tackling the new challenges of the next 70.
Lord Don Touhig is a Shadow Defence Minister in the House of Lords
Published 19th May 2020