A longer read for the weekend…Sir Nick Harvey on NATO in the era of Trump, Putin, Brexit and Corbyn

At Spring Conference in York, Sir Nick Harvey spoke at a Liberal Reform fringe event asking what now for NATO in the era of Trump, Putin, Brexit and Corbyn. With his kind permission we reproduce his remarks. Please do share your thoughts in the comments.

Do Brexit, Trump and the rise of populism in Europe signal a disintegration of western institutions? Has NATO become irrelevant or do we need it more than ever at a time of Russian expansionism?

Two notable quotations are of relevance to these questions: Mao Tse Tung’s assertion that, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and von Clausewitz’s observation that “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

It is a sobering thought that the UK’s real defence spending figure is now below 2% of GDP, and across the EU it is much less. By contrast, Russia spends 5.4% of its GDP on defence. Be in no doubt that President Putin is now involved in a major power play on the global stage.

Some people misread him entirely and believe him to be mad. He may be bad, but he is certainly not mad. Seen through Russian eyes, his actions are perfectly logical. It took Russia 150 years to secure its naval base in Crimea. How did we expect them to react to the possibility of suddenly finding it located inside the EU and NATO? Similarly, their only Mediterranean naval facilities are in Syria – were they likely to welcome finding them under the control of an American puppet regime?

I believe that Russia has no serious ambition to recover its stranglehold over Poland, Hungary or the Balkans. But, by moving our sphere of influence right up to its border, as Russia perceives it we have ‘moved our tanks onto their front lawn’. Small wonder they react badly.

Putin invaded Crimea, using force, not diplomacy, to achieve his objectives. He succeeded by calculating correctly that the West hadn’t the will to repel Russia.

Russia has made the decisive difference in Syria by backing Assad, and is increasingly seen worldwide as a powerful and determined military force, which sticks by its allies and gets the job done. Note that Russia flew missions into Syria from an airbase in Iran; and observe its rapprochement with Turkey: their shooting down of a Russian plane all forgotten now.

A Russian-Turkish-Iranian alliance is an essential piece in Putin’s jigsaw. There are serious dangers of such an axis. Erdogan’s increasingly Islamist Turkey is at odds with the West, abandoning its EU ambitions and potentially even withdrawing from NATO (a possibility, rather than a likelihood).

Note too, that addressing the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party last July, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech in which he called for a military union with Russia that would render NATO ‘powerless’ and ‘put an end to the imperialist desires of the West.’

So, what might be Putin’s overall strategic ambitions? An editorial in Italy’s La Stampa newspaper reckoned that Russia’s policy on Ukraine, its actions in Syria and its reconciliation with Turkey show Putin’s determination, “to create a new international order and slash the clout of the United States.”

La Stampa continued: “In Ukraine Putin wants to weaken Washington’s credibility as guarantor of Eastern Europe, in Syria he shows Russia’s greater capability to fight jihadists than a US-led coalition of more than 60 countries, and in Turkey he seeks to prompt divisions in Ankara-NATO relations.” It portrayed the image of the West as torn by contradictory approaches to migration and terrorism and exhausted economically.

Mounting threats from the arc of instability around Europe’s south: terrorism and unmanaged migration; the return of foreign fighters; humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, all contribute to strains within Europe. Eastern Europeans focus on threats they feel from Russia, while Russia responds to threats it feels from NATO.

Cold winds are blowing through Europe’s security cohesion: the web of treaties, arrangements and understandings developed since WW2 to ensure that Europe, the bloodiest place in the twentieth century, avoids tearing itself apart.

Russia and NATO blame each other. Moscow points to abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the introduction of destabilising new military technologies. NATO points to Ukraine, Russian snap military exercises and irresponsible threats. Miscalculation or accident between nuclear Russia and nuclear NATO is Europe’s greatest risk. The growing volatility of ‘the global atmosphere’, giving rise to fear, could easily cause situations to escalate – with potentially disastrous consequences.

Might the Baltics be the showdown? The credibility of NATO’s central tenet: ‘an attack on one is an attack on all,’ could be on the line. And attacks include those by rabble-rousers, unbadged combatants and in the cyber domain. The West had better mean what it says: if we are found wanting, NATO will be a dead duck.

Three things are needed to stop the rot.

First, Europe’s leaders must recognise the security problems to be as grave as they are, not as they might wish them to be. The optimism following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 bred complacency. The focus has been too much on European construction and not enough on problem-solving. The EU and NATO must attend more to unfinished, neglected, business in the western Balkans. The Minsk agreements on Ukraine are sticking plasters on wounds that will not heal. Leaders must give deeper attention to how to manage the high-risk competition for spheres of influence.

Second, Europe must do far more on its own account – and the UK, despite Brexit, must remain centrally involved. Europe has legitimate expectations of President Trump, but in believing that Europeans must do more for their own defence, he is not alone: the US has got a bad deal. Much depends on how isolationist Trump’s America wants to be, and how far the EU is serious about the pursuit of ‘strategic autonomy’ – the ambition to which its leaders have committed.

Not all is bleak: counter-terrorism collaboration has grown, and cyber defences are slowly improving. And for all the lack of solidarity on migration, Europe may increasingly find collective solutions that better address migration’s root causes. But it’s a safe bet that, for several decades, even with increased effort Europeans will remain heavily dependent on the US for their own security. And both sides are basically stuck with that.

Third, and crucially, we must develop tri-partite dialogue between Europe, America and Russia, to work to restore the rules of the game – or establish new ones. An agenda might include:

  • An end to the idea of expanding NATO to countries close to Russia, at least while there is mistrust between NATO and Russia.
  • NATO anti-ballistic systems in Poland and Romania, addressing their real roles and efficiencies.
  • Assess the true impact of the economic sanctions against Russia, which are at least as penalising for the EU as for Russia (but not for America!)
  • Economic exchanges: reliable supply of oil and gas to Europe from Russia and the Middle East.
  • Strong and open collaboration between the West and Russia against terrorism and the behaviour of certain Muslim countries.
  • The West accepting Russia-Syria agreements (eg on bases), and agreement on Syria, including on Assad.
  • Reflection on Turkey’s role, including in the problems of Middle East and Daesh.

But, in concert with ceding ground on some of these points, Europeans in return must wake up. They must acknowledge that allies and national security must be constantly earned through their own efforts and increased investment. European leaders need to explain to their publics that Europe is not the safe place they have dreamt of since 1989, that Europe’s defence will remain dependent on US military capabilities for a long time to come, and that this is not just a necessary but a good thing.

(With thanks to the European Leadership Network, among others, for analysis and commentary).

* Sir Nick Harvey was the Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon from 1992 until 2015 and Minister of State for the Armed Forces from 2010 to 2012

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  • A Social Liberal 2nd Apr '17 - 11:03am

    A good, thoughtful article. However in point three of his solution Nick is entirely mistaken.

    *Not insuring the safety of small countries near to the Russian border by giving them the protection of entry into NATO and the EU – really? To turn our backs on Eastern Europe is to condemn them to re-invasion and subjugation by the Russians. Why, when nearly eighty years ago we vowed to protect Poland and the tiny european states, should we now turn our backs on them?

    *Addressing the ‘real roles and efficiencies’ of anti ballistic systems in Poland. Real roles – could you kindly expand on this? Efficiencies – this is a matter for the Americans. If the Patriot system is (as Nick seems to be suggesting) just a placebo then a) the Russians need not fear it and b) it is for the Americans to keep or discard it. That the Russians are so scared of the Patriot system shows that it is probably a game changer. Finally on this point, Russia is testing and probably going to expand it’s ICBM system – the West can either restart the nuclear arms race or use all the varied weapons in its arsenal.

    *Assess the impact of economic sanctions. The sanctions are there for a reason – the Russians invaded a neighbouring country, annexed a large part of it for military reasons and is, as we debate, involved in a fifth column strategy with the aim of annexing the industrial areas of that country. Short of escalating the war in the Ukraine by sending troops from the west sanctions are the only way to both demonstrate that Russia should curtail its imperialistic policies and to bring about that curtailment.

    *Collaborate with Russia on terrorism and the bad behaviour of ‘certain muslim countries’. Again – really? When Russia routinely uses asymmetric warfare as part of its military doctrine? Not so much poacher turned gamekeeper as the gamekeeper turning a blind eye to the biggest poachers activities in order to keep lesser thieves out of the game. Consider, which country aided Irish terrorism more than any other and gave succour to left wing European terrorists, which country is being investigated for interfering with another countries democracy, which country has just aided a ‘certain muslim country’ to suppress its people whilst allowing muslim terrorists respite?

    *Syria – see above.

    *Reflection on Turkeys role. Have I missed something here?

  • Nom de Plume 2nd Apr '17 - 11:19am

    Agreed. There is clearly a strategy behind Putin’s actions in the Middle East and elsewhere, nefarious as they may be. In stark contrast to UK/US, where I still do not know what they are trying to achieve. Numerous wars later. Perhaps he has better analysts.

  • Steve Trevethan 2nd Apr '17 - 11:32am

    Thank you for a most interesting and important article.
    The more we perceive accurately the less we are likely to be in error in attitudes, thoughts and actions. This involves dealing with the most accurate premises/assumptions and having access to objective, “unfake” news/information.
    Did the Maastricht treaty contain provision/”a pillar” for the creation of an independent military/defence organisation run by EU countries and not by Washington?
    Did the Bush administration see this a threat to US world “leadership” and “covertly trigger events in Yugoslavia that would explode into a violent war in Europe.”?
    Were these events used to control Europe and extend NATO to the”very step of Moscow and beyond”? [Such as the Middle East?]
    How do we protect ourselves by chronically wrecking the Middle East?
    Why have we chosen to create such awful refugee suffering and crises?
    How does the arms spending of Europe compare with those of Russia, China and the USA?
    [The arms expenditure total for the bigger European nations appears to be over $200 bn : Russia’s appears to be some $66.4 bn]
    What is the arms budget for Switzerland?

  • Steve Trevethan 2nd Apr '17 - 12:51pm

    PS Apologies! Please substitute Washington for Bush. (” The person who proves me wrong is my friend.” Socrates?)

  • -Turkish-Iranian alliance

    I think the key here, is recognising the size of the region immediately south of Russia and recognising it has the potential to become another trading block. The question is do we encourage this outcome. My feelings are that Russian has decided to encourage the building of a block and in so doing the resulting block may look more towards and favourably to Russia than the US/EU.

  • Nom de Plume 2nd Apr '17 - 4:25pm

    A couple of further points.

    i) ” “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and von Clausewitz’s observation that “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” ” This is rather gung-ho. Without a coherent politcal policy, war is a means of creating chaos and suffering.

    ii) The sanctions are justified. Russia annexed the Crimea, by force. It needs to be made very clear that this sort of behaviour is completely unacceptable. Russia has no right to react badly. The Ukraine does not belong to Russia. The EU is correct to try and pry the Ukraine away from Putin’s authoritarian regime. Perhaps some sort of EU military would make sense – it would decrease dependance on the US and allow the EU to take care of its own back yard.

    iii) Russia might try its Crimea-style warfare in the Baltics. Try and create problems where there are none.

  • Laurence Cox 2nd Apr '17 - 4:50pm

    “It is a sobering thought that the UK’s real defence spending figure is now below 2% of GDP, and across the EU it is much less. By contrast, Russia spends 5.4% of its GDP on defence. Be in no doubt that President Putin is now involved in a major power play on the global stage.”

    Russia’s GDP is about the same as Spain’s, or about half the UK’s. So our 2% spending would be the same in real terms as Russia spending 4%. Part of the problem with defence spending is that there is a strong tendency for governments to spend money supporting companies based in their countries; for example, we could get Trident replacement submarines built far more cheaply if we just paid the US to build them to the same design in the same shipyard that they are building their own in. The normal laws of economics don’t seem to apply to military expenditure, even in cases where the countries involved are all NATO members.

    here is another example. Our Defence Chiefs seem to be wedded to the idea of upgrading Challenger 2 tanks, even though we could have bought upgraded Leopard 2 tanks (which is generally agreed to be a better tank).


    If we stopped wasting money in defence procurement, then 2% of GDP should be quite sufficient.

  • Antony Watts 3rd Apr '17 - 7:46am

    Just an aside.. maybe not. As my son pointed out you can buy 500 small drones at $100 each. It is not a defence to have a $10mn Patriot missile as it can, certainly shoot down one drone attack, but 500 attacks? Not enough Patriots and not enough money to build them…

  • George Crozier 3rd Apr '17 - 9:20am

    Interesting article. Agree wholly with A Social Liberal’s critique though. Putin is clever and tactically shrewd but he is also a menace to his neighbours and international peace generally.

  • A Social Liberal 5th Apr '17 - 10:34pm

    Antony Watts

    The argument for cheap and cheerful has been used unsuccessfully by many. As examples of cheap failures I offer you the Matilda tank, PIAT anti tank and the Skeeter helicopter. If it hadn’t been for Hitlers insistance on the super tanks – Tiger and King Tiger – then the German tank and anti tank forces would have overwhelmed the hordes of Sherman, Cromwell and T34. As it was it was a close run thing.

    British military history is littered with cheap rubbish which were a danger to our own troops – from the 1796 light cavalry sabre to the cardboard boots and plastic socks which gave so many of my colleagues trench foot in the Falklands.

  • Simon Banks 7th Apr '17 - 8:06am

    Perhaps the flashpoint could be not the Baltic republics, but Moldova – a small democratic country, a former Soviet SSR, ethnically closely related to Romania (which is politically unstable, while Moldova has made a good start).

    I’m a bit doubtful a Russia – China axis could last long. Once the US was cut down to size, rivalries would resurface; though a Trump US might launch Armageddon in reaction to being humiliated (though the Chinese would factor that in and try to avoid it).

    For baby boomers like me, your intro is a bit disturbing. I grew up when “something for the weekend” didn’t mean Nick Harvey.

  • Richard Underhill 7th Apr '17 - 8:10pm

    The terrorist attack in Sweden has been greeted with an EU comment that an attack on one is an attack on all, which sounds similar to NATO’s Article 5. Did Nick Harvey MP attend the NATO Assembly ad Ming Campbell MP used to do?

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Mar '18 - 2:05pm

    The comments from the Russian ambassador to London today refer to the USSR’s loss of population in what we call World War 2 and they called “the great patriotic war”. Many people died, but in the USSR the statistic is the difference between 2 censuses. There was no census during the war and the Man of Steel did not hurry to have one after the war. His mass purges were in 1937, the number of deaths has not been precisely counted but is known to be large. The blame for large numbers of deaths therefore falls partly on their own government and partly on the invaders, who were in breach of a peace agreement signed at foreign secretary level, and (typically for those regimes) only partially published.

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Mar '18 - 2:08pm

    At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, Owens achieved international fame by winning four gold medals: 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4 × 100 meter relay. He was the most successful athlete at the Games and, as a black man, was credited with “single-handedly crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy”,

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