Enter Rory Stewart. The 41-year-old MP for Penrith and The Border last month secured his appointment as Chair of the Defence Select Committee, replacing the long-serving James Arbuthnot, who will not be contesting next year’s general election. Having dabbled in academia, television and travel writing, Mr Stewart’s career has climbed from modest beginnings in the Foreign Office to Parliamentary election in 2010.
Few commentators doubted his interest in matters of defence, but perhaps less expected was his rip-roaring inaugural attack last month against both NATO and Britain’s position within it. Indeed, The Spectator has suggested that the Committee’s latest paper, Toward the next Defence and Security Review: Part Two – NATO, has unashamedly and perhaps humiliatingly held ‘the government and NATO’s feet to the fire.’
Totalling a cool 49 pages, the document lambasts NATO’s casual policy toward European security, concluding that the organisation, which was established for the ‘territorial defence of NATO members in Europe’, is in fact ‘not well-prepared for a Russian threat’ against neighbouring states. Particular criticism is reserved for the collective inability to combat ‘ambiguous warfare’. This is defined as malicious activity sanctioned by Moscow that ‘slip[s] below NATO’s response threshold’. The implication is that member states are simply not doing enough to uphold collective security (failing to invest NATO’s minimum requirement of 2% of GDP in defence capabilities), and that Britain should be doing more to rally and unify its reluctant colleagues.
Certainly, NATO’s presence in Europe directly competes against the fractured politics of the EU, and trying to cajole any sort of commitment to a shared defence policy is a thankless task. The shooting down of Flight MH17 has perfectly illustrated this weakness; sanctions against Russia were stalled because of divergent self-interest in Britain, Germany and France. Indeed, Brussels, for all its virtues, has consistently shied away from defence and security matters, preferring to leave them to NATO and the UN.
Rory Stewart has timed his attack (quite intentionally) a month before the 2014 NATO Summit is hosted in Wales, which will set out to deliberate the organisation’s current trajectory and how it can appropriate a role in the current geopolitical climate. The Summit cannot, however, afford to settle for a half-baked solution that merely punishes Russian indiscretions in the East. Not only will this fail to arrest the decline of NATO as a supranational body, but it will hasten the contraction of Europe’s military capabilities. Member states must instead learn from global strategic trends, away from the previously compartmentalised concepts of ‘failed state’ terrorism and superpower deterrence (China and Russia). As Rory Stewart himself has pointed out in The Financial Times, these two security threats have merged in Ukraine – faceless insurgency supported by ‘sophisticated military equipment…and intelligence services.’ Undoubtedly the worst of both worlds.
Within this complex framework of conflicting interests, Britain has an important part to play. Although it is one of the biggest spenders on defence in Europe, Whitehall has been guilty of neglecting European security for some time, withdrawing troops from barracks in Germany, closing its Russia analysis group in 2010 and playing down the importance of NATO exercises since the 1990s. But this is symptomatic of a much greater strategic confusion within London’s corridors of power that dates back long before the last election. The Coalition’s inaugural defence legislation, the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), has come to symbolise all that is wrong with government red tape; a set of treasury-driven compromises to combat a £38bn defence deficit. Absent was any meaningful long-term readjustment of foreign and defence policies, and explicit British interests remain elusive; NATO? The Anglo-American ‘Special Relationship’? Unilateral deployment ‘East of Suez’? It is anyone’s guess.
Whether right or wrong, this era of cuts, restructuring, and strategic misalignment is potentially coming to an end. As the 2015 SDSR looms on the horizon, both The Guardian and DefenseNews.com have reflected on former Defence Secretary Philip Hammond’s ruthless but effective tenure as a qualified success. His reward has been a move to the Foreign Office. His successor, Michael Fallon, is a relative unknown in defence circles, and is now tasked with overseeing the controversial aircraft carrier programme, Britain’s final withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Army 2020 reforms. In a letter to The Telegraph, he reaffirmed that the Summit will be a ‘critical opportunity to show that NATO remains strong, united and ready to meet any threat.’ To this end, he said, Britain’s military will benefit from £160bn worth of new equipment over the coming decade, even if regular personnel will total just 82,000 by 2020. Despite criticism that Britain has not done enough to deter Russia, Mr Fallon has been adamant that the ‘deployment of four RAF Typhoon fighter-jets to Lithuania’ provides ‘reassurance to our NATO allies’.
Yet one swallow does not a summer make. There is alarming inconsistency at play; just as the MoD commits 1,300 troops to a NATO exercise in Poland, it amalgamates the army’s two remaining tank regiments at the expense of frontline armour capabilities. What kind of message does this send Moscow? Next month’s Summit will have to set the bar much higher if the security of not only NATO but also the EU is to be guaranteed in future. Questions remain whether European leaders have the stomach for it, particularly as far as increased defence spending is concerned. It is difficult to imagine what the solution might look like even if it is found. Once again, Rory Stewart says it how it is: ‘Do we [even] know how to deter aggression from a paranoid and easily provoked nuclear-armed regime?’
He was formerly Head of Policy at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). With degrees in history and economics from the Universities of Oxford and London, Jake is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a trustee of the European Association of Philanthropy and Giving and advises several governments on public policy. He also advises clients on CSR and philanthropy activities.
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