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23 Jan 2001 : Column 248WH

NATO, Deterrence and the EU

1.30 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I am delighted to have attracted the presence of colleagues such as my hon. Friends the Members for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) and for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). I am also delighted that we will have the benefit of the views of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson), the reasons for whose participation I hope to come to in due course.

I am especially glad to have secured the opportunity to raise the subject of NATO, deterrence and a European Union rapid reaction force. Although I am a new MP, having sat in the House for only four years, I have worked professionally on the issues of defence and deterrence for 20 years. During that long period, there have been three major conflicts--the Falklands conflict of 1982, the Gulf conflict of 1990-91 and the Kosovo conflict, which came to a head in 1999. In each case, substantial forces were involved, and in at least two of those cases the involvement of substantial forces came as a considerable surprise. The Falklands crisis came out of the blue and the Gulf crisis came with very little warning. When the Kosovo crisis finally came, it was after a considerable build-up, but it could then have escalated in ways that we were fortunate to avoid.

Why am I so concerned that the benefits of the NATO alliance and the deterrence that it successfully applied in Europe for half a century are now threatened by the prospect of a European rapid reaction force? The answer lies in the fact that, if it is to work, deterrence requires a concept that is the opposite of that which most people who claim to support deterrence have been advocating for many years: they say that the key to deterrence is uncertainty, whereas I say that the key to deterrence is certainty. Of course it is better to have uncertainty as to whether democracies will or will not respond if attacked than certainty that they will not. Far better than either, however, is certainty that they will respond effectively if attacked.

The key to NATO's success was made up of two components: the nuclear stalemate and the automatic involvement of the United Kingdom and, even more important, the United States in any conflict that would be triggered by an aggressor in Europe. That is what is being imperilled.

When the first world war broke out, the people who engineered it had no way of knowing that in 1917 the massed power of America would be brought to bear against them. When the second world war broke out, the people who engineered it had no way of knowing that in December 1941 the massed power of the American military machine would be brought to bear against them.

I ask the Minister and the Government to consider by how much deterrence would have been increased if the aggressors in August 1914 and in September 1939 had known that the immediate effect of their aggression would be to trigger American and British involvement. We know, for example, that Hitler was most anxious to avoid British involvement. Indeed, he gambled that Britain would not get involved. This is where deterrence requires certainty. The prospect that countries only might react may encourage a gambler to take the risk

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because there is no certainty that they will react. The great achievement of NATO was that, from day one in any conflict that was unleashed in Europe, the Americans and British would react, and react decisively.

We are being drawn towards a situation in which that is being put under threat, even as the Government try to tell us that American involvement remains at the heart of their security strategy. The strategic defence review said in paragraph 18:

However, if the Europeans can, in future, find themselves involved in major conflicts without the involvement of the United States, we are turning the clock back to the uncertainties that allowed dictators and aggressors to chance their arm twice in the 20th century, with disastrous results for humanity.

The Government's response to this is very simple. They say, "You're missing the point." They say, "You claim that the European Union wishes to be involved in intensive war fighting. This is not true because the European Union's rapid reaction force would simply be involved in peace-making and in crisis management." Yet, if one looks back at those two catastrophic wars of the last century, one can see that the first world war, definitely, and the second world war, arguably, grew out of failed attempts at crisis management when the crises concerned spiralled out of control.

Just imagine what might have happened in the Kosovo campaign if one of the key factors that we on the Select Committee on Defence identified as having led to the successful result of that campaign--namely, the attitude of Russia--had been different. The only reason why Russia took a compliant attitude in that conflict was that it was too weak to do anything else. If we had got into a Kosovo-type conflict without the Americans, which is quite possible in terms of crisis management by an EU rapid reaction force, and if the Russians had not been as weak as they were, it could have been a classic recipe for possible escalation to intensive war fighting.

When I challenged the Government on this aspect of the argument, they said that there was no intention to create a separate EU rapid reaction force. I put down a series of questions to the Government on 22 November last; I will refer to three of the answers that I received. When I asked the Secretary of State for Defence what estimate his Department had made of the effect on deterring conflict of the absence of automatic US involvement in crisis management by the EU, he said:

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It must be a pretty low-level definition of "crisis" to escape the conclusion that America and Britain normally are automatically involved in any crisis developing in Europe. The answer continued:

All those "mights", "ifs" and "buts" bring back the very uncertainties that used to make it worth while for aggressors to chance their arm, because they could not be sure that condign punishment would not immediately follow.

When I asked the Secretary of State what criteria he will apply in distinguishing between military crisis management operations and war fighting, his answer, printed at the same column, was:

But would it? When I asked the right hon. Gentleman what UK forces would be allocated to the proposed rapid reaction force, he said--while denying, as the Government ritually do, that there would be a standing rapid reaction force--that

Any crisis management involving military enforcement that engages forces on a scale of the magnitude that I have just described would clearly have the ingredients for beginning a full-scale war.

In the 1920s and 1930s, many attempts were made to avoid the mistakes made in the run-up to the previous holocaust--the first world war. One technique was the 10-year no-war rule. It was predicted that there would be no conflict during the following decade, so forces could be scaled down. That rule came under attack from a senior official, Sir Maurice Hankey, who had been secretary to the War Cabinet during the first world war and had held many major posts thereafter.

In a previous debate, when I argued against such predictions, I quoted some of Sir Maurice's comments, as follows:

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Sir Maurice concluded:

There were just 10 days' warning of the first world war--a war that grew out of a crisis that had spiralled out of control. The building up of an alternative to automatic American and British involvement in a future crisis in Europe is putting back together the devil's brew that led to two world wars.

Yesterday, I ran into the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) in the Corridor--

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Bad luck.

Dr. Lewis: It was good luck. I mentioned that I was initiating this debate. The Minister looked rather nonplussed and asked who would reply. When I told him that it would be a Defence Minister, he looked a little chagrined but there was not much he could do about it.

In fact, two contradictory policies are currently involved. The policy of the Ministry of Defence is to play down the implications of the rapid reaction force, while the policy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office continues to hope for a world built along peace-loving lines with global collectivism--hopes which have cost us so dear in the past. As I could not quite envisage the Ministry of Defence giving the full picture, I thought that I would invite a contribution from someone who might set out the more traditional approach--wrongly--taken to these questions in the past. As Foreign Office Ministers are unable to be present, perhaps the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson)--who is, as usual, sitting well to my left--will make a contribution. I invite him to do so.

1.45 pm

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I am sure that the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for the Armed Forces will be able to speak for themselves--as will I.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) for allowing me to make a few comments during his debate. While he was talking, I was reminded of my affectionate regard and respect for my grandfather, whose generation made heroic sacrifices during the first world war--although there were certain difficulties in persuading them not to keep re-fighting it for the rest of their lives. I have similar feelings about arguments about deterrence.

I fully support the Government's proposal that this country should commit itself to involvement in the European rapid reaction force. A degree of honesty is reflected in the figures cited by the hon. Gentleman; they recognise the fact that all major conflicts--probably for the rest of this century--will be people-solved and not solved by military hardware. If Britain has to make a commitment to be part of that process, I welcome it.

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We should also take the opportunity of stating that the real challenge is to move from a rapid reaction force to an extended commitment to rapid, proactive peace-building with our European partners. I say that because there are real dangers that in the new US Administration there will be a retreat from the internationalist terms which have previously been used and which the Minister may also use.

I think that the United States will retreat into a military strategy based on long-range retribution rather than long-term reconstruction. It will be up to us and our European allies physically to construct the basis of peace and stability in Europe, in which the notion of deterrence will be that we have too much in common to risk going to war, rather than that there is too much dividing us for deterrence to count. Will the Minister not only endorse policies that support a rapid reaction force, but put them into the context of the way in which they might be undermined by signing up to a commitment to the United States national missile defence programme? That, more than anything, threatens to divide and destabilise us in Europe.

It is highly unlikely that our European allies will sign up to the NMD as a protection for them, us or anyone else. NMD is likely to be deeply divisive. Who is it supposed to deter? It will not deter the people who planted a bomb at the World Trade Centre; it will not deter the bin Ladens of this world. If they have a missile or a nuclear device to deliver, they are more likely to do so in a suitcase than by means of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

NMD is likely to force Russia and China into a new defence coalition and to reopen the nuclear arms race. It will make Britain a front-line target. We would be the only point that needed to be knocked out in order to remove the satellite communication warning bases on which the United States would rely. NMD threatens to turn the United Kingdom into kamikaze kingdom--we would be doing suicide runs for an act of international folly to which we should not sign up. I hope that the Minister will not only reinforce and reiterate the understanding that, in a European theatre, peace, stability and deterrence will be delivered by people rather than by military threats, but agree that--as I cautioned in the House recently--we should be ill-advised to join the Leader of the Opposition and the President of the United States in forming a "Dumb and Dumber" coalition in pursuit of the Armageddon vote. That will not provide Britain with security; it will not deter anyone. What it is likely to do is to make us a target and the world a more uncertain and destabilised place. I hope that the Minister will assure us that that is not the direction that the Government intend to take.

1.50 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): I am grateful to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) for initiating this debate, and, not least, for revealing the entente cordiale between the right of the Conservative party and the Campaign group in the Labour party, but I have to ask him, "Was that it?" His

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main contribution was to conjure up ghosts and ask hypothetical questions--he even referred to the devil's brew--but he then affected to be frightened by it all. The debate provides the opportunity to correct much of the misreporting in the press on NATO and European defence, much of which has been inaccurate and misleading.

I have to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) that, in the time available for my reply, I will not be able to go into detail on national missile defence, except to reinforce and reiterate--to use his words--that we have had no approach from the United States. The United States has not yet produced a policy; nor has it approached us for our comments. We would properly await that; we would obviously have to consider an approach from such a serious ally.

Much of the misunderstanding about NATO involves wilful mischief making. The reporting of new US Secretary of State Colin Powell's sensible comments on the NATO-EU relationship, for example, was selective and taken out of context. I hope that what I am about to say will correct some of the half-truths that have gained wider, though illegitimate, public currency.

The situation is simple. NATO continues to be the cornerstone of our security. The United Kingdom is a leading member of NATO, and our forces make a key contribution to the alliance. Since the Attlee Labour Government played a key part in the foundation of the alliance in 1949, Britain and NATO have been indivisible. This Government are also wholly committed to NATO, and to European defence.

I hope that that clarifies the situation for hon. Members. I could not express more strongly the Government's commitment to the alliance--not only in words but in deeds as well. It is regrettable that some Conservative Members consistently try to play politics with national security. The allegation that our commitment to NATO is weakening could be damaging--not to the Government, but to our relationship with allies and our reputation abroad. Given sufficient time to take root, such false allegations could damage NATO itself. Fortunately, there is considerable defence and security experience in the new US Administration, who are able properly to evaluate reality. Let us consider the North Atlantic alliance as it stands in 2001--10 years after the end of the cold war. It has never been in better shape. Rumours of NATO's demise, which were commonplace as the Berlin wall collapsed, turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Much has been said about NATO deterrence. Of course NATO's core business for more than 40 years has been successfully to keep the peace. Without it, the Euro-Atlantic area could never have enjoyed the peace, freedom and prosperity that it has had for the past half a century.

The alliance's capacity to deter rests on article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty. That goes to the heart of what the hon. Member for New Forest, East said. Article 5 states that an armed attack against one or more allies is

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considered an attack against all. It rests on the cohesion of the alliance as it responds to any challenge. It also rests on a range of military capabilities, both conventional and nuclear, sufficient to convince a would-be attacker that he would have more to lose than to gain.

I assure hon. Members that article 5, on collective defence, continues to form the bedrock of the alliance, and the Atlantic dimension to NATO is vital to that. The US has long recognised the centrality of European security to its own, as we recognise the essential nature of the US commitment to us.

The end of the cold war meant that the alliance had to change, and it did so more effectively than anyone could have anticipated. Who would have predicted in 1989 that, a decade hence, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic would be full members of NATO? Who would have predicted then that alliance forces would be engaged in forging peace in the Balkans, or that an alliance born of the cold war would become so adept at coping with the current situation? NATO continues to adapt; the world is changing fast, so must the alliance. It must be even more flexible, even better able to respond to a wide range of crises and other demands--often on a short time scale, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East says.

The defence capabilities initiative, announced at the Washington summit in 1999, is working to make good the shortfalls in capabilities across the alliance. NATO is taking forward the 58 DCI decisions, to ensure that the alliance has the capabilities that it needs for future operations. NATO's force structure review is at a crucial stage. The force structure that emerges from the review will give full effect to the capability improvements sought by DCI. It will provide the alliance with a menu of headquarters and forces, at graduated readiness, to deal with the range of contingencies. Through the "Partnership for Peace" programme with the former Warsaw pact countries, NATO is also helping defence reform and restructuring in the 29 partner nations, and many are making remarkable progress.

What of the European defence dimension, which has recently--and yet again today--caused such an outburst of ill-informed speculation? How does it relate to NATO? The linkage could not be closer. Let us not forget that 11 members of the European Union are also members of NATO. Both organisations share the aim of peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area. They are not competing organisations; they are complementary.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Spellar: I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South did not leave me much time.

The recent work on European defence is nothing fundamentally new. At Maastricht in February 1992; at Petersberg in June 1992; at Berlin in 1996; at Amsterdam in 1997; and at Washington in 1999--conferences covering both the current and previous Administrations--the member states agreed to the foundations of the policy that we are now implementing.

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European Union member states have always stated that the new developments in European security and defence had to be compatible with those of NATO, and would respect the obligations of EU allies to the alliance. What we are doing now represents a natural progression of Maastricht, Berlin, Amsterdam and Washington. What we are doing now remains faithful to the principle of compatibility with NATO; enhances and strengthens NATO; and ensures the continued vitality of the transatlantic link.

Britain has played a leading role in those developments. In doing so, we have ensured that the focus remains on the key issue, which was identified not only here, but in Washington: improving European nations' military capabilities. The first step to improving military capabilities was made at the Helsinki European Council meeting, when the EU nations signed up to the concrete target known as the headline goal. Following that meeting, defence planning experts from the member states, with support from NATO, developed the headline goal into a statement of requirements.

In November, the member states and other European partners identified the type and level of forces that they are willing to make available, and from which elements could be assembled, on a case-by-case basis, for crisis management missions, and the hon. Member for New Forest, East drew attention to the details. That did not commit us to a permanent European rapid reaction force; nor did we take the first steps towards a European army. That is not just a question of semantics, as some

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appear to suggest, but a fundamental point. The report of the French presidency to the Nice European Council stated:

Dr. Lewis rose--

Mr. Spellar: If the hon. Gentleman wanted to intervene, he should have taken up less time earlier.

European Union member states have now collectively identified where their military capability is lacking. The key areas are the enabling capabilities, such as strategic lift, and availability, deployability, sustainability and interoperability.

NATO is strong because the commitment of individual nations is strong. The United Kingdom has demonstrated, time and again, that our commitment to NATO is absolute. Our security depends on it, and we would not do anything to endanger that. The EU defence dimension is about Europe doing its bit. That is what I do not understand about the current frenzy. Why do critics of the Government's policy think it wrong for Europe to do its fair share? We want a strong alliance and a strong Europe. We want the EU and NATO to form a mutually reinforcing strategic partnership, but we want NATO to be at the heart of our defence and Britain to be at the heart of both Europe and NATO. What could be clearer than that?

Question put and agreed to.

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