As Trump and Erdoğan join other Nato heads of state for its seventieth birthday summit, Pete Cannell argues we should take a hard look at the role of the British state within the alliance.
Hundreds took part in protests on Tuesday 3 December in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow as heads of state at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) summit descended on Buckingham Palace for a reception with the Queen. The London summit marks seventy years of Nato, the world’s largest nuclear-armed military alliance. Nato was conceived in 1949 at the height of the Cold War, and became central to the standoff with the eastern bloc. The initial partners were Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK and the USA. Between 1949 and 1990 it carried out numerous military exercises but no offensive operations.
When the Cold War ended, rather than shutting up shop, Nato expanded and the strategic aims of the alliance were redeveloped to embrace a global remit. Membership has increased to twenty-nine, including a number of ex-Warsaw pact nations. At the same time it has initiated active military operations, most notably in Afghanistan. The Nato alliance is the first choice option for the US when considering military operations worldwide.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its strategic importance to the USA, Nato is an organisation in crisis. The withdrawal of US troops from Northern Syria and the Turkish invasion that followed happened without reference to the alliance. These unilateral actions are the tip of an iceberg where constituent parts of the alliance have serious differences over strategy, where the EU is putting significant resources into the development of a European army distinct from Nato and where Trump’s main agenda has been to bully Nato partners into upping their contributions to the Nato budget to above 2% of GDP. Britain is one of nine partners that have complied. France’s President Macron recently described the organisation as ‘brain dead’.
With all these tensions, the Nato PR machine has been working overtime to minimize the risk of public fallout. So meetings have been kept to minimum and out of Central London as far as possible. Much of the discussion is being held at a luxury hotel and golf resort only just inside the M25 ring-road.
In mid-election, you might have thought Boris Johnson would be keen to be seen striding on the world stage with his friend and supporter Donald Trump. However, with the internal tensions in the organisation, the presence of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the recent release of the US trade deal papers Tory strategists have been trying to downplay the summit.
Apart from some minimal coverage of the summit, Nato has not been part of discussion debate or press coverage in the election campaign. Yet it has a critical impact on our future. The alliance has always been dominated by the US and it foreshadows the kind of relationship that the Tories hope to achieve post-Brexit. We should be familiar with the way that Britain has acted as the loyal ally in Nato military interventions over the last two decades. It puts the lie to any idea that Tory Brexit is about sovereignty or taking back control. In Scotland, the SNP reversed long held opposition to Nato just before the independence referendum in 2014 and continue to argue that you can be a part of a nuclear alliance and at the same time scrap nuclear weapons.
The SNP and Labour differ over Trident but both back continued Nato membership. That means signing up to spending 2% of GDP on Nato military spending. This expenditure ties Britain into the US military industrial complex and sucks taxes away from health and education.
At a time of climate crisis this is doubly important. The money spent on Nato should be used to invest in a transition to a sustainable economy and the skills of the workers who are employed in the defence sector are vital to make the transition happen. The links between divesting from arms and investing in renewables is now becoming part of the debate in the climate movement. However, we also need to expose the nature the British state and its position within a system of imperialist power and domination, in which Nato plays a critical part. The context of this general election, and Labour’s manifesto plans, puts this question into sharp relief.
A small part of this article was included in a longer reflection on Nato’s 70th birthday published by Common Space on 3 April 2019.