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Volume 728: debated on Thursday 16 June 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the recent speech by the United States Secretary of Defence Robert Gates on the future of NATO.

Defence Secretary Gates’ speech was a warning that Europe cannot take for granted the security blanket provided by NATO and historically resourced primarily by the United States. It also says something about the changing position of the United States itself. To deliver the capabilities that ensure our security, many European countries, especially NATO allies that fail to meet the 2 per cent of the GDP target, which was reconfirmed as recently as March 2011, need to increase levels of defence spending and work together more efficiently and effectively, as demonstrated by the UK-France defence treaty. We also need to remember that effective security involves hard and soft power elements—in fact, smart power.

I am very grateful to my noble friend for that very comprehensive reply. Perhaps I may remind the House precisely what Secretary Gates said. He said:

“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress—and in the American body politic writ large—to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defence”.

While we are very grateful for all that the United States does, does not its lack of complete commitment on the Libyan operation send a clear message to us? Is not American increasingly looking to the East?

Behind my noble friend’s question is of course the truth that the world is changing, the balance of power is changing, and the unipolar moment, as it is called, for the United States has passed. Nevertheless, it remains an immensely powerful and close ally that is playing quite a detailed and substantial part in the overall operation against Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya and against the hideous divisions of that country. The US case, and our case, that other countries in NATO could do more is widely accepted by everyone. Clearly, there is a great need for a fairer distribution of the burden of meeting the Libyan situation and many other situations that are bound to arise.

I do not think that we should be too gloomy about that adjustment. America remains our very close friend and one of the greatest countries in the world. We will work very closely with it on security, and the softer aspects of security, in trying to achieve global peace and stability.

Is the Minister as concerned as I am that some Ministers in the Scottish Parliament are publicly saying that they want to withdraw from NATO? This would be harmful to the Scottish people and to the whole of the United Kingdom.

Perhaps I should be but I am not as concerned as he is because I did not know that they were doing this. If Ministers in the Scottish Parliament think that they can somehow opt out of the collective security on which we all depend, and if any country thinks that it can have a free ride, they will need to think again because in this new world most of the operations in which we will be involved will now be completely interdependent, operating closely with a whole range of allies in different combinations. I am sure that the skills, the fighting spirit and the long traditions of Scotland will be just as much needed in global security as everything else. Perhaps these Ministers should think again.

My Lords, while I am sure that the noble Lord is right to point to the contribution of other European countries and the need for them to contribute more, does he not think that we have to look at our own capability? Last year, the Government undertook a very hurried defence review. In the light of the current commitments of our Armed Forces, does not the noble Lord think that another review is required?

No, I do not. After 2015 our budget will start expanding again. We are much the largest contributor in the European end of NATO. We are fulfilling our commitments. The operations in which we are involved are completely sustainable, contrary to some remarks we have all read about in the press. We believe that we have the dispositions, the patterns and the plans to meet as far as we can individually the crises of the future. The answer to the noble Lord’s question is no, but these are certainly fluid matters and anything could be coming around the corner. Great events could hit us and we always have to be ready to review the situation.

My Lords, this statement has come from the United States on many occasions before, but it has been expressed with exceptional candour and frankness in what I believe could have been the valedictory message of Secretary Robert Gates, who may shortly be retiring. It has done the credit of telling people quite frankly what the feeling is in the United States. Contrary to the suggestion that might have come from the opposition Front Bench, the United Kingdom is certainly not the laggard in this matter. A number of other countries in NATO have for years failed completely to make a reasonable contribution, which very much threatens the willingness of the United States to continue to make the effort it wants. In a very dangerous and uncertain world, would my noble friend recognise that while NATO can take on a certain amount of responsibility, when considering issues such as piracy in Somalia, we should welcome the opportunity for Russian, Chinese, Indian and other forces to get involved in what are in fact issues of universal concern?

My Lords, the first of my noble friend’s comments is based on his considerable experience and expertise in this area, and I totally agree with him. I agree even more strongly with his second point. These are becoming global issues on which all the responsible powers, or powers that wish to be responsible—that certainly includes great nations such as China, India, Russia and countries like Brazil—all have a responsibility, and they can no longer either enjoy a free ride while the western world tries to carry the burdens or stand aside, as we sometimes hear from Beijing, and say, “We are not going to interfere in anything. It is nothing to do with us”. They are going to find that this is something to do with them, and already we are seeing welcome signs that some Chinese diplomatic voices are raising that point and involving themselves in trying to resolve various ugly crises, such as that in southern Sudan.