While the relationship between North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the UK during the alliance’s 70-year history hasn’t always been smooth, the country’s main political parties have always shown strong public support for it.
As a founding member of NATO, Britain publicly presents the alliance as key to its defence strategy. But this public support has not extended to providing the necessary support for arms and equipment for the British military. Funding for the armed forces has been an easy target for cuts under British governments of both the left and right.
My own research has looked at the strains in the relationship between Britain and NATO. At the height of the cold war, for example, NATO criticised the UK for failing to meet its military commitments. The British government purposely avoided declaring military cuts to NATO which would directly affect the alliance’s capability, even though it should have done.
In recent years, news about NATO has been lost amid the noise and confusion surrounding Brexit. Stories about ongoing plans to create an “EU army” have added to the political confusion regarding defence and security. Britain will still have a role in NATO, but will have lost influence over EU military cooperation.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, reminded the alliance in early November that after Brexit 80% of NATO’s defence expenditure will come from non-EU allies.
What might change is Britain’s attitude to NATO. A YouGov survey published in April 2019 found 66% of Britons still support Article 5, the core of the NATO charter, which states that each member will regard an attack on any other member as an attack on themselves and assist it. But a previous survey in 2014 found this support depended upon which country was under attack – with more Britons keen to come to the aid of the US or France than Poland or Latvia.
The deterrent effect of NATO relies on the commitment of each member to stick to Article 5. In 2016, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour party, avoided answering a direct question on whether he, as prime minister, would support invoking Article 5 if a NATO member were to be attacked. He has taken the position that NATO is a danger to peace and should be dissolved. However, the official Labour policy is to maintain a commitment to NATO.
The governing Conservatives pledged to meet the NATO spending requirement of 2% of GDP on defence in their election manifesto, but made few other specific commitments to the alliance.
Without the threat from the Soviet Union that existed during the Cold War, finding support to keep up British defence spending as part of NATO has been difficult. To save money, the Conservative government under David Cameron sold 72 Harrier jets and scrapped HMS Ark Royal. This left Britain with smaller armed forces, but with the same responsibilities in NATO. As an island nation, having to ask NATO members for maritime patrol aircraft in early 2018 was a national embarrassment.
Although the government says its current defence budget is at the 2% level required by NATO, this figure has been questioned. Despite its public commitment to NATO’s spending target, the Conservative government was accused by the House of Commons Defence Committee of hiding the true spending figure, which the committee stated was closer to 1.8% of GDP in 2017-18.
Attempts to publicise Britain’s current role in NATO has met with mixed success. As part of NATO’s “enhanced forward presence”, British forces are deployed in Eastern Europe to deter Russian expansion. But the ongoing deployment of British forces to Estonia and Poland receives little media attention. Britain also increased its co-operation with Norway and Iceland in late 2018, with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy deploying forces to protect Britain’s access to Arctic and northern waters. Very little of this reaches the mainstream media.
Britain is still a key member of NATO, but Britain’s defence policy was modified beyond Europe with the idea of “Global Britain” put forward by the Conservative government in February 2019. Under this strategy, there will be more military activity in the Middle East and Pacific, outside of NATO’s traditional sphere of influence. Britain’s two new aircraft carriers will be central to a display of military power around the world, alongside efforts to promote diplomatic and economic “soft power”.
But with this approach, Britain is spreading its defence forces thinly, rather than looking to make an even stronger contribution to NATO. Defence and security budgets now have to cover high-tech defences. The risk of cyber-attacks has increased considerably and collective defence may be the only answer to this threat. NATO has a strong presence in cyber-defence and a cyber-attack might be enough to trigger Article 5.
Still, NATO has struggled to maintain its relevance since the fall of the Soviet Union, and recently member states have called for it to focus on new threats such as the increasingly active and confrontational China, as well as Russia. It is more relevant than ever that Britain continue to focus on keeping Europe safe – as this will inevitably mean more security for Britain itself.