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The relevance of NATO for our national security is being questioned. Donald Trump triggered this debate even before he was elected, suggesting that the USA might not uphold its treaty obligation to come to the aid of another NATO member if they were invaded.
More recently he has called on all members to increase their contributions to NATO and not expect America to foot the bill for their security. Others have followed his lead and suggested that NATO is an anachronism that belonged to an era when the USSR was a threat to the West.
The implication that Russia is no longer a threat is questionable. Under Putin’s leadership Russian troops have invaded Ukraine, Chechnya, Georgia, Moldova, annexed the Crimea and is now supporting Syria’s President Assad killing his own people. Those countries are not NATO members but Russia’s cyber-attacks on western countries, including alleged interference in the USA presidential election and the UK 2016 referendum, cannot be ignored even if it is in Trump’s interest to do so. Nor can Russian involvement in the attacks on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury and the second attacks last week in Amesbury, using the nerve agent novichok, be overlooked in this debate.
NATO’s critics say that its existence has caused Russian insecurity and driven it to act as it has. They see President Trump’s imminent meeting with his Russian counterpart is the best way to diffuse the latter’s insecurity. Those who doubt Trump’s strategic awareness and lack of diplomatic skills suspect that Putin will use their meeting, without any advisers present, to be a foolish mistake that the Russian leader will use for his own ends. He was after all a Colonel in the KGB and is said to consider the fall of the Soviet Union as “one of the worst geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century”.
Those who still consider NATO membership as essential to Britain’s national security point to Russia’s frequent incursions into UK airspace and territorial waters and their attempts to damage undersea cables as evidence of their threats to our national security. They contrast the security brought by NATO with the lack of it in the last century with the League of Nations. They also dispute America’s claims that it is paying a lion’s share of the NATO budget. The US actually pays 22% of the budget and the European members are supplying 90% of the troops stationed in Poland and the Balkan states. Britain is one of these and the cost is met from our Defence budget, not those of the USA or NATO.
A recent analysis by a panel of academics and politicians for Policy Exchange concludes that “In providing the collective security that was missing before 1945, the success of NATO has arguably allowed the UK to spend less on defence over subsequent decades. Questioning the most successful and stabilising alliance in the history of international relations because of current political tensions – with no obvious alternative to take its place – is whimsical, self-harming and self-defeating.”
Christian pacifists will probably disagree and say that our trust should be in God, not military alliances. They overlook that Britain is no longer a nation of believers and forget the terrible slaughter of the two 20th century wars. Nobody wants the need to spend billions on military hardware when so many are dying of hunger and malnutrition but nor should we ignore the real threats to our national security. If NATO helps to neutralise those threats our membership is still worth maintaining.