As I have just explained, our leader has been very clear about the position we hold, and he does see that working within NATO is very important for projecting stability and promoting democracy. Let me make some progress now, if I may.
NATO’s founding was not meant in any way to undermine or detract from the primacy of the United Nations; rather, it was to work alongside the UN, in full conformity with the principles of the UN charter. The generation that established NATO, the one that endured the horror and destruction of two world wars, were keenly aware of the overriding need to achieve peace and stability wherever possible. When he outlined article 5’s implications and its guarantee of collective security, Bevin told the House:
“This does not mean that every time we consult there will be military action. We hope to forestall attack…We have to seek to promote a peaceful settlement.”—[Official Report, 12 May 1949; Vol. 464, c. 2020-2021.]
Indeed, the principle of settling disputes by peaceful means is articulated clearly in article 1 of the NATO treaty.
Today, the alliance has grown to 29 members and, as well as its central role of ensuring the security of the north Atlantic area, NATO supports global security by working with partners around the world. NATO supported the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Sudan and has worked alongside the European Union’s Operation Atalanta to combat piracy in the gulf of Aden off the horn of Africa. NATO offers training, advice and assistance to the Afghan national security forces through the Resolute Support mission. In addition, the NATO training mission in Iraq provides support and mentoring to Iraq’s armed forces personnel. The alliance has also assisted with humanitarian relief efforts, including those in Pakistan after the devastating 2005 earthquake and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Russia’s recent actions, including its disgraceful and illegal annexation of Crimea and the Donbass in 2014, have led to renewed focus on the immediate security of the alliance area and, indeed, the need to secure NATO’s eastern border. At the 2016 Warsaw summit, the allies resolved to establish an enhanced forward presence in the Baltic states and Poland as a means of providing reassurance to those NATO members and a credible deterrent to potential adversaries. The tailored forward presence in the Black sea region makes an important contribution to regional security there.
I have had the privilege of visiting Estonia twice, and I have met our personnel serving there as part of Operation Cabrit. It was clear from our conversations with the Estonians that they truly value our presence there, particularly as they have worked so closely with our personnel in Afghanistan. The Estonians themselves have offered to help another NATO ally, France, with its mission in west Africa. For them, that is about offering reciprocity for the security that NATO allies give them to maintain their freedom in Estonia. They know that the collective protection of NATO is what makes them different from Ukraine.
Although the provision of deterrence through conventional means in Estonia, Poland and Romania is of great importance, we must also be alive to the risk that adversaries, including non-state actors, will increasingly deploy hybrid and cyber-warfare and use destabilising tactics specifically designed not to trigger article 5. We have all heard the reports of how Russia has used cyber-warfare; indeed, when I visited the cyber centre in Estonia, I heard about how Estonia has had direct experience of a cyber-attack that affected major computer networks throughout the country, and about what the staff there did to combat it. That was a reminder that when we reflect on the state of our own defences—as the Government are currently doing with the modernising defence programme—we must bear in mind the need to invest in the whole range of conventional and cyber-capabilities, and not to view it as an either/or situation.
The Warsaw summit communiqué, which set out plans for the enhanced forward presence, also stated that
“deterrence has to be complemented by meaningful dialogue and engagement with Russia, to seek reciprocal transparency and risk reduction.”
Of course, Russia’s aggressive stance, and her repeated assaults on our rules-based international system, have made any productive engagement nigh on impossible. The response to the recent poisonings in Salisbury, for which we hold Russia responsible, demonstrated the strength of the alliance in the face of Russian aggression, with a great number of our allies, and NATO itself, joining us in the expulsion of diplomats. It is none the less positive that the NATO-Russia Council has met recently, because we need to use any and all opportunities for dialogue. What is perhaps most worrying about the current state of affairs is that even at the height of the cold war we maintained lines of communication, which are essential to avoid misunderstandings that can lead to very rapid escalations. There is currently far less engagement.
Our co-operation with allies in Estonia and Poland highlights the importance of the interoperability of our equipment in enabling us to work closely with other NATO members in a variety of settings. That is something that was raised with me when I visited NATO headquarters in Brussels shortly after I took up my post. It was clear that NATO wishes to see greater harmonisation in equipment. Although I recognise that decisions about defence procurement must of course be taken freely by sovereign states, it clearly does make sense to maximise the opportunities to work together and to avoid unnecessary duplication, wherever possible.
Of course the need to invest in the equipment necessary for NATO missions merely adds to the case for proper levels of defence spending. NATO allies are committed to the guideline of spending a minimum of 2% of their GDP on defence, with 20% of that total to be spent on major equipment, including research and development. Only a relatively small number of NATO members can even claim to be hitting the 2% figure at present, and it is right that we encourage all allies to meet the NATO guidelines, as the 2014 Wales summit communiqué made clear.
We must lead by example. The simple fact is that the UK is barely scraping over the line when it comes to our own levels of defence spending. The latest Treasury figures for the year 2015-16 show that the Government spent 1.9% of GDP on defence. The International Institute for Strategic Studies has also concluded that UK defence spending is not reaching 2% of GDP.
The reality is that the UK only appears to meet the 2% in its NATO return because it includes items such as pensions that do not contribute to our defence capabilities, which Labour did not include when we were in government. Whichever way we look at it, the truth is that the deep cuts that were imposed in 2010 and the implementation by the Conservative party of those cuts in the years following mean that the defence budget is now worth far less than it was when Labour left office. Defence spending was cut by nearly £10 billion in real terms between 2010 and 2017, and our purchasing power has been cut dramatically owing to the sharp fall in the value of the pound.
I note that the Minister for defence people, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is no longer in his place, has said recently that he would like to see defence spending rise north of 2.5%. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could clarify whether this is, in fact, now Government policy, or whether it is simply another plea, which will, doubtless, be rebuffed by the Chancellor.