In the first of two articles debating NATO, Charlotte Austin, OULC Secretary for HT18, argues the organisation has ceased to meet our defence needs and is acting in a way that threatens the peace it was built to preserve.
If after World War One, the British Government formulated its defence strategy around preventing Austro-Hungarian imperialism, then people would rightly argue that it was stuck in the past and completely irrelevant to current needs. So why do we accept a Cold War defence alliance as the bedrock of our foreign policy now? The world has changed since 1949 when NATO was founded, and so has NATO itself. In 1949, Western Europe felt a need to react to Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe. Today, the Soviet Union does not exist. Today, NATO’s might is largely felt in the Middle East where disastrous military interventions, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, have contributed to the region’s decline into bloody tumult. Britain needs to re-orientate its foreign policy away from the arbitrary ties of NATO and become better equipped to fight the dangers of the modern world.
Commentators from across the political spectrum have tried to vilify Jeremy Corbyn for supporting withdrawal from NATO before he became leader. It is made out to be an unpatriotic and unrealistic stance. But tell me, is it really more unpatriotic than wanting to tie Britain’s foreign policy to the whims of Donald Trump? Because as well as being completely irrelevant to modern geopolitics, NATO is completely at odds to Britain as a liberal, principled democracy. Clause 5 of the NATO treaty means that Britain would have to intervene on the side of any of its NATO allies if they were attacked. This weds us to the brinkmanship of Trump’s America, and to President Erdogan’s regime in Turkey, one which represses Kurdish minorities, regards the YPG and PKK as terrorist organisations, and is behaving ever more aggressively towards Russia. What is the point of a defence agreement if it could drag us into war on the side of a racist semi-dictatorship?
In 1949, when NATO was founded, the democracies of Western Europe were threatened by the expansion of the Soviet Union, to which NATO seemed like an appropriate response. Today, however, geopolitics is not so binary. Russia presents the world with great issues, but military aggression along the lines of what NATO is carrying out is not the solution. Deploying thousands of troops in Eastern Europe will not quell Russian aggression, it will only exacerbate it. NATO leaders must acknowledge the fact that Russia, without a natural frontier and having been invaded three times in the 20th century, is vulnerable and will not stop short of any measure to protect itself. While we must demand that Crimea’s right to self-determination is respected along with all of the other nations of Eastern Europe, that NATO has resorted to troop deployment is a sign that diplomacy has failed. Therefore, Britain should leave this failing institution and withdraw over 800 troops that it has stationed in Eastern Europe.
The risks that Britain incurs by its membership of NATO become even more sinister when we look at nuclear weapons. Firstly, Britain’s nuclear weapons have been at the command of NATO since the 1960’s. This undermines the argument that these weapons are a deterrent as Britain’s missiles could be used to wage war by an alliance that contains deeply troubling politicians – think of Trump’s sabre-rattling in Asia. Moreover, NATO’s missile sharing agreement has violated the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, another blow to the hope of a non-nuclear world. The deployment of nuclear missiles in Germany and Belgium has happened against the wishes of their respective governments. Britain should play no part in an alliance that uses nuclear weapons in this way.
The Labour Party was founded upon a strong tradition of internationalism and Labour MPs were strong voices for decolonisation while Britain had an empire. Its more recent foreign policy in government was one of the most shameful episodes in modern British history. The Blair government’s paternalistic and arrogant approach to the Middle East, in imposing ‘democracy’ under the guise of NATO intervention, has led to enormous suffering and destabilisation in the region. More recently, NATO forces intervened in Libya against the regime of Colonel Gaddafi, despite the fact that Blair and Bush had celebrated Gaddafi as a trusted ally during the intervention in Iraq. It is time for Labour to call for an alternative to this reckless adventurism and re-orientate Britain’s foreign policy along more diplomatic lines.
Young Labour recently voted in favour of withdrawal from NATO at their policy conference. It is time to open up the debate to the rest of the party and seriously consider whether we should continue to be part of this arbitrary and increasingly alien alliance. We should take the words of Tony Benn as our starting point in this debate: “If we have enough money to kill people, then we have enough money to help people.” If Labour finds itself making the choice between more austerity and less weapons, I sincerely hope that a Labour government would recognise Britain’s declining international significance, the lack of conventional military threats and all the people who have already suffered from devastating and completely unnecessary spending cuts. Blairite, Corbynite, or whatever in between – we all want a more peaceful world, and it’s time to recognise that a Cold War military alliance is not the way to achieve it.