Washington DC, 29 January. “Our alliance with Europe is the strongest the world has ever known”. As President Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address the failing snow gave Washington a sense of unusual calm. As the President spoke I was at a private dinner with General Jean-Paul Paloméros, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Transformation just a few hundred metres/yards from the Capitol. Yesterday I discussed NATO with senior Americans and Europeans in preparation for the September NATO summit in Britain. What is the state of the Alliance?
In September 2012 in a speech in Latvia I established for NATO the Riga Test which sets a benchmark for the Alliance; how safe do Rigans feel? In his address President Obama said, “Our security cannot depend on our military alone”. He is of course right. However, security in the twenty-first century will be equally reliant on strong and credible North American and European militaries backed by political and strategic unity of purpose generated by a strong Alliance.
There was the now usual nonsense from the European elitist Left. Europeans no longer trust or need America. NATO will not die but will fade away. The future of Europe is the EU. In fact, with EU Europeans now spending an average of 1.36% of GDP per annum on defence (and doing it very badly) Europe is more not less reliant on an over-pressed America. Too often too many in Europe’s elite act like security junkies who are in denial about their addiction to free-riding.
Back in the real world one senior American called NATO’s September summit “a genuflection moment”. Yes, we can continue down the path of cynicism and allow our collective war fatigue and depression to set what passes for ‘strategy’. Yes, President Obama is right; a whole range of influence tools will indeed be needed to manage global security and America will need alliances with partners the world over. Yes, there are a range of issues which NATO should not seek to engage, such as climate change. And yes a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership will be equally important.
For all that Alliance leaders must seize the moment and the opportunity September offers at what will be NATO’s first truly strategic summit of the century unfettered by operational pressures. If our leaders rise to the occasion and set the course towards a future transformative Alliance then the summit will succeed. If instead they tick the box of pretend success in Afghanistan then the summit will fail the people of the Alliance and indeed their future.
For that to happen the leaders of my own battered old country who will host the summit must rise above their obsession with the politics of the moment and as US Secretary of State Dean Rusk once said, “For God’s sake act like Britain”. I have been struck on this visit by the lack of respect senior Americans have for Britain and the sacrifice of my own men and women under arms in support of America. I have also been struck by the failure of British diplomacy to convince Washington of Britain’s determination to be a serious ally in a dangerous world.
Why does this matter? Seventy years after D-Day the Alliance is still founded on the US-UK strategic relationship and that in turn needs a strong Britain. Yes, France, Germany and other Europeans are vital US allies but without a strong Britain the very cornerstone of the Alliance is weak. Equally, NATO itself must understand its position in the West, no longer a place but an idea, and in Washington which leads a changing America. To do that the Alliance must aspire again to be essential to Americans in an American-centred world-wide security web.
However, America must also change tack. The most moving moment in the State of the Union address was the rightful tribute President Obama paid to disabled Veteran and US Ranger Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg. There are Sergeant Remsburgs across the Alliance and beyond struggling to build a life beyond sacrifice. Make no mistake these young men and women left their homes from Riga to the Rhondda to go and fight in support of America. Americans need to understand that and make a much greater effort to acknowledge their sacrifice too.
“Nothing worth achieving in life is easy”, President Obama opined. As in life so in strategy. With a world getting more military not less, a world with dangerous frictions many on Europe’s doorstep the need for a strong Alliance is again strategically self-evident. Call me old-fashioned, and I know some of you will, but the world is a safer place when the West is strong and at the centre of a strong West is a strong Alliance.
Getting NATO through strategic rehab will not be easy but it starts in Wales where leaders must openly and publicly retake their vows to each other, our Alliance and of course the good people of Riga.