NATO, DETERRENCE AND THE EU – 23 January 2001

Dr Julian Lewis: I am delighted to have attracted the presence of colleagues such as my hon. Friends the Members for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) and for Buckingham (Mr Bercow). I am also delighted that we will have the benefit of the views of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr Simpson), the reasons for whose participation I hope to come to in due course.

I am especially glad to have secured the opportunity to raise the subject of NATO, deterrence and a European Union rapid reaction force. Although I am a new MP, having sat in the House for only four years, I have worked professionally on the issues of defence and deterrence for 20 years. During that long period, there have been three major conflicts – the Falklands conflict of 1982, the Gulf conflict of 1990-91 and the Kosovo conflict, which came to a head in 1999. In each case, substantial forces were involved, and in at least two of those cases the involvement of substantial forces came as a considerable surprise. The Falklands crisis came out of the blue and the Gulf crisis came with very little warning. When the Kosovo crisis finally came, it was after a considerable build-up, but it could then have escalated in ways that we were fortunate to avoid.

Why am I so concerned that the benefits of the NATO alliance and the deterrence that it successfully applied in Europe for half a century are now threatened by the prospect of a European rapid reaction force? The answer lies in the fact that, if it is to work, deterrence requires a concept that is the opposite of that which most people who claim to support deterrence have been advocating for many years: they say that the key to deterrence is uncertainty, whereas I say that the key to deterrence is certainty. Of course it is better to have uncertainty as to whether democracies will or will not respond if attacked than certainty that they will not. Far better than either, however, is certainty that they will respond effectively if attacked.

The key to NATO's success was made up of two components: the nuclear stalemate and the automatic involvement of the United Kingdom and, even more important, the United States in any conflict that would be triggered by an aggressor in Europe. That is what is being imperilled.

When the first world war broke out, the people who engineered it had no way of knowing that in 1917 the massed power of America would be brought to bear against them. When the second world war broke out, the people who engineered it had no way of knowing that in December 1941 the massed power of the American military machine would be brought to bear against them.

I ask the Minister and the Government to consider by how much deterrence would have been increased if the aggressors in August 1914 and in September 1939 had known that the immediate effect of their aggression would be to trigger American and British involvement. We know, for example, that Hitler was most anxious to avoid British involvement. Indeed, he gambled that Britain would not get involved. This is where deterrence requires certainty. The prospect that countries only might react may encourage a gambler to take the risk because there is no certainty that they will react. The great achievement of NATO was that, from day one in any conflict that was unleashed in Europe, the Americans and British would react, and react decisively.

We are being drawn towards a situation in which that is being put under threat, even as the Government try to tell us that American involvement remains at the heart of their security strategy. The Strategic Defence Review said in paragraph 18:

"We are a major European state and a leading member of the European Union. Our economic and political future is as part of Europe. Our security is indivisible from that of our European partners and Allies. We therefore have a fundamental interest in the security and stability of the continent as a whole and in the effectiveness of NATO as a collective political and military instrument to underpin these interests. This in turn depends on the transatlantic relationship and the continued engagement in Europe of the United States."

However, if the Europeans can, in future, find themselves involved in major conflicts without the involvement of the United States, we are turning the clock back to the uncertainties that allowed dictators and aggressors to chance their arm twice in the 20th century, with disastrous results for humanity.

The Government's response to this is very simple. They say, "You're missing the point." They say, "You claim that the European Union wishes to be involved in intensive war fighting. This is not true because the European Union's rapid reaction force would simply be involved in peace-making and in crisis management." Yet, if one looks back at those two catastrophic wars of the last century, one can see that the first world war, definitely, and the second world war, arguably, grew out of failed attempts at crisis management when the crises concerned spiralled out of control.

Just imagine what might have happened in the Kosovo campaign if one of the key factors that we on the Select Committee on Defence identified as having led to the successful result of that campaign – namely, the attitude of Russia –had been different. The only reason why Russia took a compliant attitude in that conflict was that it was too weak to do anything else. If we had got into a Kosovo-type conflict without the Americans, which is quite possible in terms of crisis management by an EU rapid reaction force, and if the Russians had not been as weak as they were, it could have been a classic recipe for possible escalation to intensive war-fighting.

When I challenged the Government on this aspect of the argument, they said that there was no intention to create a separate EU rapid reaction force. I put down a series of questions to the Government on 22 November last; I will refer to three of the answers that I received. When I asked the Secretary of State for Defence what estimate his Department had made of the effect on deterring conflict of the absence of automatic US involvement in crisis management by the EU, he said:

"No state is automatically involved in crisis management, either in NATO or in the EU."

It must be a pretty low-level definition of "crisis" to escape the conclusion that America and Britain normally are automatically involved in any crisis developing in Europe. The answer continued:

"Where Europeans and North Americans wish to act together in a military response to a crisis, NATO will remain the most likely framework. Where NATO as a whole is not engaged, the EU might launch an operation. In such a case the EU would expect to have recourse to NATO assets and capabilities, if necessary."

All those 'mights', 'ifs' and 'buts' bring back the very uncertainties that used to make it worth while for aggressors to chance their arm, because they could not be sure that condign punishment would not immediately follow.

When I asked the Secretary of State what criteria he will apply in distinguishing between military crisis management operations and war fighting, his answer, printed at the same column, was:

"The most demanding case is peace enforcement and armed forces deployed for this task must be able to exercise their authority and ensure compliance by the use of force if necessary. But this would fall short of 'warfighting', which is normally taken to mean high-intensity conventional warfare.– [Official Report, 27 November 2000; Vol. 357, c. 427W.]

But would it? When I asked the right hon. Gentleman what UK forces would be allocated to the proposed rapid reaction force, he said – while denying, as the Government ritually do, that there would be a standing rapid reaction force – that

"the UK has identified the pool of forces and capabilities which would enable it to contribute effectively to crisis management operations in support of the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy, where NATO as a whole is not engaged . . . In the maximum scale operation envisaged at Helsinki – a corps level deployment of up to 60,000 ground troops – the UK component could be around 12,500 strong. Maritime and air deployments of up to 18 warships and 72 combat aircraft could be made in addition." – [Official Report, 29 November 2000; Vol. 357, c. 640W.]

Any crisis management involving military enforcement that engages forces on a scale of the magnitude that I have just described would clearly have the ingredients for beginning a full-scale war.

In the 1920s and 1930s, many attempts were made to avoid the mistakes made in the run-up to the previous holocaust – the first world war. One technique was the 10-year no-war rule. It was predicted that there would be no conflict during the following decade, so forces could be scaled down. That rule came under attack from a senior official, Sir Maurice Hankey, who had been secretary to the War Cabinet during the first world war and had held many major posts thereafter.

In a previous debate, when I argued against such predictions, I quoted some of Sir Maurice's comments, as follows:

"As a nation we have been prone in the past to assume that the international outlook is in accordance with our desires rather than with the facts of the situation .… We are also apt to forget how suddenly war breaks out. In 1870, a fortnight before the event, we were not in the least expecting the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. The same was true in 1914. A fortnight after the murder of the Austrian Archduke, a debate took place in the House of Commons on foreign affairs. The European situation was hardly referred to at all. More attention was given to the preparations for the next Peace Conference! .... There was no statement made on the subject of the European crisis in Parliament until July 27."

Sir Maurice concluded:

"We really had, at the outside, not more than ten days' warning." – [Official Report, 22 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 1463.]

There were just 10 days' warning of the first world war – a war that grew out of a crisis that had spiralled out of control. The building up of an alternative to automatic American and British involvement in a future crisis in Europe is putting back together the Devil's brew that led to two world wars.

Yesterday, I ran into the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr Vaz) in the Corridor –

Mr John Bercow (Buckingham): Bad luck.

Dr Lewis: It was good luck. I mentioned that I was initiating this debate. The Minister looked rather nonplussed and asked who would reply. When I told him that it would be a Defence Minister, he looked a little chagrined but there was not much he could do about it.

In fact, two contradictory policies are currently involved. The policy of the Ministry of Defence is to play down the implications of the rapid reaction force, while the policy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office continues to hope for a world built along peace-loving lines with global collectivism – hopes which have cost us so dear in the past. As I could not quite envisage the Ministry of Defence giving the full picture, I thought that I would invite a contribution from someone who might set out the more traditional approach – wrongly – taken to these questions in the past. As Foreign Office Ministers are unable to be present, perhaps the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr Simpson) – who is, as usual, sitting well to my left – will make a contribution. I invite him to do so.