PETER YOUNG: NATO fulfils its purpose

Celebrations of the 75th anniversary of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) were in full swing last week as all concerned paid tribute to the success of this remarkable intergovernmental military alliance since its founding in 1949. In the words of its Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, “NATO is bigger, stronger and more united than ever” and has broadly ensured peace, democracy and prosperity for its members.

The body originally comprised 12 member states and has now expanded to 32, with Finland and Sweden being notable recent additions. Its original purpose was to provide collective security, in the wake of the Second World War, after the USSR moved permanently into Eastern European countries as it simultaneously advanced to Berlin.

Following the US’s Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe and create a rearmed, economically strong and integrated group of countries, it was hoped NATO would provide an essential barrier against further communist expansion westward by guaranteeing its member states freedom and security. The purpose was to help them promote democratic values and enable them to consult and cooperate on defence and security-related issues, build trust and – in the long-term – prevent conflict.

The notion of collective defence was especially attractive. Article 5 of the NATO treaty provided that, if an ally became the victim of an armed attack, every other member of the Alliance would consider it as an act of violence against all its members and take action accordingly. A relatively recent example of this was that immediately after the 9/11 attacks NATO met in emergency session and agreed to support the US response to the attacks.

Another benefit of Article 5 was that it has prevented the revival of nationalistic militarism in Europe. It is also significant that, such has been the success of NATO, which has been judged to have worked well, that it has expanded considerably and pressure has grown on its member states to accept their financial responsibilities on defence issues – so much so that 20 of them are now meeting the target of spending two per cent or more of GDP on defence.

One of the purposes of this column is to draw attention to Britain’s actions in the international arena and to try to explain policy issues. So, against this background, I should like to draw attention to the speech by Britain’s foreign secretary, David Cameron, at the celebration of NATO’s 75th anniversary. The importance of the organisation can, perhaps, be judged by one particular incident recalled by Lord Cameron. One of his predecessors, the much respected and admired Ernie Bevin, was reported to have said about NATO in 1948 that “decisions we make now will be vital to the future peace of the world”.

Lord Cameron confirmed yet again that the UK strongly supported NATO’s action in relation to the Ukraine war because tyrants should not be allowed unilaterally to redraw the boundaries of Europe. Among numerous problems, he said, Ukraine was his main priority. There is, of course, a view amongst some historians that one of the reasons for the invasion was the expansion of NATO too close to Russia’s borders so that this was seen in Moscow as a threat. But the foreign secretary emphasised that, if Putin were permitted to prevail in Ukraine, other countries in the region would be at risk of attack.

He also hoped that more and more NATO members would follow their colleagues in making the two per cent commitment which, he said, was a “floor” not a “ceiling “.

What I found particularly interesting, however, was the stress Lord Cameron placed on the importance of future generations continuing today’s public support for NATO even though their priorities overall might be different. The awareness of today’s political leaders of the danger to other countries of ultimate Russian success in Ukraine was, he said, partly due to their understanding of NATO and the notion of collective defence. Some people’s beliefs and attitudes were driven by family knowledge and personal involvement and experience, as a result of which they understood the dangers of the destruction of war and the implications for the rest of the world.

Over the years, Britain had been largely united in support of NATO, and expansion of the organisation itself has seemed desirable to today’s and yesterday’s leaders and policy-makers. But what about future generations? In Lord Cameron’s words, it might be necessary to make the foundational argument again that it is essential to allow countries to make decisions about their political future free of threats from more powerful neighbours – and, in Europe, this can best be done in the knowledge that NATO is there to support them and ensure their security.

Can arms sales to Israel be justified?

Arms sales to foreign countries have always been a controversial issue for UK governments. Many supported the professed policy of the then Labour Party government of the 1990s in adopting an “ethical arms policy” based on the principle that the circumstances and sensitivities of any particular case which might be controversial should be considered individually against Britain’s beliefs and values and broader foreign policy issues. Depending on the circumstances and the political reality of the moment, Britain may not wish to allow its manufacturers to supply weapons to a regime which because of its actions was labelled as controversial or worse.

The Israel/Gaza war broke out six months ago after Hamas’ murderous rampage within Israel resulted in the murder of some 1,200 people and the capture of over 200 hostages. It has been called the deadliest single assault on Jews since the Holocaust. In a swift and punishing response, Israel vowed to “crush and destroy Hamas” so that it no longer posed any threat, and to bring all the hostages home. According to Hamas’ figures, in Israel’s invasion of Gaza and the brutal war that followed at least 33,000 Palestinians have been killed and massive amounts of infrastructure have been destroyed. The Israeli Defence Force says it has killed thousands of Hamas fighters and broken up the network of tunnels they have used to carry out attacks.

As the war continues inexorably with the horror of daily death and destruction, the recent Israeli airstrike on an aid convoy operated by the World Central Kitchen charity that resulted in the deaths of seven, including three UK citizens, has precipitated growing international and domestic demands for a ban on the sale of arms to this increasingly isolated country. Israel has acknowledged its responsibility for this airstrike and described it as a “grave mistake stemming from a serious failure” that was a case of misidentification in violation of its own procedures. Britain has demanded transparency and accountability over this and, despite the initial inquiry by the Israelis that has admitted wrongdoing and has resulted in the senior officers responsible being sacked, the UK government has called for an independent review.

Among others in the UK, a group of 600 retired judges has written to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urging a ban on arms sales and saying that the provision of military assistance to Israel may make Britain complicit in genocide as well as in breach of other international humanitarian law. The letter also calls for the government to press for a permanent ceasefire while there have been demands for publishing the legal advice it has received about the extent to which Israel is violating international law with its actions over Gaza. The fact that senior judges normally refrain from weighing in on politically sensitive issues makes their intervention this time all the more significant.

One of the signatories of this letter was Lord Sumption, the former UK senior judge who made a name for himself opposing lockdowns during the COVID pandemic. He has explained separately that, since Israel’s military action and collective punishment have been recognised by the ICJ (International Court of Justice) as potentially constituting genocide, Britain is legally bound to try to prevent it - which is not compatible with providing arms to Israel. Lord Sumption has also reminded everyone that the policy of successive British governments has always been to observe international law scrupulously.

As regards the counter arguments in favour of arms sales, former prime minister Boris Johnson has said in his Daily Mail column that it would be “insane” for Britain to turn its back on the only democracy in the Middle East. Shunning the Israelis would mean, in effect, repudiating them when the nation had only recently suffered the biggest and most horrific massacre of Jews since WW2 and when some 130 hostages were still being held in Gaza. He goes on to argue that, if other countries – not least of course the US - ended military support, the defeat of Israel was likely. Victory for Hamas would enable them to rebuild their own forces and attack a weakened Israel again. The indications so far are that the UK government is not going down this route, but Lord Cameron has said that support for Israel was not unconditional.

Notwithstanding all this, it seems that most people believe Israel has matched the brutality of Hamas and gone beyond reasonable retaliation in Gaza. Israel should, of course, be allowed to defend itself. However, by failing to do enough to protect civilians while hunting down Hamas – and in its wholesale destruction of infrastructure – it has not exercised a proper degree of “proportionality” between military objectives and the risk of human suffering and casualties. It has therefore attracted almost worldwide opprobrium, with the UN calling the situation a betrayal of humanity.

All that said, Israel is – at the time of writing -- withdrawing army units from southern Gaza. Many observers are hoping that that could indicate its military objectives may have been at least partially fulfilled and that the prospect of a ceasefire should not now be ruled out.

Anniversary of invasion of Falkland Islands

Argentina’s invasion of the British territory of the Falkland Islands on April 2, 1982, seems a very long time ago. The conflict that followed has now become a forgotten war, but it was top of the world’s news agenda at the time.

Having been involved in the aftermath as a young(ish) desk officer in the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office working on policy in relation to reconstruction and redevelopment of the islands, this time of the year always brings back mixed memories of an extraordinary series of events.

In reaction to the invasion and brief occupation of this remote place with a population of less than 3,000, who were fiercely opposed to any interference in their lives by Argentina, Britain rapidly sent a task force which landed on the Falklands on May 21. After several weeks of fierce fighting Argentina’s forces surrendered on June 14. During a conflict lasting seventy-four days, 255 British and 649 Argentine personnel were killed and many more wounded. Six British warships were sunk and among numbers of Argentine aircraft and ships lost, the cruiser the General Belgrano was sunk by a British nuclear-powered submarine. Three islanders also lost their lives during the hostilities.

Despite some international criticism, Britain never had any doubt about its sovereignty over the Falklands which it had administered for 150 years; and it was acting in accordance with the principle of self-determination enshrined in the UN Charter.

A familiarisation visit left one with a sense of pride that one’s own country was prepared to stand up to international aggression and to send a task force 8,000 miles away in the South Atlantic to protect the wishes of so few. This brief but brutal conflict may be largely forgotten but not by those who participated in it and by the families left to mourn their dead.


Porcupine 3 months ago

Mr. Young, You are living in a colonial mindset world. The dissolution of NATO is long overdue. Thankfully, the youth of the world, along with the remaining moral thinking class is abandoning your way of thinking. The international isolation is not Israel's alone. The U.S. and Britain are also isolated now, due to their unwavering support for obvious genocide. In your above article, you failed to mention how the Palestinians have been dehumanized, tortured and killed for the last 70 years by a state created by England in a land they had no business in. Why did you fail to mention that? And furthermore, most honest scholars would challenge your assertion that Israel is a democracy. It is not.

avidreader 3 months ago

My Dear Sir, may I suggest that the UK should be more concerned with the constant invasion of illegal migrants crossing the English Channel on a daily basis than with the efforts of Russia to maintain its position as a power to be reckoned with. Don't give me the argument that it is somehow wrong for Russia to be concerned by the presence of a hostile entity on its national border after having received assurances on numerous occasions that NATO would not expand any further eastwards than the border of the German Federal Republic. While I admit that "a promise is comfort to a fool" I should have imagined that the organization known as NATO would have ceased to be relevant after the demise of the former USSR. However that has proven to not be the case as western powers see Russia as somehow weak and seeking various classes of assistance from friendly countries. Notice that Ukraine receives help from many countries even as it is being destroyed day by day. Perhaps NATO is looking for the next sacrificial lamb to be thrown against Russian military power. I certainly hope that it will mot be Poland, a country that has suffered terribly in numerous conflicts.

LastManStanding 3 months ago

There is nothing wrong with NATO as a concept (defensive alliance), the problem is that NATO has never acted as one. There is not a single NATO intervention that was defensive in nature (the Taliban were not responsible for 9/11 so even Afghanistan does not really count), and the one in Libya has been particularly disastrous for that nation (Libya has seen non stop war and instability ever since).

NATO knows full well that adding former Warsaw Pact and Soviet member states into it's ranks has been/will be seen as a provocation in the eyes of Russia, yet continues to do it regardless. They played games with Georgia until the Russians steamrolled them in 2008 and put them in their place, they overthrew the Yanukovych government in Ukraine and gassed the new governments up for war with Russia that is costing thousands of lives on both sides, and they are gassing up Pashinyan in Armenia to make him believe they will have his back while Azerbaijan walks over them. NATO is anything but defensive in actual practice.

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