The unfortunate truth is that Corbyn does not believe in defending the West

Nato is stronger and more resilient than many think, but it relies on Britain being a trustworthy ally

Whatever Nato’s leaders say to each other while gathered in Watford, their presence there is a reminder of the huge role Britain plays in the world’s most important military alliance. Among the 29 – soon to be 30 – countries, ours is particularly influential. As the second biggest contributor to it and the vital hinge between the US and European allies, we count for a lot. 

The role of Nato Secretary General has often been held by distinguished British politicians – Lords Carrington and Robertson. Today, the crucial roles of chair of its military committee and deputy commander in Europe are filled by a British Air Chief Marshal and Lieutenant General. We are among those members that spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence. We need this alliance but it also needs us. If we were not fully committed to our Armed Forces and unshakably reliable to our allies, Nato would be a lot weaker. 

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Recent actions or statements by some leaders of other nations have undermined Nato solidarity. President Erdogan’s decision to buy a Russian air defence system for Turkey has thrown a large spanner into the work of co-operating on technology, while President Trump’s disastrous abandonment of Kurdish allies in Syria has raised profound questions for many countries that depend on the US. 

The reaction of President Macron to these events, labelling the alliance as suffering “brain death”, has been as undiplomatic as it is unjustified. His wish for Europe to have its own strategic military capability without the US is a dream that cannot become reality. For the foreseeable future, Britain and France will be the only European countries with the resources and resolve to take swift action when it is needed in North Africa or elsewhere. 

Yet Nato remains a more resilient alliance than it sometimes looks. Defence budgets are going up across Europe, in response to American urging and the obvious need. Forward deployments in Poland, Romania and the Baltic states have been strengthened in the light of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, including by British troops and planes. The US is negotiating with Poland to site new permanent bases there. Additional member states are being admitted in the western Balkans. Militarily, Nato is getting stronger, and its defence chiefs have agreed a new military strategy for the first time since 1967. 

There are massive challenges to come, on which it is to be hoped the speeches at Watford will focus. Climate change in the Arctic and the modernisation of Russia’s armed forces mean much more attention must be paid to the “High North”. The use of social media to divide and disorientate whole populations requires Nato to be able to mount a united response, including in a “grey zone” that is neither true peace nor all out war. The resilience of Western societies, not just their armed forces, to defeat disruption needs more attention. And the alliance has to work out what the rise of Chinese technology and diplomatic reach means for its future cohesion.  

To tackle all these issues successfully will be difficult, but for any other organisation of democratic nations it would be impossible. The transatlantic nature of Nato, combining Europe’s proximity to trouble with America’s ability to confront that trouble, is its indispensable attribute. Without Europe, the US is easily isolated. Without the US, Europe can’t maintain peace in its neighbourhood. 

Nato is therefore as vital to our future as it has been to our past. While combatting terrorism is uppermost in our minds after Friday’s tragic events on London Bridge, the survival of free and open societies will depend crucially on our ability to strengthen the Western alliance. And that is going to need political leadership as well as military capabilities, for armed forces are of limited use and alliances rapidly erode if political leaders do not believe in their purpose. 

That brings us to our election, beset with so many preoccupations of our own that questions of global security have not featured highly. British voters have perhaps become accustomed to thinking that the security of the West need not normally be an issue in an election: every Labour government from Attlee to Brown has made a strong contribution to Nato and so has every Tory administration. It is certain that Boris Johnson would continue that tradition, perhaps even more energetically in the light of Brexit. 

The Labour leader in this election is, however, unlike any before him in the post-war world. His statements and votes on conflicts, alliances and world affairs would have been as repugnant to Clement Attlee or James Callaghan as they are today to Tony Blair. At the leadership hustings in 2015 he “couldn’t think of a circumstance in which Britain would use its Armed Forces”.

He continued, “I’m sure there are some but I can’t think of any at the moment”. So what about if an ally is under attack? Or British nationals need rescuing when taken hostage? Or a foreign state is collapsing into genocide? Are these circumstances of which he couldn’t think? 

What about if our own territory is attacked? We know the answer to that, as Corbyn opposed the Falklands War on the grounds it was “a Tory plot”. He is, at least, consistent, for he has never knowingly supported military action. Even when British intervention to stop a bloody civil war in Sierra Leone was a striking success, he managed to condemn it. If this means he has to support aggression by other countries, he is happy to oblige, declaring as Ukraine was under invasion in 2014 that Nato’s “attempt to encircle Russia is one of the big threats of our time”. 

Sometimes Corbyn’s comments seem based on naivete, such as his insistence that terrorist leaders in hiding thousands of miles away must somehow always be apprehended rather than killed. He even complained after the death of Osama bin Laden that there had been “no attempt to arrest him”. But he is not naïve. He is simply ideologically unwilling to take any step to defend the Western world. 

If he were Prime Minister, it is doubtful that Nato would be coming here this week. And wherever it met, its problems would be much greater than the unpredictability of one or two presidents. At the helm of a country crucial to the defence of the West would be a leader who does not believe in defending it at all. 

  • Read William Hague's latest column on every Monday night from 9.30pm