To Preserve NATO, Britain Must Help Reinvent It

Seventy years ago, a creative British foreign secretary was instrumental in forming the Atlantic alliance. Now the UK’s leadership is needed again.

Expert comment Published 1 April 2019 Updated 4 April 2019 2 minute READ
British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin signs the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington on 4 April 1949. Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin signs the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington on 4 April 1949. Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

It often seems to be completely forgotten that NATO, which celebrates its 70th anniversary on 4 April, was a British initiative. Specifically, the idea came from Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary in the radical Labour government of Clement Attlee.

In a speech in the House of Commons in January 1948, Bevin called for a ‘Western Union’ that would provide the security on which the reconstruction of Europe depended. Over the next 14 months, he turned his vision into a reality in a series of carefully calibrated steps. Though of course the crucial element was the US security guarantee to Europe, it is doubtful whether it would have happened without Bevin’s creativity and tenacity.

By the time Bevin gave his ‘Western Union’ speech, Britain had already taken the first step by making a commitment to the security of France when it signed the Dunkirk Treaty in March 1947. This commitment was extended to the Benelux countries with the Brussels Treaty in March 1948, which created the Western European Union (WEU).

This British commitment to the security of western Europe was a necessary precondition for the final and most important step – an American commitment to the security of the whole of Europe. Secret discussions in Washington, which Bevin urged the Americans to begin, led to the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in April 1949.

There is now radical uncertainty about the future of NATO. Some analysts like Philip Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro think it is already ‘dead’, at least in its current form. The immediate reason is President Donald Trump, who has called NATO ‘obsolete’ and questioned the US security guarantee to Europe. But the deeper reasons for the uncertainty go beyond him.

Even before he was elected, the United States had begun what Dan Hamilton has called ‘selective burden shedding’. There is a consensus in Washington that, as the United States increasingly focuses on Asia, Europe needs to take more responsibility for its own security. Realist international relations theorists like Barry Posen argue that Trump is right to question to reconsider the US role in NATO.

This uncertainty about the commitment of the United States to European security makes the situation now somewhat analogous to the one in the period between the end of the Second World War and the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949.

Then as now, Russia was increasingly seen as a threat to Europe – George Kennan’s famous Long Telegram, which led to the policy of containment, was written in February 1946. But immediately after the end of the war, it was not at all clear that the US would remain committed to European security. It could have easily reverted to isolationism as it had done after the First World War. It was in this period of uncertainty that Bevin played such a decisive role.

Britain once again needs to think as creatively as Bevin did about how it can shape European security. It is not clear whether the aim should be to try to save NATO or create some kind of alternative to it – but it may not even be a matter of choosing between those two options.

After all, it seems pretty clear that the only way the US security guarantee to Europe might be made sustainable in the long term is for Europeans to make a greater contribution to their own security. The question is how to organize that contribution in way that does not itself further undermine NATO and increase the likelihood of US withdrawal. The obvious option is a kind of European core within NATO – in other words, a new version of the WEU, the second of Bevin’s three steps.

The UK is the only power that can take the lead in such a rebalanced NATO. Germany is committed to NATO (even though part of its original function was, in Lord Ismay’s famous quip, to ‘keep the Germans down’) but does not have the credibility to lead a new European core within it – it cannot even get anywhere close to spending the 2 per cent of GDP on defence to which NATO countries have committed.

Meanwhile, France has always had a semi-detached approach to NATO somewhat analogous to the British approach to the EU. It prefers European ‘strategic autonomy’, but this is likely to go nowhere, not just because of German free-riding but also because of opposition by eastern European countries like Poland that prefer an Atlanticist approach.

It might seem odd to suggest that, as Britain leaves the European Union, it could play a leading role in European security as it did at the time of Bevin. Yet doing so does not depend on being ‘pro-European’. After all, Bevin was not particularly in favour of European integration – and certainly not in British participation in it. In fact he thought Britain was fundamentally incapable of wholehearted integration with the rest of Europe.

At the same time, however, he realized that what happened in Europe mattered for Britain. As he put in the ‘Western Union’ speech: ‘Britain cannot stand outside Europe and regard her problems as quite separate from those of her European neighbours.’ That remains true now – whether or not the UK is an EU member state.