How the left could save Nato

Thirty years of market fundamentalism has weakened the West's defences against new hybrid warfare.

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For the world leaders who will huddle behind the Nato security screen at the Grove Hotel, Hertfordshire, next week, the gravity of the alliance’s predicament couldn’t be clearer. It is, says Emmanuel Macron, “brain dead”; common European defence projects are taking its place; it is strategically fragmenting over the Syrian conflict; Turkey has gone rogue; and even Article V, the commitment to mutual defence, has become a “don't know”.

And as it meets, this most elite Western body will be aware that the host country could be about to elect a radical government whose potential leaders — Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon — have opposed every recent expeditionary war. Failing that, with the election of a Tory government, Scotland — a key geographic site on Nato’s northern flank — may be about to secede from the UK.

In response to Macron's comments, Nato leaders have mooted the formation of an “expert group” to rethink its objectives. The move is a pure smokescreen to mask three strategic problems.

First, the multilateral global order is breaking down, and two major global powers — China and Russia — are using non-military means to accelerate the process.

Second, the US political and business elite is fractured, with the Trump faction seeking to reshape Nato into a series of client states whose interests can be traded in the new great game between Washington, Moscow and Beijing, and the more traditional multilateralist wing losing control of America's institutions.

Third, global information networks have become weaponised by all states, and non-democracies are using them to spread disinformation and to undermine the rule of law and political consent within democracies.

One of the big weaknesses of both Corbynism and Scottish nationalism is their failure to think geostrategically about defence. Because the current crisis of Nato is, in fact, an opportunity for a multilateralist left.

Since Trump threatened to withdraw the US from Nato, in Brussels in July 2018, many states have renewed their focus on meeting the target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence. All Britain’s major parties have committed to meeting this target, and to the major spending needed to replace the four submarines which carry the Trident nuclear deterrent.

But Labour is uniquely positioned to deliver something Britain's defence chiefs are asking for: a new political economy of defence. Last November, the chief of the defence staff, Nick Carter, warned policymakers that the scale of the challenge from both Russian conventional and “hybrid” warfare, demanded a rethink on defence costs. At present, military spending is seen as an insurance policy, not an investment.

Carter called for politicians to begin thinking of UK defence spending as a contribution to the resilience of the whole UK economy, and vice-versa. Britain doesn't just need a functioning conventional defence force: it needs the ability for its industrial and skills base to rapidly evolve in the face of an emerging threat; and resilience in the face of a nasty shock. What if, he asked, we need to up military spending from 2 per cent to 5 per cent of GDP? Where would the industry come from to meet that need?

Translated out of Whitehall-speak, that means we need secure and integrated steel, aviation, shipbuilding and digital communications industries and, quite likely, an independent space industry. In essence, were someone to sink a third of the Royal Navy, you wouldn’t want to be reliant on Swedish steel plants to rebuild them, or to be reliant on global markets to find shipyards that can do the job.

Given the suspicion with which the Nato dignitaries would regard a Corbyn government, the ironic thing is that Labour alone is offering the means to achieve this: an industrial strategy, a National Investment Bank and a commitment to building “sovereign capability”: the ability to make the military hardware we need at home.

But on top of this, Labour's policies address a malaise far beyond the military sphere, which has become the Achilles’ heel of the Nato alliance: the multiple failures of civil society, which are being exploited relentlessly by our adversaries. Russia’s hybrid warfare strategies are designed to destabilise Nato, and the democracies that formed it, through organised crime, disinformation, corruption, the manipulation of political parties and figures, the exacerbation of class, racial and national struggles — combined with the occasional political assassination.

The aim is to undermine not only consent for conventional military defence, but for democracy and the rule of law itself, plus support for multilateral institutions like the EU. Spend just 10 minutes in the pro-Putin British trollosphere and you will understand just how well the Russians are succeeding.

The only defence against such a hybrid threat is a resilient civil society. The problem is that, for 30 years, free-market economics in Britain has worked to destroy the resilience of civil society.

Trace the movement and evolution of a jihadist cell, such as the one that perpetrated the London Bridge atrocity, and it tells a story of young men drifting through anonymous, soulless places, utilising the infrastructure of a great religion to duck and weave around a state that barely sees them. Into that society, insert WhatsApp groups organised on religious sectarian lines, as the Hindu nationalist BJP has done in this election, and you have still further potential to corrode political stability.

Thirty years of market fundamentalism has not only eviscerated networks of social solidarity;  changed radically the concepts of patriotism and nationalism in the British isles. There is very little spontaneous patriotism for a thing called Britain: we have rising Scottish and Welsh nationalism; the severe cultural dislocation of northern English towns from the ethos of multicultural cities; and a concomitant English nationalism.

Add up these effects and, if we are frank, Macron’s musings about Article V are justified. If Turkey was attacked by Syria, or Cyprus by Turkey, I doubt most British people would want to risk any kind of involvement under the mutual defence clause. Worse, though Britain has a brigade-size presence in the Baltic states, almost no social consent whatsoever has been sought from the British people for the possibility of them having actually to fight.

And if you want to hear something worse than that, you have to know what it’s like to be a Labour canvasser called a “terrorist” by some far-right hooligan simply for wearing a red badge on the doorstep. We are a mass party of 500,000 people, running Wales, Manchester and London and I would be very happy to explain to the people behind the wire in Hertfordshire how the right-wing British media strategy of stigmatising the left is corroding the possibility of national unity in the face of crisis.

So if Nato needs a rethink, the left must play its part. There is a new arms race, in space, with lethal autonomous weapons and with ultrasonic missiles: populations in the West must decide democratically whether they even want to be part of that race. It's clear that, for now, they are unwilling to allow their militaries to punish regimes like Assad’s, which has used chemical weapons against its own people.

The most obvious future for Nato is as a defensive-only alliance, eschewing proxy warfare with Russia in the Persian Gulf, and imposing democratic standards — even if that means removing Turkey from full membership.

For Britain, as I've argued here before, it makes sense to concentrate all resources on conventional deterrence in Europe. We should abandon the conceit of global reach and focus instead on collaboration with our European partners, both through the Nato command structures and via the European ones.

As a small country with an educated workforce, it makes sense to go as high-tech and digital as possible with the small conventional forces we can afford, but to embed military skills and traditions much more deeply into civil society, through enlarged reserves and overt collaboration between civilian institutions and the military, as in Finland or Israel.

Nato survived the transition from the Cold War to unipolar peace. But if Macron is right, it looks unlikely to survive the transition to a great power game played between Moscow, Beijing and a deeply divided Washington. 

The left, if it were invited, could play a major role in rethinking the structures we rely on to maintain global security in Europe. Instead, the coming summit will function as yet another platform for Donald Trump to make crass interventions into British politics on behalf of the authoritarian right, and further erode trust. 

The fact remains, if you want to save the multilateral order, you have to find different politicians from the ones determined to let it die.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.