Liam Fox wants to strengthen Nato

Dr Liam Fox MP

Conservative defence spokesman Dr Liam Fox MP has returned to the subject of Nato reform again. It’s an interesting subject, but not necessarily for the reasons he thinks. His complaint is that many European members of Nato are not doing their fair share of the fighting in Afghanistan. The British and Canadians are seeing a lot of combat, while the German contingent, for example, is holed up safely out of harm’s way. Dr Fox thinks that this isn’t fair.

Back in January, he made a proposal that all Nato member countries should have a minimum level of arms spending. Something like 40 per cent of the spending on defence by EU member states is spent by just two of them, France and the UK. He would like the others to spend more. At present, it is a matter for each member state to decide how much it wishes to spend. There are certain conditions about interoperability of equipment and certain shared central running costs for the core infrastructure like Awacs and fuel pipelines, but the bulk of the spending – and the whole of the spending decision – is national.

It sounds good, doesn’t it, that the different European countries should recognise their obligations towards each other in providing the shared public good of security in a dangerous world. But how is that decision about minimum spending levels to be taken? Nato works on a strictly intergovernmental basis and takes decisions by unanimity. A unanimous decision on a minimum spending level will surely produce the lowest level that any member state is willing to spend. It will have no impact on raising the level of expenditure.

An alternative approach to would be to change the decision-making process, too. The EU takes many decisions by Qualified Majority Voting; perhaps Nato could do the same. That way, the minimum spending level would reflect the broad consensus rather than being held back by a single member state that disagreed. But Dr Fox is also a Eurosceptic; does he really think it a good idea that the UK should become tied into a supranational decision-making system on defence? His party opposes absolutely the role of the EU in this area, and it is hard to imagine a Eurosceptic Conservative government accepting that decisions about the defence of the UK should be taken by the UK’s neighbours against the wishes of the British government itself.

A Eurosceptic may resort to moral exhortation, nothing more. And if moral exhortation does not work, as it does not in this instance, then that is why I am not a Eurosceptic.

Dr Fox’s latest idea is that, if countries such as Germany cannot be persuaded to spend more money on their own military activities, they might instead spend more money on other countries’ military forces instead. There are strong precedents for this. In the 18th century, British financial subsidies were necessary to keep its allies’ armies in the field (Britain was said to be willing to fight against the French to the last Prussian). More recently, the first Iraq war was substantially funded by countries such as Germany and Japan who were part of the anti-Saddam coalition but who for political reasons did not have troops that could be deployed to the Gulf. Let’s institutionalise this principle, says Dr Fox.

Again, there is a problem. At present, as I said earlier, Nato takes decisions by unanimity. Its decisions are then implemented by those member states who wish to do so. It is therefore very easy for a member state that does not wish to be involved in an action to allow the others who do to go ahead. It can vote Yes but then not act.

In Dr Fox’s model for Nato, that option is lost. Voting Yes and not acting becomes voting Yes and still paying. The encouragement therefore becomes to vote No. Countries that do not wish to pay for the Nato war in Afghanistan will only be able to do so by preventing there from being a Nato Afghan war in the first place. Nato action dependent on unanimous support will very quickly come to a halt. The EU adopted Qualified Majority Voting precisely to get round this problem; again, it is hard to imagine Dr Fox being happy if Nato did the same.

Dr Fox’s two proposals – for a recognition of their mutual obligations among the member states, and for burden-sharing – sound fine, but they would require a considerable strengthening of Nato itself if they are to work. While I am sure that Dr Fox likes the idea of a stronger Nato, I am not sure that the increased supranationalism that would make Nato stronger is entirely what he has in mind.

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