The hand of history

Dr Liam Fox MP

In the Daily Telegraph, we find that Conservative shadow defence secretary Liam Fox is adjusting his tune on Nato members’ military commitments. (Read the article here.)

Formerly, he had expressed the view that Nato should lay down minimum requirements for defence expenditure by each member state. Of course, as this blog pointed out, such a policy must lead to an end to decision-making by unanimity if countries are effectively to be forced by others to spend more on defence. Conservatives have long argued that defence was a matter of exclusive national sovereignty, and it was remarkable to see Dr Fox propose an end to this previously unassailable position.

He has learned now that a Conservative eurosceptic is not the most credible advocate in the eyes of other countries that are being asked to spend more. His new policy reflects that realisation. Instead, he wants to recognise that countries bring different sets of concerns to the international table and cannot be expected to emulate the British model just because he says so.

He says:

“We need to be clear that there are constitutional and political reasons why some Nato countries will not be able to do the same amount when it comes to expeditionary warfare. We can either hammer on about burden sharing, or we can start looking at what countries will be able to do within their political, constitutional and military constraints. Far better in Nato that countries have roles which they are 100pc willing to carry out.”

The suggestion is that British forces will withdraw from their bases in Germany, themselves a post-war hangover, and that other countries, e.g. Poland, might provide soldiers to replace whatever it is that the British troops are doing there right now. This way, he hopes to get a greater commitment to Nato from some other countries without dragging them into the war in Helmand straightaway.

It implies a degree of mutual decision-making on defence matters that Nato often aspires to but does not often reach. If it takes a Conservative eurosceptic to increase the degree of supranational thinking within Nato, that is an ironic but nonetheless welcome step.

Dr Fox has critics. A correspondent in the Daily Telegraph today wrote “This can only mean that the forces of other Nato countries will sit around in Germany while we go and do their fighting. What possible justification for this can there be?”

The justification for this is that other Nato countries have no intention of doing the fighting that the British happen to think is necessary, and that under the rules of national sovereignty, they are not obliged to change their minds. Yet another illustration that national sovereignty does not always work in the national interest.

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