Recently, on both the right and the left of British politics, the subject of NATO has proven a touchy subject. Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected leader of the opposition Labour Party, holds the view that Britain would fare better in foreign relations if it ditched its NATO membership, calling for "serious debate" over the organization's powers, democratic accountability, and interventionist role in conflicts around the world.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron's views on the issue center on NATO's requirement that member states spend a minimum 2 percent of GDP on defense, a commitment he refused to make in the lead up to May's General Election. Cameron and his government are worried that too much defense spending will undermine their ongoing ambitions to reduce the national deficit (because, obviously, they've been doing a great job on the economic stuff so far, what with unemployment on the rise, more and more children living below the poverty line, and extensive cuts that target the poorest and most vulnerable in society).
In an attempt to make sense of the controversy surrounding Britain's membership of NATO, I spoke with experts and organizations on both sides of the debate. Here, to make a sometimes convoluted issue easier to understand, are all the points you need to know.
The Challenge of Maintaining Relevancy
NATO was created at the end of the Cold War to stop the advance of communism, and for a long time its mission was essentially to keep America in, Russia out, and Germany down. "Come the end of the Cold War, the mission starts to change," says Professor Lee Marsden, Head of Politics at the University of East Anglia and an expert in US foreign policy. "You start to see a desperate attempt to keep the organization going and to make it meaningful to our present day."
In practical terms, this has meant NATO operations moving beyond Europe and into conflicts overseas. "Afghanistan after 9/11 was a godsend to NATO as an organization, because it gave them an opportunity to maintain relevance and pursue expansion. There's been a continual reinvention," Marsden explains. "Kosovo, the Balkans, Libya—these are all examples of an expanded role for NATO."
America Is the Country Calling the Shots
Pressure group Stop the War Coalition, chaired by Corbyn until September of this year, has campaigned for Britain's withdrawal from NATO as part of its broader opposition to British involvement in unjust wars like Afghanistan and Iraq. One of the most problematic factors for them is America's unprecedented influence over NATO's decision-making process.
"NATO membership ties Britain into an aggressive, US-led foreign policy that has created chaos in various parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East over the last few decades," says Chris Nineham, a spokesperson for the organization. "Between [NATO's creation in] 1949 up to 2000, the US bombed at least 27 countries and attempted to overthrow 40 governments worldwide."
Today's Threats Are Global, So Britain's Response Must Be, Too
Those working within NATO itself, of course, hold an opposing and much more positive view of their purpose. Sir Adam Thomson, the UK's Permanent Representative to NATO, calls the organization "the most successful military alliance in history" and describes it as "political decision-making by consensus alongside an integrated military command structure, ready to act whenever necessary." This rose-tinted understanding places conflict at the heart of global politics—an idea that may have felt relevant in the post-WWII era, but rings a lot less true for citizens today.
Thomson seems to consider his organization's ever-adapting mission as the only possible solution to managing the complex web of relationships that exist between countries. "The insurance policy that NATO provides remains as valid as ever. Current and future challenges make the alliance more, not less, important," he says. "To the east, we see a resurgent Russia, willing to change borders by force. To the south, a complex web of threats from state and non-state actors. It's crucial that the alliance effectively tackles these new challenges."
Britain Just Ain't What It Used to Be
The Liberal Democrats, supposedly the voice of center-left politics in Britain, are all for continued membership of NATO, mostly on the grounds of national and international security. "Despite what some on the far right and far left would like you to believe, the world has moved on from the days of British imperialism," says Tom Brake, an MP and the Lib Dem Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs. "In the same way we work together with the US and our European neighbors on trade, it is critical that we align our defense."
Essentially, Brake views NATO as a necessary military arm of British foreign policy, and imagines a whole host of benefits and duties attached to membership. "We no longer face threats targeted just at us," he says. "Frankly, we cannot afford to face the challenges of the world alone, and we are lucky enough to have allies in our neighbors. It would be ludicrous not to work with them."
Militarization Prevents Other Kinds of Progress
If you don't work for a government or an international organization, though, you might view the world as more than just a series of military alliances with guns and bombs as the primary currency. "NATO membership is part of a strategy for Britain that puts militarism at its heart," says from the Stop the War Coalition. "This includes not just participating in a series of unpopular, wasteful, and dangerous wars, but making the arms trade central to our economy. This in turns ties us into all sorts of relations with dictators, autocrats, and regional bullies."
Rather than abandoning NATO completely, is there not an argument for reforming the organization from within? Nineham thinks not: "It's hard to see how this kind of geopolitical positioning can be of any benefit to the country. An organization dominated by the US and run by unelected generals and military advisors cannot be turned into a force for peace and progress in the world."
Professor Marsden agrees that NATO is clear about what it represents and its ambitions, suggesting that it relies on a specific and rather old-fashioned view of the world. "For Corbyn and others, the continuation of NATO has actually closed down the ability to be able to think outside of that Cold War prism," he explains. "It's prevented us from thinking about how you could build other structures around health and education rather than continuing in a militaristic way."
NATO Undermines the European Union
An organization that's been more progressive in its approach to cross border cooperation is the European Union. Its projects have involved everything from education and the arts to public health and trade agreements. Marsden believes that NATO has prevented the EU from developing its own military and peacekeeping structures, whose policies could be more coherent, effective and relevant to citizens.
"NATO is the force that protects the European Union, and as a result, EU foreign policy regularly gets subsumed by NATO foreign policy," he explains. "That's very difficult for countries like Sweden and Ireland, who are neutral and aren't members of NATO, but are members of the EU."
Brake is in favor of strong EU relations, but argues that this isn't enough to face today's challenges. "Lib Dems would consider greater cooperation with our European allies, with whom we share common regional security interests and an established single market," he says. "However, Russian expansionism over the last few years goes to show that NATO is still a viable and necessary platform for the UK and its allies to address global threats."
Because diplomacy is so 1997, right?
While it's unlikely we'll see Britain handing over its badge and gun to the NATO bureaucrats anytime soon, you can see why Corbyn's argument for greater scrutiny of our relationship with this interventionist, US-focused organization is welcomed by many. Especially at a time when millions of refugees are heading to Europe from parts of the world where American and NATO-led militarism has turned citizens into the collateral damage of war and conflict.