Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The collapse of Nato

Without any specific topical "hook", today's Times sees a letter published from Professor Alan Lee Williams, Director, Atlantic Council of the United Kingdom, who recently attended the 50th anniversary of the Atlantic Treaty Association (ATA) in Rome.

There, he informs us, some 40 countries reaffirmed their support for Nato and the transatlantic alliance, declaring their hopes that America would continue to play a central role in formulating strategic concepts compatible with the development of the alliance's Response Force and its newly achieved operational capability.

However, writes Prof. Williams, "this show of support by ATA masked its underlying anxiety about the best way of reconciling Europe’s strategic culture with the reality of American power." Opponents of the Iraq war: France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, together with Greece and Luxembourg, apparently regard the fledgling EU Rapid-Reaction Battle Groups as the basis of a possible European superpower.

Williams then focuses on the Nato's ten members' refusal to send troops to the Iraq training academy, which he believes has opened up a deep fissure in the transatlantic relationship but he singles out the US concerns over the EU’s Galileo programme.

According to Williams, the US perceives this - "perhaps wrongly", he adds - as the basis of a collaborative venture with China and Russia, whose future strategic interests are likely to be contrary to those of a transatlantic alliance.

He then writes that many believe that France is seeking to develop a superpower Europe, conceding that "the drift towards a superpower Europe is real". A partnership rather than competition with America is required, if we are to maintain unity, he concludes.

When a man like Prof. Williams writes in this fashion, attention should be paid to what he is saying. Apart from being director of The Atlantic Council of the United Kingdom, he is also chairman of the Atlantic Treaty Association.

He is former chairman of the European Working Group of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. He served as Labour member of parliament for Hornchurch from 1966 to 1970, from March to October 1974 and from 1974 to 1979.

Williams also served as parliamentary private secretary to the secretary of state for defence from 1968-70 and subsequently with The Rt. Hon Roy Mason, with whom he also served as PPS in Northern Ireland (1976-79). He was leader of the United Kingdom Delegation to the North Atlantic Assembly from 1975 to 1979.

This is a man who knows what he is talking about and for him to express his concerns, albeit in a measured and guarded fashion, confirms that there is something seriously amiss.

Just over a week ago, Christopher Booker in his column had tackled the same issue, then remarking that there had been an extraordinary act of duplicity at the heart of the announcement by the defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, that the British Army is to be restructured round a series of "larger regimental formations".

With all the attention was on the abolition of old historic regiments, Mr Hoon did not explain that his new, more mobile units would be ideal for deployment as EU "battle-groups" which Williams marks up as “the basis of a possible European superpower”

Also remarking that the The Tory front bench was well aware of all this, but had not mentioned it because the party does not want the debate on Britain's defences to become a potentially divisive Euro-row, this brought a curious response last Sunday in a letter from Michael Ancram.

Ancram dismisses completely the suggestion that the Army's new regimental structure "is a result of the Government's plan to tailor British regiments to some secret EU manoeuvres", stating that he had told the House of Commons that the changes were not about restructuring but accommodating the Chancellor.

He then went on to state that: "Our position on the European defence project remains the same. Nothing new is being created except EU involvement. The fact is that with the new Battle Groups, the European countries are merely putting on the table military forces that already exist."

With today’s letter, therefore, we have two extremes of the argument. On the one hand, the battle groups are "the basis of a possible European superpower" and, on the other, European countries are "merely putting on the table military forces that already exist."

Of the two, I go with Williams. Ancram is completely wrong. He has misundersttod the nature of the cuts, not realising that Hoon is using the funds liberated to finance the equipment needed for his new "battle groups".

And these "battle groups" are not "existing forces". They are going to be new formations, specially equipped for the purpose and designed to inter-operate with each other. With these, and the development of “European defence identity”, the major European Nato partners are gradually drifting away from the United States as they see competition rather than partnership as the guiding ethos.

As a result, Nato in Europe is struggling to survive and we are in danger of seing the Atlantic alliance collapse. Williams is right to be worried.

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