Originally published on Left Foot Forward on 18/11/15
Jeremy Corbyn needs to make his position on NATO clear and commit to supporting the principle of collective defence.
During the leadership campaign the North Atlantic Alliance was a clear point of contention between Corbyn and the three other candidates. Corbyn’s desire to withdraw from NATO and his view that the military alliance is to blame for Russian aggression in Ukraine are well known.
His supporters have cited this as an areas where he could compromise to unite the party. Corbyn himself has vaguely talked about Britain having a different relationship within NATO rather than leaving. In a Channel 4 debate he criticised NATO’s ‘excessive expansion’ and insisted that Britain should ‘argue quite strongly in NATO for a more realistic view of what its role is’.
NATO’s aims have changed since the end of the Cold War and its Out-Of-Area Operations have attracted controversy. From the Horn of Africa to the former Yugoslavia, NATO has engaged in peacekeeping and crisis management. While it would do us no favours with our Trans-Atlantic allies nor would it necessarily be the right thing to do, it is not impossible to redefine some of these aims.
However, Corbyn’s problem with NATO goes to the organisations core because he doesn’t appear willing to uphold the principles of a collective defence relationship. Article 5 of the NATO Charter states that ‘an attack on one Ally shall be considered an attack on all Allies’. The UK cannot remain in NATO and not abide by this founding principle.
Collective security kept Western Europe united, free and safe throughout the Cold War. It still remains important as Putin’s Russia becomes increasingly expansionary. Today the existence of NATO is vital for member states in Eastern Europe whose security is threatened by renewed aggression from Moscow.
One of the most important reasons for a North Atlantic Alliance is to deter acts of aggression. However, collective defence does not work if the threat of a collective military response is not credible.
Previous comments and statements made by Corbyn would undermine NATO’s credibility. Corbyn’s refusal to support the war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the strongest example of this. As it is the only time in NATO’s history that Article 5 has been invoked following the 9/11 attacks.
During the leadership contest Corbyn was constantly evasive when it came to security matters. When asked directly what he would do if there were Russian tanks running through Lithuania, he replied ‘Well they’re not running through Lithuania’ and instead talked about trying to prevent that situation occurring. In the last leadership debate he was asked if there was a situation where he could envisage deploying British military forces. He vaguely replied ‘sure there are some but I can’t think of any at the moment’.
He is now Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition and does not have the luxury of protesting on the backbenches. Labour’s leadership needs to clarify its defence policy.
So what happens if we have to invade Russia?
It was Chris Bryant who first asked this question when he was initially offered the position of Shadow Defence Secretary. Corbyn wasn’t prepared to have that conversation even with someone he wanted in his Shadow Cabinet. But it’s a question he’s going to have to answer.
Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet and backbenchers will most likely force him to commit to remaining in NATO like they have done with the EU. Corbyn can’t carry on being evasive, he’s in the real world now not engaging in a student debate. If Labour’s position is to stay in NATO, Corbyn must also commit to supporting the principles of collective defence. That means supporting the deployment of British military force if an NATO ally is attacked.