The bedrock principle and success of NATO from its inception is the concept that an attack on any one of the 28 members is an attack on all. Once a country has been admitted to membership it benefits from guarantees of mutual defence in return for accepting concomitant responsibilities.
On my recent visit to Warsaw on 1st September, which marked the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Poland by Germany, I took time to pause at a memorial to commemorate Poles who perished in that terrible conflict. I was still in Poland on 3rd September which in turn marked the 75th anniversary of Britain declaring war on Germany in fulfilment of our Treaty obligations to Poland. Although Nazi Germany was eventually defeated, very sadly during the conflict Poland and Britain lost millions of precious souls and had their economies devastated.
In entering the war the British government understood the implications of not just Poland but the whole of Eastern Europe being taken over by Nazi Germany. That is why they felt so strongly the need to intervene. They appreciated that true security for Britain and its economic well being depends fundamentally on peace, security and prosperity across the whole of Europe. When World War II was over, as a result of the way in which the allied forces – including the Soviets in the East – liberated the continent, an Iron Curtain descended between Eastern Europe and the West.
It is worth recalling that the Iron Curtain description was coined by Sir Winston Churchill in his famous speech in Fulton, Missouri. The great wartime leader sensed more than anyone else what was happening by anticipating the disastrous consequences of geopolitical instability and economic dislocation which arose inside a divided Europe over the next 40 years. I have to say however that it saddens me that following Churchill’s warning, we British could not have done more to prevent the Cold War era. Perhaps if the great man’s ‘Operation Unthinkable‘ had been carried out post-war history would have been very different.
As I have recently written, Eastern Europe is today rapidly emerging as a fast growing economic region which has huge potential for British investments and exports. According to some estimates, British trade with Poland alone by 2020 will be as high as £30 billion per annum. But security concerns still threaten this. At the recent Krynica Economic Forum, I engaged with senior politicians from Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania who were all united in their concerns over Russian incursions into Ukraine, their close neighbour. My friends pressed me for guarantees and assurances that the NATO alliance would show a very robust and united response to Russia in these difficult days.
The most striking question I was asked was: would NATO come to their aid if any of their countries were attacked? The mere fact they were asking this question leads me to believe that amongst my interlocutors there are serious issues and concerns regarding the absolute guarantees NATO membership affords them. In my view, we in the UK along with all our NATO allies must redouble our efforts to communicate loud and clear, to friend and foe alike, that an attack on any of our Eastern European partners would clearly be seen as an attack on all of us in the NATO alliance and responded to as such.
I cannot say strongly enough that we must defend and protect Eastern Europe in the same way as we would any Western ally. We must never return to the dark days when our Eastern European allies were separated from us behind an Iron Curtain. In terms of our obligations the UK is one of only a small number of NATO members which still spends the requisite 2 per cent of GDP on defence. We must scrutinise and challenge any NATO ally which is not living up to that obligation.
While the UK must of course continue to stand by our Treaty obligations we must also ensure that all 28 NATO partners do the same. Put simply and graphically, Britain cannot be truly secure if Poland and other Eastern European NATO allies are not truly secure.
The article was published on the 15th September 2014 at Conservative Home.