2011/05/13 - Polish-British Round Table

Speech delivered by Minister for International Security Strategy at Villa Decius, Krakow, Poland on Friday 13 May 2011.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Gerald Howarth

Thank you Robin [Niblett, Director, Chatham House] for that introduction and to the organisers and sponsors of this important round table. It’s a pleasure to be back in Poland once more.

Britain’s Defence budget is the fourth largest in the world, and Poland is one of the few nations in Europe which is increasing Defence expenditure. We are both leading members of NATO and the EU. We both have extensive operational experience, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan where Poland is contributing 2,527 troops, and I pay tribute to that effort. We feel each other’s casualties keenly, and we value your solidarity enormously. Today’s event is a further mark of how seriously we take our friendship and alliance with Poland, and how keen we are to develop our relationship.

So I’m delighted to be sharing this session with my good friend, Zbigniew W?osowicz. We have met many times at EU meetings. We have a lot in common, particularly as non-Eurozone members… I was planning to take Defence Minister Idzik for a flight in an RAF Hawk aircraft recently. Alas, the Minister had to postpone his visit, but let me extend the same invitation to you when you’re next in Britain. You will have to assess my flying skills for yourself, but since we have the BAE SYSTEMS man with us today - Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy - I can at least assure you of a Hawk to fly in… He has a small quantity of outstanding aircraft available if you would like to buy them. I’m sure I can fix a good price for you!

I’d like to start my contribution to our discussion by talking about the likely impact of recent events on NATO and the EU.

I’m mindful of the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, who once said, “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Yet as difficult as it may be in today’s volatile world, in Security and Defence, we have no choice. Men and materiel cannot be produced overnight.

The new world order is springing constant surprises upon us. So reforming to meet future threats is already a massive task - particularly when we are focusing our energy on meeting current threats. With national budgets being squeezed, all our taxpayers expect the money we spend to be ruthlessly prioritised. We do not have the luxury to engage in unnecessary duplication, institutional empire building, or to spread resources wide and thin. We have to focus - both in what we do and how we collaborate - to maximise practical, tangible effect.

We live in an age of rapid change. Regional tectonic plates, as we speak, are engaged in a fundamental shift. Power balances are shifting, mirroring relative economic growth and decline. While by most measures, Europe is, territorially, more secure than at many points in its history, we must recognise that our national and collective security is inevitably affected by what happens outside the Euro-Atlantic zone. Recent events should have driven home to those who have failed to acknowledge this that the world is seriously unpredictable, which makes the task of framing policy and creating capability for Defence and Security much more difficult.

For example, Al-Qaeda and their affiliates may be displaced from Afghanistan and shorn of their spiritual and operational leader. But all of us need to prepare for retaliation, not least the potential for terror within our midst. Al-Qaeda continues to peddle its brand of extremist Islam, particularly in Pakistan, Yemen, and North Africa with sympathisers in places like Somalia, and with continued significant terrorist activity wherever there are failing states or weak government.

Speaking of Pakistan, it’s easy to be critical, but there are two sides to the Pakistan coin. As David Cameron, our Prime Minister, said recently, “Pakistan has suffered more from terrorism than any other country in the world.” As many as 30,000 innocent civilians have been killed in that country, and more Pakistani soldiers and security forces have died fighting extremism than international forces killed in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan has to look west as well as east, and reconcile the inherent tension of placating a domestic audience with accepting support from the west. Bin Laden was Pakistan’s enemy too.

And while there has been real recognition of the regional implications of Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons, and of North Korea’s possession of them and unfussy attitude over who it sells them to, there has been less recognition of the risks a destabilised, nuclear-armed Pakistan would present - not just to the region but to us all.

Then there’s the ‘Arab Spring’. Many supposed there were only two choices in this region: feudal, authoritarian regimes or fundamentalism. It’s now clear that some form of democracy is emerging as a potential third option.

And then there are issues such as piracy which threaten international trade. Piracy is growing. As a whole, EU countries depend on imports for more than half the energy they consume - indeed for major counties like Germany and Italy it is 60% and 80% respectively. Though Britain and Poland are closer to 30%, it’s a figure which has grown at astonishing rates in recent years. So ensuring an uninterrupted energy supply from diverse sources is a major consideration for politicians.

Finally, as politicians, we live in a world of 24 hour rolling news where the pressure to respond instantly - without any reference to the context or time to take advice or take stock - is unremitting and damaging.

This range of diverse threats, and of course the unpredictability of further strategic shocks, accords with our characterisation of an “Age of Uncertainty”. And on that basis, our recent Strategic Defence and Security Review has been validated in terms of the Government’s commitment to an adaptable posture with flexible forces - able to address the needs of today, yet able to be rebalanced swiftly for the threats of tomorrow - and validated by what’s happening in Libya.

Libya is right on Europe’s borders. Had we failed to act swiftly and decisively following the UN’s call for action, Benghazi would most certainly have fallen and Gadaffi would have fulfilled his promise of burning out the opposition, house by house. I have to say that the French were pretty decisive.

Libya was also further evidence, if it were needed, that, important as NATO’s Article V is - and it is important and the cornerstone of NATO - European security means much more than sitting at home and waiting to repel attacks. We did - both politically, through a tough EU sanctions regime, and militarily, with NATO commanding the UN-authorised mission in Libya. European countries have demonstrated that, even when the US is not in the lead, many of them can step up to the mark by contributing to the Alliance of which they are part. NATO has proved in Afghanistan, and now in Libya, that it is an instrument of policy and security, adapted beyond all recognition from its Cold War stance.

And let’s be clear. Some have suggested that if only the EU had its own Operation Headquarters in Brussels we could have launched an EU operation instead. I think that’s nonsense. Even France, whose decisiveness helped to save Benghazi, did not once advocate an EU-led command for its air power. And when Europe can operate decisively through NATO, the world’s foremost military alliance, why should one look elsewhere?

NATO provides Europe with strong, clear, proven military structures. It has the ability to access American power in support of our objectives. It brings the valuable contributions of countries such as Norway, Denmark, Canada and Turkey. And through its unique partnership framework, NATO ensured that the Arab countries who originally called on the international community for military action were also able to contribute, just as many non-NATO countries contribute to Afghanistan through the ISAF operation.

In crises we need to maximise involvement, not insist on autonomy. We need action, not posturing. We need capability, not tokenism. NATO has demonstrated in Libya that it can offer all of these. Of course we need to work hard continually to improve its effectiveness. But that’s why NATO remains the cornerstone of both British and Polish national defence.

That’s not to say that there is no military role for the EU - on the contrary, the Petersberg Tasks are wide ranging. Nor does it mean that we shouldn’t pursue a more effective relationship between NATO and the EU, including in crisis management. Indeed, just last week, Britain and Poland were signatories to a letter signed by 15 Foreign Ministers of EU and NATO nations - including France and Germany - calling for just that. I must say that at EU meetings I’ve been encouraged by the consensus for closer EU/NATO working.

But we must ensure that a lack of consensus does not lead to paralysis, and that we are able to deal with threats appropriately and in a timely manner. It is really rather absurd that, because of procedural wrangling, the only security issue which NATO and the EU can discuss when they meet is Bosnia. We all want a solution to the Cyprus problem, but we cannot allow it to go on holding up practical co-operation between these two organisations.

We welcome the Weimar letter as a contribution to the debate on generating deployable forces, and we support the principle of pooling and sharing. Indeed, Britain has taken the lead with our French colleagues to share some capabilities whilst a number of other countries are pooling lift capability. However, we remain deeply sceptical of the need for additional structures and institutions for CSDP.

That’s why we’ve been at the forefront of NATO reform through the new Strategic Concept, and the drive to develop and sustain deployable capabilities for NATO. We want to improve the EU’s civilian-military capabilities without duplication of effort. And perhaps I can observe that many EU countries see their principal role as being humanitarian, so an EU operation can genuinely complement a NATO one.

And in these volatile times, a closer Franco-British partnership is as natural as it is necessary. Far from seeking to replace or undermine the multi-lateral organisations to which we both belong, our partnership with France is intended to complement NATO and the EU - this is not Saint-Malo 2. This is a bilateral agreement between the sovereign nations of Britain and France to increase capability.

And if the Anglo-French partnership can provide a roadmap for others to strengthen their capability by working with each other in similar ways, it will be to the benefit of both NATO and the EU. It should not, and does not, stop us working with others - like our friends in Poland - who are ready to invest in the same kind of deployable capability which Britain and France possess.

It was Henry Kissinger who said “We cannot always assure the future of our friends but we have a better chance of assuring our future if we remember who our friends are.” - a rather profound observation. So in conclusion, as we come together to discuss how we can best protect and advance the causes of security and freedom which we all share, surely there could not be a more fitting venue than Krakow - the spiritual home of the late Pope John Paul II - whose whole life was committed to those values. As a church warden in an “allied church”, I was heartened to see the huge turnout in Rome to witness his recent beatification, which I’m sure stirred the heart of every Polish patriot. If ever a man symbolised freedom, the rule of law, and dignity, it was Pope John Paul II.

Updates to this page

Published 13 May 2011