Another big anniversary for NATO. Another big opportunity for the critics and sceptics, be they in the White House, the Kremlin or in the media, to take to the megaphones. Millions of words will be written and broadcast – occasionally they will be helpful and positive – as they should be. Others will follow a cynical pattern typical of past anniversaries.
In 2003 Professor Sir Michael Howard at RUSI (Royal United Security Institute) catalogued the books on his shelf with titles like 'NATO – the final crisis'; 'NATO – The Impossible dilemma'; 'NATO – The Troubled Partnership' (Henry Kissinger, no less, in 1965) and many others. He said his favourite was 'The End of The Alliance' written by Robert Steel in 1962. Be ready then this year for more of the same. And yet the remarkable and durable alliance that is NATO deserves much better. In the history of the world it is still unique and a triumph of inter-state cooperation.
The first secretary general of NATO was Lord Ismay. In his autobiography he recounts being strong-armed by Churchill (I know the feeling) to take on the infant alliance. After having a distinguished war and settling into a comfortable and interesting Cabinet position, he was persuaded to go to NATO HQ in Paris. But he took to it and tells of his feelings when he left after five years. 'We were utterly miserable. The council had been like a large family, and the international staff had seemed like our children.'
He made points then as relevant today as they were in his farewell speech in Bonn in May 1959. He spoke of the defensive shield which had been built up 'which, not yet as strong as might be wished, is an essential feature of the deterrent to aggression. Who would have thought that sovereign states would entrust their precious armed forces to the command of nationals other than their own in times of peace? But this is what has come to pass'.
Even more prophetically he said this: 'And, if at times we find the burden heavy, let us remember that the North Atlantic alliance is not only an obligation which sovereign states have undertaken of their own free will, but an insurance against the unspeakable horrors of a war which would destroy civilisation'.
As we contemplate a world wholly different from that of 1959, his words seem to echo what needs to be repeated as we commemorate NATO 60 years later. The unity still has to be ensured, the resolution has to be maintained, the capabilities have to be relevant and adequate, and the sense of purpose has to be appropriate to the new and novel threats we face today.
In the last few weeks we are told that the present occupant of the White House, in NATO's strongest ally, has been reported as questioning US membership of the alliance. Worrying as that undoubtedly is, it may have reminded other allies of both the value of NATO and their own responsibilities to 'bear the burden' of its means. Nothing underlines the importance of American leadership in the world than the thought of losing it.
Burden sharing has long been a theme of American politicians, including the cheerleaders for the alliance – and with good reason. But a complacency that America will always be there with its clout and resources has held back the investment required for Europe's (and Canada's) contribution to the common effort. Donald Trump has shattered that complacency and for that, if for nothing else, we should be grateful.
The uphill task of getting close, not just to agreed figures because they are mere indications, but to having the right capabilities and attitude will not be easy. But if European populations are to be kept safe in an uncertain future, the investment is not an optional extra.
So, what should be the checklist for NATO at 70? The time has come to go beyond publishing national gross spending figures on defence. Too often, the attempt to meet the 2% agreed target involves shady financial engineering. The composition has also to go public. What lasting value is 2% if it is made up of pensions and equipment for the last but one war?
Up to now we have been reluctant to name and shame on the real military figures. It was claimed that it might give our adversaries details they would exploit. In the era of mass surveyance and data collection, this is an outdated view. Publics have the right to know what is being spent, on what and to what end.
Secretary General Stoltenberg has highlighted, in his words the three Cs: 'cash, capabilities and contributions'. In other words, we need forces which can go far, go fast, hit hard, stay long. Much more emphasis has to be put on intelligence and cyber defences. Quantifying spending on this crucial arm of defence needs to be a priority. We need to know what is being spent on this new and vital front line. A cyber attack on a nation or a city cannot be responded to with a main battle tank. And we have far too many of them and too little of the other.
European contributions are starting to increase and the Wales Summit, by highlighting targets on readiness and equipment spending, has accelerated change. We need less talk now about 'European armies' and 'strategic autonomy'. These are empty buzz-words meaning little and we need more of an emphasis on ending duplication and inefficiency in defence budgets. Fancy wiring diagrams – as I often said – which are not connected to modern capabilities are for show not shooting.
NATO needs to reinforce its partnerships. So long as countries seek membership or a close relationship with all the facets of NATO, both military and civil, then they should be encouraged. Membership standards however must be maintained. Military compatibility and democratic credentials are fundamental. There should be no short-cut to membership of such an elite organisation. And adherence to those standards does not end with accession – there is a continuing responsibility.
The alliance will only matter in the future if it has the same cohesion and common purpose which was envisaged 70 years ago. Its vital deterrent value – against new adversaries and new non-military threats – will only exist if all nations contribute equally.
NATO is a powerful military organisation and Article 5 has the respect of any potential adversary. Spending may still be short of ideal but it dwarfs all neighbours. That is why those who would challenge us look to the weak underbelly of our democracies. Splits are exploited, open elections can be affected, public debate can be hijacked, and electronic communications can be subverted. It is essential therefore that NATO's defences have to be much more than military.
And in that collective deterrence which has kept the peace in the EuroAtlantic area for 70 years is the crucial nuclear element. The American, British and French nuclear forces along with the other weapons on European soil have been the backbone of a posture which has made conventional war unthinkable. They are as important today as they ever were.
Hard power is NATO's signature, but its soft power and political role is often underestimated. The Partnership For Peace has achieved small, quiet miracles in cajoling and encouraging nations to modernise militaries and build democratic institutions. It has prepared nations for full membership and provided for others a practical forum for cooperation and progress.
Relations with Russia matter. The NATO-Russia Council of which I was the first chairman should be an important venue for dialogue. It was created in a time of rare amity but was intended for tough times as well. The urgency of talking with the big Eastern neighbour is manifest. We should reinvigorate the council.
It is now 18 years since I stood at the old NATO HQ and invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty on behalf of 19 nations. It was to be the first and only time in the history of the alliance and it was a clear signal to the enemies of our democratic assembly of free nations that we meant business.
As NATO turns 70, the unity and determination of Cyber 9/12 has to be a rallying point and reminder of what the alliance needs to be in its next several decades.
Lord Robertson of Port Ellen KT GCMG was secretary general of NATO from 1999-2003 and British defence secretary from 1997-1999. He is a member of the House of Lords and for 21 years was a Labour member of the House of Commons. He was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 by President George W Bush