Britain and NATO: Balancing Enduring Support with Evolving Challenges in a Dynamic Global Arena

Britain and NATO – an embattled lifeline for a former first rate power? The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was originally created as a means to protect Western Europe from any aggression perpetrated by Soviet Russia. Winston Churchill’s ‘iron curtain’, with NATO to the West and the Warsaw Pact to the East serves as the iconic, delineating border. Arguably, NATO did its job very well; Europe did not fall back into the abyss of war, and Soviet Russia did not extend past the ‘iron curtain’. Then, in the early 1990s the Soviet Union broke apart, to be replaced with a ‘democratic’ Russia and numerous re-constituted states in Eastern Europe and beyond. With this, NATO began to disappear from public view, at least for some in Western Europe. Its raison d’être had, for many, been fulfilled. Yet, as the war in Ukraine has proven, Europe still needs NATO. Events have demonstrated that the continent continues to need to guard against a modern Russian President determined to return his country to its old Soviet glory. In the intervening years between the early 1990s and the present day, Britain, unlike some European allies, has remained a steadfast ally to this organisation, to the very idea of collective security. 

An important question to ask is why has Britain supported NATO for so long, when so many, until recently, sought to undermine and then replace it? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Britain has remained one of the pre-eminent members of NATO, despite her declining international prestige. The British Empire, once the largest the world has ever known, is no more, replaced by a Commonwealth which is seeing members question whether they wish to remain part of this imperial legacy. Her economic dominance is no more, the Royal Navy no longer rules the waves, while her relatively small population cannot compete militarily against the numbers of troops that potential adversaries, or even allies, can put into the field. Yet Britain remains one of the world’s most respected powers, due in no small part to her authority within NATO. British governments, past and present, are well aware of this link. London does all it can to both strengthen this connection and maintain NATO as a world renowned and respected organisation, in spite of its short comings. ‘The UK commits most of its military capability to NATO,’ which both allows the British government to have the moral authority to lead other member states, as well as ensuring the organisation has access to the latest British technology and equipment. 1 Britain’s importance to NATO does, superficially at least, stretch beyond simple materiel. It is understood by many that ‘the UK acts as a ‘thought leader’ and that its role in facilitating and mediating political discussions was widely acknowledged and respected.’ 2 Here we can understand why Britain supports NATO; her voice matters and is listened to, to a greater or lesser extent, by her closest allies.

 Yet, prior to the conflict in Ukraine, Britain was beginning to witness a lessening of her importance within NATO. Her lofty position in the organisation was being reduced to a support role only. Recent discussions regarding the position of NATO Secretary General, with Jens Stoltenberg’s term due to end, proved that Britain does not enjoy support amongst the larger members of NATO. While Ben Wallace, the former British Defence Secretary, had support from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe to assume the role, he was effectively blocked from doing so by France, Germany and the United States. So while Britain views NATO as a means of exerting influence she lost post – 1945, her contemporaries do not wish for her to do so. This is due to an interesting alignment between America, France and Germany. On one side is the American President Joe Biden, who has made no secret of his displeasure at Brexit and his firm pro-Irish stance on all matters. From Washington D.C’s perspective, there is no ‘special relationship’ between America and Britain. London is simply one of many partners and on certain matters it sits nowhere near the front of the queue. On the other lies the two key stakeholders in the European Union, France and Germany. Neither wants Brexit to appear a success and both are willing to stymie Britain at every opportunity. Each country is so invested in the EU that it simply cannot be allowed to fail; Britain must therefore be relegated to a lesser status. 

There is, however, another reason why France and Germany are so keen to push Britain to the periphery where they can. Each seeks to form a rival institution to NATO, a European Defence Force. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, ‘the EU’s push for greater strategic autonomy through its own security policy, stands in contrast to the UK’s continued advocacy for NATO as the primary security provider of the continent.’ 3 There was, and remains, a simple reason for this; ‘both Paris and Berlin are likely to oppose the continued hegemony of the US within the alliance.’ 4 This ‘European Defence Force’ was to be created very much at the strategic expense of America which, with her divisive and populist political rhetoric, appears to be viewed as an unstable partner at best, or a dangerous liability at worst. The election of Donald Trump, and his potential re-election in 2024, will concern European leaders who do not support his caustic, antagonistic, almost authoritarian leadership style. Nevertheless, it would also be true to say that Germany and France see a ‘European Defence Force’ as the next logical step in the continuation of the European experiment. Each power has enjoyed hegemony over the European continent in the past, but both now also realise that if either one of them strived for this again, a third World War would be the result. For hawks in Paris and Berlin, it is better to rule together than not at all. Of course, anything achieved at the expense of America would also be achieved at the expense of Britain, which has used her long standing, albeit unequal, relationship with America in order to remain at the top tier of global diplomacy. 

It would also be accurate to suggest that NATO was very much in a position of weakness prior to Moscow’s attack on Kyiv. A ‘shortfall in equipment and personnel made available to NATO by its members have long been a source of concern,’ with Britain as culpable of this as other member states. 5 London has been guilty of not supplying NATO with certain expected forms of equipment and munitions, although this has been a result of the British Army moving away from certain tactics, alongside financial cuts made to Britain’s armed forces. This is not the sole issue for NATO either. There are also ‘perceived consequences of the diminished credibility of the Article V mutual-defence clause,’ given that the alliance is under-resourced. 6 Nonetheless, the threat of Article V has so far ensured that the conflict in Ukraine has not spread into neighbouring Poland, a NATO member. If President Putin thought his army would topple Kyiv with ease, then its disastrous performance to date will no doubt have halted any further plans he had, for the short to medium term at least. It also appears to be the case that, for some, NATO has, or at least had, served its purpose. One suggestion would be that ‘NATO has come to be taken for granted as part of a landscape that needs no further tending.’ 7 A post-Cold War status quo had seemingly emerged in Europe, with China the likeliest state actor to try and redraw the international system. Furthermore, ‘American liberals ... have frequently felt let down by democratic allies which practice a policy of national interest rather than of collective security and reliance on international law.’ 8 This explains, in part at least, Trump’s success in winning votes with his anti-NATO rhetoric. Europe’s gradual movement away from NATO suggested that the US should follow suit, focusing on internal issues rather than external ones. Of course, it is also obvious that ‘the architects of the Atlantic Alliance would have been incredulous had they been told that victory in the Cold War would raise doubts about the future of their creation. They took it for granted that the prize for victory in the Cold War was a lasting Atlantic partnership.’ 9 However, any such partnership depended on member states, the nature of their internal politics and their respective foreign policies. 

In the midst of Russia’s war on Ukraine, NATO has returned to the forefront of diplomacy. Indeed, ‘NATO has been revitalised by the Russian full scale invasion of Ukraine - there is a unity of purpose and agreement on what the threat posed is.’ 10 Such unity had been missing for some time. It is important to point out what NATO represented to different states. To those in the ‘club’, this was a defensive alliance poised to defend Europe against any aggressor, most likely Russia. To Russia, it appeared to be an aggressive alliance biding its time to strike at Moscow. To those non-member states in Eastern Europe, the potential foe was, perhaps, less obvious. Indeed, ‘the countries located between them [Germany and Russia] dread the emerging security vacuum; hence their intense desire for American protection – as expressed in NATO membership.’ 11 Now with Russia having blinked first and launched a full scale invasion of its neighbour, it is clear that Germany is not an immediate threat to Eastern Europe. The future of NATO is now, it seems, more secure than it was in January 2022. A further positive effect, if we can suggest war has any positives, from London’s perspective, is that the hardening of NATO’s outlook further maintains Britain’s position at the top tier of international diplomacy. ‘The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation remains the principal institutional link between America and Europe,’ with Britain an important conduit in this circuit. 12 Britain, as she remains well respected in NATO, can therefore enjoy some further time in the sun. 

Dr Adam Jolly graduated from the University of East Anglia with his PhD in 2022, specialising in nineteenth century Anglo-Russian history.

1 "Special Relationships? US, UK and NATO", House of Commons Defence Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2022-23, 7 March 2023, HC 184.
2 "Special Relationships? US, UK and NATO", House of Commons Defence Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2022-23, 7 March 2023, HC 184.
3 P. McAllister, "NATO and the EU: What does Brexit mean for the UK’s position in European security?",, 9 August 2021.
4 P. McAllister, "NATO and the EU: What does Brexit mean for the UK’s position in European security?",, 9 August 2021.
5 "Special Relationships? US, UK and NATO", House of Commons Defence Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2022-23, 7 March 2023, HC 184.
6 Dr B. Martill, "NATO has many problems – is Brexit one of them?", UK In a Changing Europe,, 2/12/19.
7 H. Kissinger, "Diplomacy", (New York, 1994), p. 819.
8 H. Kissinger, "Diplomacy", (New York, 1994), p. 819.
9 H. Kissinger, "Diplomacy", (New York, 1994), p. 819.
10 "Special Relationships? US, UK and NATO", House of Commons Defence Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2022-23, 7 March 2023, HC 184.
11 H. Kissinger, "Diplomacy", (New York, 1994), p. 821.
12 H. Kissinger, "Diplomacy", (New York, 1994), p. 820.