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Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Reflects By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.




I had a large number of responses to my ‘UK Defence (354) – Mix Messaging’ commentary yesterday for which I proffer my sincere thanks. The bottom line of the debate that led to the piece was the questioning of long-term US commitment to Europe, an issue of apparent concern that had led to the current Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Ben Wallace to make various interesting comments to a Sunday newspaper. There are of course many different views on this subject and all must be respected.

Three particular responses, one of which led to my decision to publish the following article written by Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, reminded had that ‘You know what happens to organisms that cannot adapt to a changing environment’ struck a chord as did another which reminded that ‘if the worst included going alone without the US, then 2% GDP (spending on defence) will be pathetically inadequate. The third response which I will use here was based around the technical aspects of defence capability with a poignant reminder of remarks made by Sir Ray Fedden, Chief Engineer of the Bristol Aeroplane Company many years ago – “it may not always be the best policy to adapt the course that is best technically but those responsible for policy can never form a right judgement without a knowledge of what is right technically”. More anon.      

Moving on and having known personally, respected and learned much from former Secretary of State for Defence and later NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson of Port Ellen over many years I have decided to devote today’s commentary to an article written my him and published last week in the Scottish Review.

Given Lord Robertson’s background and intense knowledge of defence, his continued valuable participation in House of Lords debates the reflective Scottish Review article entitled ‘Seven Steps to a better world’ is well worth reading. In it he recalls four specific anniversaries and provides an intuitive if somewhat gloomy reminder of where we have been over the past seventy-five years. Importantly he provides a view of not only where we have been but of where he believes that we need to rethink our future approach. With his permission I am repeating the article here:   

Seven Steps to A Better World – George Robertson

2019 has not only been dominated by the fiasco that is Brexit – the long, bitter journey out of the great European project. Four important and significant anniversaries have been commemorated this year as well.

75 years since the D-Day landings in 1944. 70 years since the foundation of NATO in 1949. 30 years since the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989.

And, not so noticed, the 70th Anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s bleak but prophetic novel, 1984. Each has lessons for today.

We watched earlier in the year the stark black and white images of the landing craft on the beaches of Normandy unloading their troops into the surf under a hail of German fire. Four thousand men were killed on these beaches on that very first day. Another six thousand were wounded, some terribly.

But had we the gift to have stopped these men on the beach and said to them ‘Do you know that in exactly seventy-five years’ time in London at a NATO Summit one of the main preoccupations will be that the Germans are not sufficiently interested in the military?’

I venture to suggest that these men, and let it be said millions of their kind in generations before them, would have said, ‘We’ll take that. Please bring it on.’

Even as we are critical of Germany for not spending its 2% of national wealth on defence, let us keep in mind that former generations longed desperately for the day when the European continent was at peace and the Germans did not like the military.

There is a huge war memorial at the Hyde Park Corner in London to the dead of the Royal Artillery in both wars. That one single part of the British Army lost 49,000 men in the First War with Germany and 29,000 in the second war with Germany. The inscription says simply, ‘They died with the faith that the future of all mankind would benefit from their sacrifice’.

And that’s what all these years of NATO and the European Union have done. Benefitting a continent plagued down through the decades and the centuries with endless and bloody conquest and violence. And that achievement was also one of the Greatest Generation’s abiding motivations – a continent whole, free and at peace.

That generation, who saw and prosecuted and were repelled by the War set about not only saying ’Never again’ but actually established lasting institutions to ensure that it would never happen again.

The creation of that archipelago of multilateral organisations was their legacy to us. The UN, the EU, NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and more. Lasting memorials to the fallen they were but also building blocks of a saner, more collaborative, less nationalistic world. We inherited them; our legacy has to be their renewal.

And who would have thought that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation which I had the privilege of leading for part of its amazing 70 years could have survived and thrived for all that time. Its founding fathers (and of course they were all men) thought it only a temporary fix given Stalin’s crushing road roller in Eastern Europe. They even included a ten-year break point in the Treaty itself.

How would they have forecast that in London this month no less than 30 Heads of government would sit round the table of the North Atlantic Council and deliberate on the seven decades of cooperation, built on that remarkable Article 5 commitment to collective defence.  An attack on one country shall be seen as an attack on all countries.

The first Secretary General Lord Ismay, as he stepped down after his term of office ended, was moved to say this in 1959.

“A defensive shield has been built up which, though not yet as strong as might be wished, is an essential feature of the deterrent to aggression. Who would have believed that sovereign States would entrust their precious armed forces to the command of nationals other than their own in time of peace? But this is what has come to pass.”

And here we were, decades later celebrating this voluntary Alliance of free nations. Adapted to a very different world to 1949, yes, but resilient, modernised and still unprecedented in both history and in geography.  Ready to deal with the very different challenges of the next seven decades.

We can certainly now commend the way in which NATO has modernised, and grown in membership, in partnerships and in influence. We also know that more needs to be done to share burdens more equitably and to acquire the instruments of defence most suited to today’s threats.

But we also know that an Alliance of 30 nations committed to self-defence has unparalleled hard power at its disposal – and that the hard power is acknowledged and respected by current and potential adversaries.

But hard power does not always mean real power.

Cowed by the hard power superiority of NATO, those who would challenge us get squeezed to the margins – to what has been referred to as the Grey Zone. Cyber-attack, interfering in elections, influencing political movements, licensing organised crime, encouraging corruption, penetrating key industrial and social players.

Our actual and potential adversaries know our weak spots, can see where free societies offer opportunities for mischief, can and do spot and orchestrate the dissatisfied people who have become the casualties of dynamic economic change.

The unity of purpose which Lord Ismay spoke proudly of in the early days of NATO is still real but always has to be worked on.

On 12 September 2001 I stood on a rostrum in the old NATO Headquarters building and, in the wake of the 9/11 attack the day before, invoked – for the first time ever – the Article 5 guarantee of solidarity. Eighteen nations said that in the face of the attack on New York and the Pentagon in America it had to be seen as an attack on every nation.

It was a signal to the American people of solidarity; it was an assertion of the power of Article 5 and it sent an unmistakable message to the criminal killers hiding in the caves of the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan.

And now, we are thirty years away from the breaching of the Berlin Wall – that breeze-block symbol of a weak and corrupt and ultimately doomed Communist experiment?

Those of us who personally witnessed the Wall in all its tawdry cruelty will never forget the misery and political failure it represented in the East of our rich continent. Its collapse was a turning point in our history and whatever we think about today’s turbulent times, the world became a much better place after that night in Berlin.

The problem is that since that remarkable event we have had what one commentator called a ‘holiday from history’. We assumed optimistically at the time that the value sets established in the wake of a collapsed Communist ideology were welded permanently into our free societies. We cut our defence budgets and declared victory.

We just took it for granted that free speech, a free press, free elections, the rule of law, a mixed economy, the separation of church and state and a tolerance to minority opinion – the value-set of the West, would now be the norm. Maybe we were naïve – or maybe just careless. As the impossible became the inevitable and then became the indifferent, things began to slip.

A rise in populism and nationalism bred a new ‘normal’, challenging the normal we had embraced and celebrated. The appearance of authoritarian leaders and challenges to democratic institutions whether it be judges or media outlets or even versions of history became prevalent even in our own back yard.

The liberating influences of the World Wide Web to whom a remarkable 40% of the global population has access, has produced new vulnerabilities as well as new freedoms.

Our critical national infrastructure exists on a knife edge and is open to both state sponsored attack and individual interference. Our elections can be hacked into and influenced. Opinion can be manipulated and steered.

But much more importantly the rise of populism has liberated forces of negativity and cynicism we believed had gone for ever. The appearance of the organised far Right preying on immigration and national identity has begun to pollute our body politic. Our weaknesses and the cracks in our free societies are explored, and penetrated and exploited. Conspiracies are invented and magnified.

Discontent is harvested and slogans peddled as solutions to those actually are or believe they are, left behind. The manifest benefits of globalisation from which we have all benefitted are dismissed and denigrated as protectionism comes back into vogue.

Where does this all take us is a question on many lips. Up to now only the demagogues have the easy – but dangerous, response.

Which takes us to my final anniversary, that of George Orwell’s incredible book ‘1984’. The book, written on the island of Jura next to my native island of Islay, suffers today from being a set book in the English curriculum in schools. Hence it is read, if at all, as an obligation and not as a salutary and gritty warning of a world of horror yet one which mirrors some societies alive and kicking in the world of 2019.

He wrote of a land where war is peace, where history is rewritten to satisfy today’s opinion and not fact, where the TV screen watches you as you watch it and where truth is what Big Brother says even when it is manifestly untrue.

Echoes, are there, in today’s world?

Orwell, who spent a night when writing the book, in a cell at our home in Port Ellen Police Station, painted a deliberately pessimistic picture of the future. It was meant as a warning from someone who had seen – and in Spain experienced, the signs of authoritarianism and the risks to the values we think as normal.

He pointed to the way in which technology and its commanding by unscrupulous leaders can eventually destroy our liberties and erode our democratic standards.

He may have got the date wrong but today he speaks perceptively to us, with Artificial Intelligence breaking new ground, with facial recognition on our streets, with the allegations of ‘fake’ news, attacks on the judiciary, manipulation of images and speech, cyber-attacks and those very TVs already looking at us as we look at them.

Orwell’s prophesies and his warnings should have renewed potency. So far, so gloomy. But what do we do about it all?

Can we do anything to reverse these trends which have the potential to endanger and undermine our free societies as we come to the end of that holiday from history?

My answer? Only if we act decisively. And soon.

First of all, we have to ask ourselves if the modes of thinking and existing institutions of the normal times are fit for this new level of urgent change.

Surely, we need a new agility and new imaginative flexible thinking to deal with today’s emergency. Facing huge problems like climate change, migrations, extreme violence, terrorism, organised crime and others maybe peacetime modes of reaction are clearly insufficient. We need to be able to take risks, act quickly, spot opportunities and challenges with a rapidity common only in a wartime state. And yet are we not in what is near war with the velocity and volatility of change in front of us?

Second, we need to reassert the values and sense of moral purpose which ended the Cold War. It was that moral force, combined with defensive military might and unified resolve which dealt with yesterday’s adversaries.

Third, we must confront and call out the forces of extremism and disruption. The germs of polarisation, nationalism, xenophobia, nativism and fundamentalism infect many corners of our society and world. Too often we ignore then until they spill over onto our streets and often that is too late.

Fourth, there must be a modernisation of those now ageing institutions which have been the bedrock of our security for the last seventy and more years. Too often they are cast in the mould of post- Second World War and do not fairly represent a world changed out of all recognition.

For many of them – too often seen as slow, bureaucratic and out-of-touch, but reform and redesign are politically difficult as nation states worry that if they pull the threat the jumper will unwind. The UN and its frozen Security Council membership is the classic example – hobbling a great and very necessary global organisation from handling today’s multiple problems.

I faced that reform challenge when I took over at NATO – where I could do a deal with Presidents or Prime Ministers but not change the status of a gardener or shift a Euro from one budget line to another. The shock of 9/11 combined with the threat of seven new members arriving and overloading the organisation, allowed me to bully through some long desired and essential internal reforms.

Fifth, we urgently need to have new international behaviour protocols for Artificial Intelligence, the use of offensive cyber, the digital battle field and the militarisation of space and the Arctic. We need new and accepted global rules on asylum and migrants and tougher rules on organised crime and corruption. In all these areas there is a desperate need for Geneva Convention type laws to try to codify what behaviour is approved or agreed as outlawed.

Sixth, we need to end the drift away from professional diplomacy. A belief has grown up that because we have so much information available from so many sources we can do with fewer diplomats and diplomatic processes. That is precisely the opposite lesson to draw from today’s information overload.

The ability to sort the truth from the misinformation, and the reality from the noise is not given to the man or woman in the street. And yet his or her security and safety depends on someone identifying real situations and then making decisions or offering advice based on an expert analysis.

Constant cuts in global diplomatic budgets rob us of the informed assessments on which wise decisions can be made. The fruits of this budget vandalism will not be obvious in the short term but as time goes on, as a county and as a world, we will find we are poorer and more at risk.

Seventh, we need to be prepared for the unexpected. We are constantly taken aback by surprises – the invasion of the Falklands and of Kuwait, the breaching of the Berlin Wall, events on 9/11, the annexation of Crimea, the tsunamis in South East Asia and many more’ ‘out of the blue incidents’. We need to have available a toolkit of diplomacy, armed force and aid packages to deal with what comes next out of left field.

These then are my seven but not exhaustive contributions which I believe might just have an impact on making our world more manageable and less turbulent. It is an ambitious checklist and yet nothing less will do.

Most of all we need to remember that protecting what we have just now in this fortunate generation will not be cheap nor easy nor without sacrifice. But it will be necessary.

What we have today in this world with all its benefits and progress is not some birth right. It needs to worked on, and protected and improved. Only then will there be a proper legacy to leave for future generations. And that, in a turbulent world has to be our overwhelming ambition.

(George Robertson has been Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, UK Secretary of State for Defence and Secretary General of NATO. This article is adapted from a Lecture in memory of Sir Edward Heath delivered in Salisbury)

CHW (London – 14th January 2020)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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