NATO Engages: Innovating the Alliance

Perspectives from Defence Secretary Ben Wallace

Introducer: Funmi Olonisakin, vice-president and vice principal international and professor of security, leadership, and development, King’s College London

Speaker: The Right Honorable Ben Wallace, secretary of state for defence, United Kingdom

Location:  London, United Kingdom

Time:  10:10 a.m. GMT

Date:  Tuesday, December 3, 2019


FUNMI OLONISAKIN:  Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.  It is a real privilege to be here today to participate in this important NATO Engages event on “Innovating the Alliance.”

We at King’s are incredibly proud to be one of the five consortium partners responsible for putting together today’s proceedings. We have many King’s students volunteering on the ground today. A particular thanks to them for helping to make this such a memorable day.

I am hugely encouraged to see such a young – such a strong turnout of young people in the audience from many of the alliance’s member countries.  It will be you, the next generation, that will have to live over the longer term with many of the decisions taken in the NATO context in the months and years to come. It is essential that your voices are heard so you make your own distinct contributions to the discussions and debates so vital to shaping the future of the alliance.

This week is tinged with sadness for us at King’s. On Saturday, our beloved colleague Professor Sir Michael Howard MC sadly passed away. In founding the Department of War Studies almost sixty years ago – and I’m a student of war studies as well – Sir Michael established King’s as the go-to place for the study of war and conflict in its various forms.

In this session we’re going to hear perspectives on innovating the alliance from the Right Honorable Ben Wallace, who was appointed secretary of state for defence on July 24th. Ben Wallace has a military background as an officer in the Scots Guards; seen service in Northern Ireland, Germany, Cyprus, and Central America; and been mentioned in dispatches in 1992. Ben Wallace’s parliamentary and government career have seen him in many important roles. Most significantly for today’s event, before becoming defence secretary Ben Wallace was minister of state for security at the Home Office in the UK’s Interior Ministry.

Security is not an abstract concept for many young people, even in NATO member states like Britain. And Mr. Wallace was in that role during the terror attacks of 2017 and the Russian state attack in Salisbury in 2018. He oversaw the response to the terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena in 2017 which deliberately targeted young people attending a concert, killing 22 and injuring hundreds, and with victims as young as eight years old. He’s therefore an ideal person to open an event about today’s challenges and the future of NATO.

It is my great pleasure to welcome the secretary of state for defence to NATO Engages, and I now hand over the floor to him. (Applause.)

THE RIGHT HONORABLE SECRETARY BEN WALLACE:  We have a good NATO weather forecast today. It’s nice and sunny. So don’t believe the hype about London being rainy in December. We can fix a lot of things in the alliance, and the weather is one of them.  And happy to spread that fake news as I go.

It’s also great to see such a diverse audience in the room, because we don’t just have NATO officials and think tanks here but students from across the alliance, I understand from seventy countries – seventy countries for seventy years. Today’s leaders you’re going to hear from, and perhaps tomorrow’s leaders are sitting here in the room. And it’s fitting that this conference isn’t simply about reflecting on NATO’s first seventy years; it’s also about how NATO can contribute to make the world safe for another seven decades and how we can adapt to the new challenges facing us from cyber threats to climate security.

Historians of NATO know that our alliance has always risen to whatever challenges has been thrown at it. After the carnage and slaughter of the Second World War, twelve nations came together to guarantee one another’s security, protect our freedoms, and keep the peace in Europe.  We came together to defend our common values and that most noblest of cause: to defend those that cannot defend themselves. That purpose is as true today as it was then.

Our alliance held true to that mission through the long winter of the Cold War. Then, when the Berlin Wall fell some thirty years ago, NATO was instrumental in safeguarding the peace and stability of a continent in flux, turning former adversaries into allies by holding out the hands of friendship and freedom across the continent of Europe.

And when the world changed again on September the 11th, 2001, NATO stepped up once more, invoking Article 5 for the first time as we all stood together in support of our US allies in and in solidarity against the scourge of terrorism.

Since the events on 2014 and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, we have adapted again to reinvigorate our deterrence and our defense with enhanced forward presence, rapid reaction, and high readiness. Today our alliance is not just standing sentinel on the borders of Eastern Europe; it is reaching across continents. And we have more than doubled in size to some twenty-nine countries, soon to be thirty, and each of us remains bound by the common values of that founding treaty: freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

To those that doubt the potency of NATO, you should ask yourself why, if an organization is without purpose, do our adversaries put so much effort into destabilizing our alliance. But today we face new challenges. And keeping with our best traditions, we must continue to adapt.

Traditional warfare has changed. The threats are no longer only conventional, no longer only overt. Our adversaries are striking from the shadows. They are pursuing new tactics to divide and destabilize, exploiting new technologies to exacerbate the uncertainties of an uncertain world and to undermine our way of life.

Six years ago the Russian chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, wrote that the rules of law has changed. As the role of nonmilitary means in achieving political and strategic goals have grown, he said that long distance, contactless actions against the enemy were becoming the main means of achieving combat and operational goals. With social media, cyber, and more open societies giving our competitors unparalleled opportunities to achieve their aims, the Gerasimov doctrine is here to stay. And hybrid warfare is our new reality.  It is constant and challenging to all our aims.

Our allies in the Baltics and our partners in Ukraine and Georgia are only too familiar with such tactics. But this is happening right across our alliance. It’s happening here in Britain. Before taking up this post, as Funmi said, I was the UK security minister for over three years. I got to see into the shadows and see the daily attacks on our societies that many do not:  cyberattacks, disinformation, assassination, corruption – all prosecuted on our open and liberal societies. The urgent question is, therefore:  How can we individually, but as importantly collectively, respond?

I believe that the answer is threefold. It starts with investment – investment in both our conventional forces, which are so important to effective deterrence, and in those new capabilities needed to address the challenges that lie ahead. In this context, I welcome the news that Canadian and European allies will be increasing their defense investment by $400 billion by 2024, which represents significant progress towards our shared pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, though there is of course still more to do.

And I’m proud that the United Kingdom has been taking a lead in NATO. Not only have we consistently spent 2 percent of our GDP on defense, but we are the first ally to offer our offensive cyber capabilities to the alliance.

Today, British servicemen and -women are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with NATO allies, including a thousand British troops leading enhanced forward presence in Estonia and supporting it in Poland, as well as a similar number in Afghanistan developing Afghan leadership and counterterrorism capabilities as part of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission.

Next, as the title of this conference reminds us, it’s about innovation. NATO is now looking at the ways in which new and emerging technologies will continue to change the threat landscape, from hypersonic missiles that reduce our decision-making time in the face of an attack to quantum computing potentially rendering current encryption obsolete. We must understand that these challenges are what we face today, and we must adapt to them accordingly. And we must seek consistently beyond the hunt for the next geopolitical disruptors such as demographic shifts or climate change, or the next technological advancement that changes the rules of the game completely. Maintaining our technological edge is the only way we can avoid obsolescence and deliver on our most important pledge, keeping our people safe.

I’m pleased to say that when our leaders meet tomorrow they will recognize the progress that NATO has made in adapting to the new – these new challenges:  agreeing a plan for NATO’s response to emerging and disruptive technologies, recognizing two new operational domains in space and cyberspace, and developing plans to confront and deter hybrid tactics of the kind I’ve been speaking about. But strong those achievements are, fitter and fairer than it has ever been, we will have to keep changing, keep adapting to tomorrow’s challenges.

And finally, it comes down to solidarity. Our comparative advantage over our competitors has always hinged on our togetherness, our unity. We are a civilian-led alliance of democratic states.  That is not a weakness; that’s our greatest strength. And while differences of opinion are normal in any democratic organization like ours, we ultimately succeed because each of us trusts that the other will have their back. 

Our joint commitment to Article 5 is the cornerstone of our solidarity. It is the cheapest form of defense, but you can’t have that without engagement. And that’s why we’re all here today.  NATO needs your insight, your challenge, your new leadership to provide the same level of protection and security to future generations as it did to our forebears.

As security minister I always used to say that security is not a competition; it is a partnership.  That incredible partnership has protected our nation for seventy years, and as long as we keep our solidarity, staying true to our values, our guiding light, then NATO will remain the greatest defensive alliance the world has ever seen and continue keeping our people safe for many years to come.

Seventy years ago at the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington, the US president at the time, Harry S. Truman, said, “Men with courage and vision can still determine their own destiny. They can choose slavery or freedom, war or peace.” His words on that day are as true now as they ever were. We must stand together; no side deals, no separate voices. Our adversaries strive for that division. They fund that division and target that division. But we will not let them succeed.

Thank you very much.  (Applause.)