Like many I was proud to listen to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to Parliament this week. His courage has reminded us that brave men and women really can bend the arc of history. Many think Ukraine would have long succumbed without him.
He has also given hope to democratic societies that maybe, just maybe we still have it within ourselves to survive the authoritarian advance. But if we are to do that we must be honest about what went wrong. The invasion of Ukraine was the biggest failure of Western foreign and security policy in our lifetimes. It happened because we forgot the most fundamental lesson of the Cold War: the power of deterrence.
Narrowly defined, deterrence is the mutually assured destruction that persuades nuclear powers to avoid triggering a war against each other. But there is a broader definition: the ability to deter powerful countries from marching into their neighbours. Since 1945, not one externally recognised country has been wiped off the map by aggression from a neighbour. By denying Ukrainian sovereignty Putin is attempting to do just that.
The purpose of deterrence is to arm yourself effectively, and with enough strategic ambiguity that hostile powers think twice before such catastrophic decisions. Our overt weakness in Afghanistan, followed by the US and UK governments announcing they would not intervene in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, did the opposite. Instead of peace through strength we caused war through weakness.
This is not about threatening nuclear war. As my parliamentary colleague Bernard Jenkin has argued, an effective deterrence strategy embraces the doctrine of flexible response. The assassination of Zelensky or genocidal bombing of large civilian populations would not lead to the same response as a territorial incursion into a Nato member. But consequences there must be – and if necessary not just economic, important though sanctions are.
What might a modern version of a deterrence strategy look like? It would start with a big increase in our military capability. Can it be right to reduce our troop levels by 10,000 from the numbers planned in 2015? Or cut our Challenger tanks by a third? How many ships does the Navy have left after it has taken care of the defence of our new carriers? The Ministry of Defence will see its spending rise by less than any department except the Foreign Office. Putting those two departments bottom of our priorities may have seemed logical last year – but surely no longer.
The bigger question is whether it is sustainable for Nato to continue to expect US taxpayers to foot the bill for around one third of the costs of defending Europe. President Trump was very vocal on that point when I was foreign secretary, but he was only saying more robustly what numerous presidents had said before. If we want America to remain the leader of the free world, other democratic powers, especially in Europe, must commit to matching US defence spending as a proportion of GDP. The UK should lead the way by saying that defence, aid and soft power spend will rise to at least 4 per cent of GDP over the next decade.
Such increases can only be delivered with strong economic growth. That will not be easy – but nor is it impossible. Silicon Valley started on the back of post-war US increases in defence. If we focus spending increases on R&D, with the world’s top four universities we have every opportunity to become the next Silicon Valley. That gives us a fighting chance of funding not just defence spending rises but the growing pressure from health and care budgets.
According to Freedom House just 20 per cent of the world’s population live in free countries, with double that under autocracies. After the fall of the Berlin Wall we hoped for better. Brave Ukrainians have shown us that freedom is worth fighting for. Now we must rise to the challenge by rediscovering that peace comes from strength, not luck.