Brexit and National Security? Keep Calm and Carry On
The surprise (to me anyway!) decision of the British electorate to exit the European Union (EU) has caused all kinds of hand-wringing and grim predictions. Indeed, the US stock market took a dive on Friday, and the near-term economic prospects seem – at best – unsettled (but they will, I think, calm in time).
To be sure there are real legal complications, especially in the financial realm. But what about the national security implications for the U.S. and for the matter, the U.K.? Over at Lawfare, Brown University’s Timothy Edgar laments that Brexit “could be a big blow for United States national security – and for global privacy.” Maybe, but I don’t think the security consequences are as dismal as he and others suggest.
In the first place, while the EU has some military activities and policies, it’s not a military alliance, and it’s separate from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). According to NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the U.K.’s “position in NATO will remain unchanged. The UK will remain a strong and committed NATO Ally, and will continue to play its leading role in our Alliance.”
Indeed, former NATO commander and retired Navy admiral James Stavridus argues that Brexit “will likely produce a stronger NATO” since the “U.K. will have more resources and manpower to support NATO.” Even the New York Times concedes that as “a nuclear power, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and a leader of NATO” Britain’s “security will be largely unaffected.”
Moreover, President Obama – who opposed the U.K. leaving the EU – nevertheless made it clear after the vote that the “special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is enduring, and the United Kingdom’s membership in NATO remains a vital cornerstone of U.S. foreign, security, and economic policy.”
Still, Edgar argues that:
[H]aving the UK as a member of the EU was quite helpful for the United States national security community. Although the EU does not formally have a role in defense and security matters, the decisions of its institutions on issues like digital privacy can still have a big impact on intelligence and security. The United States has lost a vital friend and partner inside the European tent.
True, but the U.S. has other close friends within the EU, and the extent to which the U.K. could – or would – facilitate more favorable decisions to U.S. interests than would otherwise be the case really isn’t demonstrable. What is more is that it is quite possible, even likely, that the UK and the US will now have an even closer relationship. In any event, I would expect that the UK would still have a very close association with the EU, much as Canada and Norway do. There is also no reason to doubt Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel’s call for “a future relationship between Great Britain and the European Union that is close and partner-like” won’t come to pass.
We should also keep in mind that in addition to Canada the US has many other vital allies who are not EU members (e.g., Japan, Korea, Australia, and more). These non-EU countries have built and maintained economies able to support strong militaries, and I would expect the UK to do so as well. (As recently as last December analysts were forecasting that the U.K. would become the world’s fourth largest economy. Even if post-Brexit that doesn’t happen, Britain will still be a major economic power.)
Some are predicting that Brexit will trigger Scotland to leave the U.K. Again, maybe so, but I don’t think it will happen. Despite some energetic rhetoric, my bet is that Scots will come to see the turmoil surrounding Brexit as something of a warning against the further disruption that separation could cause (and an independent Scotland – with a population of just 5.4 million – would be harder to sustain).
If Scotland does leave, there are admittedly potential security issues because, among other things, Britain is building what may be its last two aircraft carriers at Scotland’s Rosyth Dockyard in Fife. Still, I would expect that Scotland would allow the completion of the carriers, and they could be home-ported elsewhere.
A more complicated problem would be occasioned by the fact that Britain’s Trident submarine force – its nuclear deterrent – is based exclusively in Scotland, and Scottish leaders have said the base would go if they left the U.K. However, given that perhaps 19,000 jobs depend upon the base, that view might change when faced with the actual decision. If necessary, would basing Britain’s submarines at a U.S. Trident base be something the U.S. would consider? I think so.
So, yes, there are difficulties ahead, and lots of hard work to do. Nonetheless, Britain – the nation that for a time stood alone against Nazi tyranny – has endured far greater challenges than this. Finally, we should also remember that there are many possible benefits to Brexit touted by its supporters that could make Britain stronger. In any event, I believe that Brits will “keep calm and carry on” – something their friends in the U.S. ought to keep in mind.