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NATO, Trident and Independence
Unraveling the contradictions in the SNP case
It’s been a bumper week for subscriptions to Independence Captured. So, welcome to everyone who has signed up since the last edition.
This week we are going to look at the question of NATO in more detail. I have written on foreign policy issues many times in the past. Here in the Herald, as part of this newsletter, and in 2014 for Open Democracy. Indeed, for me, developing a new foreign policy after Iraq and Afghanistan was probably the primary motivating factor in my support for independence.
I want to start by laying down a number of framework issues when it comes to examining the dynamics around independence, NATO membership and Trident:
We need to go beyond immediate statements and comments made by politicians on this question. Instead, we are grappling with the mechanics of the Western military, intelligence and security apparatus. That means we are concerned with the question of structural power, and in this case, the hard power assets which remain of central strategic importance to NATO.
We need to have a firm grasp on the mission and operation of NATO and the imperatives of its dominant partner, the United States. Much of the time public commentary about institutions like NATO (or for that matter, the EU) is based on “values.” This can breed illusions in how people think an organisation will behave. Instead it is better to look at interests within a global system based on competing blocks. NATO is not some creche of nations, but a military alliance set within this context.
A common refrain to those who say there is a contradiction between Scotland joining NATO as a non-nuclear member is to make comparisons with countries like Norway or Sweden. But the Scottish scenario is entirely different for two key reasons. First, the process of Scottish membership involves leaving the UK, which plays a leading role in NATO. Second, Scotland already houses nuclear weapons. Joining NATO at the same time as decommissioning Faslane opens up very different challenges as compared to Norway, for example.
Lastly, a comment about the British state. At a superficial level many contend that because of the clownish leadership of Boris Johnson and the effects of Brexit, that the UK is now seen as a subordinate power in the Western axis. While it is true that it is weakened in historic terms, it remains pivotal. Here we might also reference the recent alliance formed between the United States the United Kingdom and Australia based on the sharing of nuclear submarine technologies, and geared towards China.
The Brookings Institution
Questions around independence, NATO and Trident have been in the news in recent days as a result of a speech delivered by the First Minister to the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. While the speech focussed on the future of European energy security, broader foreign policy matters inevitably came up.
The First Minister and the SNP Defence Team have been working to calibrate their positions with the foreign policy establishment for some time. As I wrote in a previous edition of Independence Captured:
The SNP want to be seen as a more responsible, more reliable partner, to the security state than the fumbling populist in Number 10. Writing in the Foreign Policy journal, the SNP Defence team outline their vision for Scottish foreign policy: “Unlike Ireland, Scotland will seek to be a reliable NATO partner; it’s in too vital a strategic position not to be. An independent Scotland will be a reliable and constructive partner, a staunch ally, and a fierce friend. The cornerstone of its defence policy will be NATO membership.”
But is this compatible with disarming Trident, or indeed, with disrupting the unitary state? Writing as someone who opposes an independent Scotland joining NATO, it’s not such a problem. But for the SNP leadership who want to avoid such confrontations, it’s a different story.
The director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution, Michael O’Hanlon, made an interesting intervention on the run up to the First Minister’s speech which included the following comments about independence:
“It just feels a weird moment to push this, with — sorry — much bigger issues dominating the news and the schedules of policymakers.
“If Scots push this now it feels like they are somehow being political opportunists, in a slightly unfriendly way to the broader Nato good.
“To me it feels wrong in the timing. Nato does not have the bandwidth for this issue now. And it might appear to weaken the alliance at a time when we need to project strength and resolve.”
NATO doesn’t have the “bandwidth” for Scottish independence and shutting down Faslane. But it does for accepting Sweden and Finland into the alliance because, as previously intimated, the strategic and geopolitical interests involved are different.
Some may well say, “who is the director of an Washington think-tank to tell Scots when they should exercise their right to self-determination.” That is an entirely fair point and one I agree with. But remember, we are talking about power. In this case the SNP leadership do care very much about what these kinds of bodies think. They are incredibly sensitive to the American foreign policy establishment and totally allergic to the idea that they might be cast as a nationalist thorn in the side of the Western security state.
Under very light questioning from Glenn Campbell, the SNP defence spokesperson was at pains to say that Scotland would honour all obligations including the temporary hosting of nuclear weapons owned by other states within NATO. But imagine the pressures of real negotiations, while there is war in Europe. That will be of a wholly different order to an interview on the BBC.
NATO, the UK and Trident
Those pressures exist because of the central importance of both the UK and Trident to NATO and to its leadership, the United States. To explore this we are going to look not just at press statements but to formal documents and to the future strategy of NATO itself, in a world contoured by rising economic, political, technological, military and climate based conflicts.
In 2019 the Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, visited Faslane. It may sound a little ceremonious, but that committee is the longest standing structure of the alliance. In addition, Peach was NATO’s most senior military officer and the Military Adviser to the Secretary General and the North Atlantic Council. He said:
“The UK’s independent strategic nuclear forces are vital to the overall security of the Alliance. NATO constantly ensures that its nuclear deterrent capabilities remain safe, secure, and effective.
“I want to take this opportunity to thank the men and women here at Faslane for their hard work and service, frequently performed in arduous conditions. You play an important role in guaranteeing the safety and security of Allied populations and countries’.”
This is not a one way process between the UK and NATO. Indeed, in 2017 (note: after the Brexit vote), the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, said:
“I welcome the UK’s strong contribution to NATO, from its commitment to defence investment to its operational deployments. The nuclear forces of the Alliance, including those at Clyde Naval Base, are the supreme guarantee of the security of allied countries and populations.”
Indeed, when asked directly about independence and the potential disarming of Faslane, he said:
“The nuclear deterrent is essential for NATO’s deterrent and that makes us all safe, and the reason to have strong deterrence is to prevent war, is to avoid conflict and is to send a clear message to any potential adversary that an attack on NATO will trigger a response from the whole alliance and the cost would be much higher than the benefits. So that helps make the UK safer but also all NATO allies safer.”
This approach which centres the importance of NATO as a nuclear alliance is fundamental to the organisation. The most recent Strategic Concept document adopted by all the Heads of States of Government within NATO in 2010, goes into more detail. In doing so it puts the United Kingdom and Trident at the core of the security interests of the alliance:
The next NATO Summit will take place this year in Madrid, and will update the Strategic Concept. Once again, this will be agreed and adopted by all member countries. The website tells us a little about the event, but one paragraph is important for the purposes of this analysis in particular:
“The world has fundamentally changed in the past decade and strategic competition is rising, so the time has come to update the Strategic Concept. The last Strategic Concept was adopted at the Lisbon Summit in 2010; the new one will build on elements of the 2010 Concept that are still relevant.”
We can speculate as to what this might mean. But it is vanishingly unlikely given the nature of the world system and the conflicts bound up within it at the present moment, that it will include a winding down of the importance of the so-called nuclear “deterrent.”
Meanwhile, just incase this isn’t obvious, the summit designing the Strategic Concept for NATO for the next decade will not be working on the assumption that Scotland leaves the UK, and that Faslane is decommissioned. Far from it.
Given all of the above it is folly to argue that Scotland can leave the UK, shut down Faslane, turn up at NATO’s door and expect to be welcomed with open arms. In fact the opposite process is likely. Before we get anywhere near that stage (feel free to check back here on why I think a referendum in 2023 is unlikely), NATO and the United States will be absolutely plain about their opposition to such developments.
To attune to this, the SNP will become more, not less, hawkish on foreign policy. That means we will see outbursts like calling for No Fly Zone to be kept on the table in relation to Ukraine, for example. It is to show that despite the peace movement traditions from which many in the SNP hail, it has a leadership ready to align to the status quo.
In the cold light of day, in a situation where these matters become concrete and meaningful rather than abstract, we might expect a further weakening of the SNP line on Trident if it meant access to NATO. Because when it comes down to it, the State Department has more power than CND, no matter how totemic an issue it is for the national movement.
In circumstances where realpolitik kicks in, the SNP leadership are not going to take on the United States, NATO or even the British state on the terrain of foreign policy and security. That would be in the field of open conflict, uncertainty, risk and volatility. All of which are anathema to the SNP.
In 2012 the great debate over NATO in the SNP was about getting ready for the “reality of independence.” Alyn Smith argued from the conference floor that it would be “odd” for Scotland not to join NATO. Today, his transatlantic allies on that question might well think, in the words of Michael O’Hanlon, that it is “weird” for Scotland to raise the idea of independence now.
Then again, maybe there’s an easier option to take around all of this for the SNP leadership. Not to pursue it at all.