In the 21st century, the security and defence of a nation is not the sole preserve of their national governments – these are international questions which directly impact the wider international community.
In Scotland, an increasingly heated debate has developed over Alex Salmond’s plans to drop the traditional nationalist opposition to NATO membership, in the not-so-unlikely event that Scotland votes to secede from the United Kingdom in 2014. The First Minister and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party faces a potentially difficult party conference in October if internal disagreement on this issue is aired in public.
The debate thus far has focused almost exclusively on the presence of nuclear weapons in Scotland, specifically Trident submarines based in the Firth of Clyde, which has been a highly controversial issue since the 1980s. While that is a highly pertinent issue from both a political and a practical perspective, it could be argued that the extent to which it dominates the wider debate on NATO membership is detrimental to the interests of Scotland and the Scottish people if and when they declare their independence.
In simple terms, the fundamental question is what place would – and should – an independent Scotland occupy on the world stage? How could an independent Scotland work with other sovereign nations, notably its European neighbours, to ensure its defence and security? Scotland’s people and their elected representatives have yet to truly address these questions in a rational and well-informed manner. Given that the referendum on independence has seemingly been pencilled in for the autumn of 2014, it is high time they did so.
In Scotland, as in many other countries, NATO suffers from misconceptions – often out-dated Cold War notions – as to its role, activities and even its very raison d’être. SNP members opposed to NATO membership have played on these misconceptions by referring to NATO as a “nuclear-weapons based alliance”.
Aside from being factually incomplete, such a stance fails to address wider questions of security and defence which Scottish nationalists surely must answer if their campaign for independence – not to mention the very survival of an independent Scotland – is to be successful.
In that context, it should be recognised that NATO in the 21st century, for all its undoubted faults, remains the only organisation which provides for international cooperation on a range of highly relevant issues such as cyber-security, military interoperability and intelligence sharing, to name but a few. In an age of financial austerity, even larger nations such as France, Germany and Britain have recognised that they cannot afford to go it alone. Even the most fervent nationalist would surely admit that an independent Scotland would be no different.
The relevance of this debate is far broader than internal Scottish politics. Indeed, it is a cause of great concern in London and Washington, as explained by Dr Philips O’Brien of the University of Glasgow in recent testimony to the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee:
“It would be easier for the rest of the UK to negotiate the security arrangement if Scotland remained in NATO – If Scotland is outside NATO, a lot of bets are off… That’s why no-one in the US State Department and Defence Department will go on the record about this. They are very worried about a non-NATO Scotland.”
In other words, any decisions on an independent Scotland’s future within or outwith NATO will not soley be taken in Scotland. Appearing before the same committee, Professor William Walker of St Andrews University referred to the 1958 US/UK Mutual Defence Agreement, which provides the relevant defence co-operation framework for these issues:
“The missiles going up and down the Clyde are American missiles. So the Americans would be part of this discussion; you can’t keep them out.”
It may seem paradoxical or objectionable to Scottish nationalists that sovereignty would not equate to sole decision-making authority on such issues but therein lies an important lesson. In the 21st century, the security and defence of nations is not the sole preserve of their national governments – these are international questions which directly impact the wider international community and must invariably be addressed as such.
This is a reality which the Scottish people and their elected representatives would do well to grasp – and quickly.
Photo Credit: Rhys Asplundh