Britain’s global strategic posture: the Brexit wrecks it
6 Apr 2016|

It’s astonishing to see the conservative inheritors of Churchill’s mantle clamouring to escape the European Union. It‘s even more astonishing to see the looming destruction of a grand alliance—the purpose of which was to prevent the wars that smashed Europe twice in fifty years—by the forces of nationalism, xenophobia and protectionism. These were the very forces that set Europe on its road to hell in the first place.

It’s easy for nationalism to masquerade as patriotism, especially when those calling for greater sovereignty and independence are a motley collection of establishment figures, conservative eccentrics and right wing ideologues like UKIP. The ultimate test of patriotism, however, is less a stridently nationalistic independence than it is the long-term security of the nation.

That is fundamentally what a ‘Brexit’ calls into question.

The economic consequences for Britain were it to exit the EU have been pretty well canvassed in the media. The Financial Times for instance, examined three possible scenarios ranging from boom to bust, only to conclude that the economic benefit to Britain was somewhere between doubtful and dismal. And The Economist is, as one might expect, even less sanguine at Britain’s post-Brexit prospects.

If the economic downside of a Brexit is significant as many of Britain’s banking and corporate leaders suggest the political downside maybe even more damaging to both Britain and to the EU. Struggling as it is under the weight of members’ debt, their sluggish economies and an enormous refugee burden, the EU faces an uncertain future. The shift in economic, political and strategic balance from Paris to Berlin, together with separatism in Spain, the rise of extremist political groups across Europe, and an increasingly strident Russia would be further exacerbated by a British decision to quit.

Britain emerged from World War Two effectively bankrupt. But it was on the winning side. Its alliance with the US, its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, its emergence as a Nuclear Weapon State and the gradual reconstruction of its economy afforded it a place in global affairs disproportionate to its real wealth and power. The glory of empire had well and truly faded, yet its strategic posture remained global.

It was able to prosecute the Falklands War to victory at the far end of a supply line that extended more than 12,500 kilometres. It was also able to play a significant part in both the US-led coalition that brought down Saddam Hussein (notwithstanding the attendant policy and legal doubts) and the ‘coalition of the willing’ in Afghanistan.

But, most significantly, it has been one of the cornerstones of NATO since its inception in 1949. The US, of course, has done most of the heavy lifting. But Britain’s place at the top table has served both to legitimise the continued presence of the US in Western Europe and to substantiate its own strategic position in Europe.  More than any other NATO member, Britain sustained the allied deterrence of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It also provided ballast and credibility to Europe’s ability to deal with a newly confident, ambitious and adventurist Russia following Putin’s accession to the Presidency.

In short, Britain has leveraged membership of the EU while remaining outside the Euro zone and its historical alliance with the US to create for itself a global strategic posture that is without precedent.

Britain would be putting that at risk. While it would remain a partner of the US, and would doubtless be able to maintain its presence in NATO independent of its membership of the EU, it would lack any role or relevance in the broader management of European affairs. It would need to come cap in hand to Brussels to negotiate a new trade deal, only to have its requests rebuffed by German (and French) industrial and treasury interests.

And, for its part, the US would need to look elsewhere to shore up its own strategic position in Europe. There’s no prize for guessing whither the US would turn: Germany.

Britain’s central role in Europe is of enormous geo-strategic advantage to the US as it seeks to manage an increasingly unpredictable Russia and an equally fractious group of partners in Eastern Europe. This isn’t simply a question of shared intelligence arrangements and access to British bases. Rather, Britain’s role in Europe serves in most respects to legitimise the US in the pursuit of its own global strategic interests.  A Brexit would jeopardise that relationship.

But not for long. The US is incredibly agile in securing its interests, and its increased investment in NATO would be more than matched by a significant strengthening of the bilateral relationship with Germany. While such an outcome may not sit easily with former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a strengthened partnership between the US and ‘old Europe’ would certainly change Europe’s strategic makeup. This mightn’t be a bad thing, but it certainly would be different.

Britain’s choice isn’t between change and irrelevance. Rather, it’s between strengthening its strategic position in Europe (thereby enhancing its global strategic posture) or ceding its position to Germany. To paraphrase Churchill, the only thing worse for Britain than being in Europe is not being in Europe.