Why Europe’s Loss Is Actually NATO’s Loss Too
by Rafael Loss
Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and current dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, recently argued that while the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union is a major political and economic challenge for the West, it may produce a stronger NATO. Stavridis suggests that four reasons make “Brexit” a lucky coincidence for NATO: instability will make members wary of any action by Russia; UK military resources will be more available for NATO action; it will lead to positive EU-NATO competition; and new British leadership will be more motivated to be an active NATO partner.
Other commentators have made similar, cautiously optimistic arguments on the security implications of Brexit. Like Admiral Stavridis, RAND’s Michael Spirtas cautions against panic in the wake of Brexit and the future role of the UK in the Transatlantic alliance. Christopher Chivvis of Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, too, finds that Brexit has no immediate effects on NATO, though he recognizes the blow to the EU’s security and defense capabilities. The London School of Economics and Political Science’s Karen Smith sees a silver lining in that Brexit could provide an impetus to reinvent the EU as a civilian power and “develop its comparative advantage in civilian crisis response.”
Most agree that Brexit will have adverse effects for the United Kingdom, the European Union, and potentially the world economy. However, Britain’s demise will by no means usher in a new golden age for the world’s most powerful military alliance, unlike Stavridis and other experts suggest.
It is certainly true on a tactical level that the resulting instability heightens member states’ wariness about Russia’s exploitation of the situation. NATO, US, and European, defense and foreign affairs “chiefs” have repeatedly issued warnings over Russia’s potential strategic gains from Brexit. However, the West’s opposition toward a resurgent Russia must be based not only on a military strategy. Just as important are political, economic, and societal approaches to deter aggression and increase the West’s resilience against Russia’s “hybrid warfare.” A weakened EU dramatically erodes the West’s capacity to respond to such challenges. Lieutenant-General Frederick Hodges, commander of the US Army Europe, said that “if the EU begins to become unraveled there can’t help but be a knock-on effect for the alliance also.” Beyond concerns over Russia, George Washington University’s Frank J. Cilluffo and Sharon L. Cardash highlighted the adverse effects of Brexit on cooperation between security services on matters such as intelligence sharing and law enforcement.
By leaving the EU, the UK’s military resources may no longer be constrained by its involvement in EU missions. Yet this argument is based on the false assumption that Britain will continue to be a “strong European economy.” Rather, Brexit has already had significant negative effects on the British economy: the Pound is at a 31-year low, the UK has lost its triple-A credit rating, and it was surpassed by France as the world’s fifth largest economy. Several banks have announced plans to relocate at least parts of their operations to Frankfurt and other financial hubs. The UK could lose its favorable access to European markets, which threatens to dry up foreign investment and lead to a recession. Similar, albeit less drastic effects will likely await the rest of the EU. The Economist estimates that in the most likely scenario, “reduction in GDP growth in Europe will be between a third and a half as big as the loss to Britain’s rate of growth.” Under these conditions, Britain’s and Europe’s military spending will not remain at current levels—which are already under criticism from Washington.
As Scottish, and potentially Northern Irish independence yet again looms on the horizon, Britain’s military capabilities might also be more directly affected. Scotland would have to invest significantly to establish—and then maintain and modernize—its new armed forces. The UK would also have to incur costs to maintain a credible and coherent force after Scottish independence. More importantly, however, the British Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine port at Faslane and nuclear warhead depot at nearby Coulport in western Scotland are critical strategic assets. Scottish independence would not only lead to a difficult practical discussion over these bases, but, as the Royal United Services Institute has reported, could also trigger a more fundamental debate about Britain’s nuclear strategy.
In the above-referenced article, Admiral Stavridis welcomes potential competition between NATO and the EU. He posits that Britain’s increased involvement in NATO would increase the alliance’s military capability while the EU could focus more on the “soft power” side of the West’s international policy. NATO and the EU undoubtedly must better coordinate their actions and focus on their respective comparative advantages across hard and soft power. However, only a more integrated European armed force will effectively reduce unnecessary redundancies in EU member states’ capabilities and lower the burden the US has to carry for Europe’s defense. Brexit, unfortunately, will weaken both NATO and the EU as the institutional pillars of the Transatlantic community.
Given that a primary driver for the Leave campaign were concerns about the economy and immigration, the UK is unlikely to become more outward-looking. Should the more radical Brexiteers and isolationists challenge the new Prime Minister TheresaMay or even assume power later this year, the appetite for foreign engagement would decrease further and more active British membership in NATO would be unlikely—Anne Applebaum suggests that the new cabinet appointments already signal Britain’s retreat as a Western power. It is also feasible that Washington would be unlikely to invest much in its “specialrelationship” with a Britain that is increasingly marginal on the world stage. While the US should help Britain make its diplomatic and economic transition, there is little reason to expect a substantial reinvigoration of US-UK relations after Brexit—even if some hope for a recreation of the British Empire, at least in economic terms.
The UK’s decision to leave the EU is a saddening blow not only to the European project, but also to NATO. As the alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated recently, NATO “has become even more important as a platform for cooperation between Europe and North America.” But in the wake of Brexit, to assume anything other than a decline of the West’s military capabilities and reach—which it generates through the joint exercise of political and economic power—is to grasp at straws. At the NATO Summit in Warsaw on July 8th and 9th, NATO and the EU agreed to establish closer ties and improve cooperation and coordination. Both institutions and their members must now follow through on these promises, if they hope to mitigate the political and economic fallout of Brexit and to fill the power vacuum a weakened Britain will leave.
About the Author:
Rafael Loss is a German Fulbright Scholar and MALD Candidate at the Fletcher School, where he focuses on international security, foreign and defense policy, as well as international relations theory. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Bremen.