The UK’s all-but-inevitable departure from the EU may well scuttle NATO. U.S. officials must be prepared.
The time for complacency about Brexit’s deleterious effects on U.S. national security is over. With Britain’s departure from the European Union all but inevitable, it’s time to review them.
Policy debate these past two years has largely focused on the UK’s post-EU economic challenges. Security discussions have revolved around its impact on the Good Friday Agreement and Ireland. Many Americans and most Britons believe Britain’s departure from the EU will bolster American security interests. They are mistaken. Brexit’s consequences for the U.S.-UK relationship will be profound and largely negative.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations have mishandled the U.S. response to Brexit. White House interventions have been ham-handed and ill timed. President Obama’s London comments against Brexit in April 2016 were counter-productive. His assertion that post-Brexit Britain would go “to the back of the queue” of America’s trading partners annoyed British voters. President Trump’s later enthusiasm for Brexit emboldened radical Leavers, enraging those who wanted to remain in the EU and further polarizing Britain.
America has three core national-security interests in Europe. Despite occasional frustrations, we benefit from economic and political partnership with the European Union against threats from nations that don’t share our values. We desire a strong North Atlantic Alliance to address external threats. Above all, we need a democratic and prosperous Europe that doesn’t nurture anti-democratic forces, which today range from disgruntled Islamists to homegrown European neo-fascists, anti-Semites and racists.
With Britain’s departure from the EU now virtually certain, these core interests will suffer. Its unique status as a key American intelligence and security partner that is simultaneously a European Union and a NATO member has long been critical to us. London neutralized unhelpful intra-EU efforts to build a European security and defense identity prioritizing European concerns over North Atlantic unity. Britain's influence will now dissipate. America has other friends in the European Union and NATO; none will have London’s clout.
Brexit will also end London’s direct influence (and Washington’s indirect sway) on EU deliberations about, for example, its geospatial and aerospace industries. Transatlantic tensions on a variety of issues will rise as the UK explores its new position between the EU and the United States. This will likely be a zero-sum game. The UK will lose oversight over EU’s security policy-making with the loss of its commissioner (the highest EU official charged with the dossier). While many of these effects will be subtle, some will be more immediate. Policy divergences between Brussels and Washington will be exacerbated. As demands grow for UN security council reform, post-Brexit Britain will no longer be able to count on EU support for the retention of its seat on the security council. The seat might eventually go to Germany; it’s more likely to leave western hands for Asia or Latin America.
Brexit’s impact on the Atlantic alliance may well be fatal. With Britain unable to police Franco-German ambitions for a European security force within a European security and defense identity, continental pretensions will grow. Difficult resource allocation decisions will have to be made and they will be made in the EU's favor. Britain’s departure subtracts from Europe. Does it add to Britain? The problem is that Britain’s already anemic defense spending will likely further decline, particularly if the economic growth Brexiteers have promised fails to materialize.
Globally, Britain’s departure from Europe will embolden nationalists. Polling in the United Kingdom shows that those who voted Brexit most often cited immigration as a prime factor in their decision-making. This sentiment is not confined to the UK. If Britain’s transition out of the EU is painless, then Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs may well be emboldened. With both Scotland and northern Ireland having voted to remain in the European Union, independence votes will be on the agenda — particularly in Scotland. Guy Verhofstadt, the EU’s point man on Brexit, has said it is a “simple fact” that Scotland can join the EU without the UK.
Britain will not be broken by Brexit, merely diminished. Unburdened by the entanglements London so ably manipulated for so long, Great Britain will be less consequential. After a century of global dominance, an Anglo-American partnership bolstered first by Britain’s imperial reach and later by the UK’s European connections will possess a far smaller diplomatic toolbox.
As the outlines of the post-Brexit world grow clearer, Washington should be planning for a diminished Britain, a more obstreperous EU, a challenging United Nations Security Council, further NATO decline, and Scottish independence — at the very least. None of this will be good for the United States.