HC 643 The foreign policy implications of and for a separate Scotland

Written evidence from Dr Phillips O’Brien, Director of the Scottish Centre for War Studies, University of Glasgow

Dr Phillips O’Brien has been Director of the Scottish Centre for War Studies at the University of Glasgow since 2001. He has written extensively on Anglo-American relations in the 20th century with a particular stress on diplomacy and strategic policy. In the last few years he has played a growing role in the discussion of the defence and international implications of Scottish Independence. He has appeared before the Scottish Affairs Committee of Parliament testifying about the different defence models that could be pursued by an Independent Scotland. He has also discussed the question of independence on BBC Newsnight, STV’s Scotland Tonight and written about the subject for The Scotsman.

Summary Bullet Points

1) If Scotland were to become independent the ramifications for the rest of the UK are potentially transformative, affecting the UK’s international standing, place within the EU and NATO and the shape of its UN Security Council membership.

2) In purely rational terms, Germany could see some real advantages from a break-up of the United Kingdom. These include a raised likelihood of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and the ability to push EU policy in a more integrationist direction. On the other hand, German defence policy is potentially endangered by a weaker UK, especially if Scotland decides to follow a non-NATO policy.

3) France, meanwhile, would potentially have much to lose by the break-up of the UK. French defence policy has become increasingly more centred on cooperation with the UK and much of this would have to be completely reconfigured. Moreover, though France publicly supports UN Security Council reform, on the surface it stands to gain little from an increase of members of the Security Council with veto powers. In terms of EU policy, a diminished UK could actually limit French freedom of action.

4) The United States would seemingly have nothing to gain by Scottish independence and indeed might have a great deal to lose. The UK has been consistently the USA’s most reliable international partner so its diminution both politically and militarily would be regretted in America. Moreover, if an independent Scotland adopted a strongly-defined non-Nuclear, non-NATO policy it would undermine many American assumptions about European defence and might lessen the USA’s commitment to Europe as a whole.

Some International Implications of Scottish Independence

So far the debate over an independent Scotland has overwhelmingly focussed on the future policy of the new state itself. This needs to be corrected. If Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom it could have a transformative affect on the rest of the UK, and through this on such international organizations as the United Nations, the European Union and NATO. This impact is widely acknowledged though, not surprisingly, diplomatic, government and military officials will not go on the record when discussing the question. Therefore we are left with many more questions than answers. This paper is written to try and crystallize some of the questions that are now being asked internationally while providing a number of different answers. It will mainly look at the possible behaviour towards the UN, EU and NATO by the rest of the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany and France if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom-though reference would also be made to other nations.

United Kingdom Decisions

If Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom the remaining elements of the union would be faced with a number of crucial international and strategic choices. The first would be whether the UK should spend the effort to remain a nuclear armed ‘great’ power with one of only five permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council. Since the end of the Second World War the UK has regularly spent more per capita on defence than most other European states and has maintained a force that is capable of playing an international role. The UK decision on the future of Trident would be the first indicator of whether the rest of the union would want to maintain a relatively expensive and high capacity military. The decision will have to be made relatively soon as to whether the Trident Submarine force, which is entirely based in Scotland, should be rebased, at considerable expense, somewhere within the borders of the remaining parts of the United Kingdom. The outcome of this debate is extremely uncertain.

If the UK decides to de-emphasize the nuclear element of its strategic defence policy, it would make the moves towards UN Security Council reform much harder to delay. The present position of the UK, restated just this year, is that it is in favour of the expansion of the UN Security Council to include the Group of 4. [1] However the Security Council as a whole has moved extremely slowly on the issue of reform and one of widely held assumptions is that its members, the UK included, have no real desire to see membership expanded thus diluting their special position in the world order. The break-up of the UK would make such delaying action more difficult to maintain.

The rest of the UK would also have to decide whether to adjust its present policies towards the European Union. At present the UK is sometimes seen as a consistent force resisting moves to further European integration. Most recently its actions in opposition to the enactment of a European-wide financial transaction tax caused great resentment in parts of the EU. A reduced UK might either be less able to resist pressure from the whole of the EU or could conceivably decide to reconfigure its entire membership of the EU to a trading relationship more similar to that of Norway.

Though there are a huge amount of uncertainties within these questions it would be useful to see how different nations might react to the international fall-out of Scottish Independence.


In pure terms of realpolitik, Germany would have the most to gain from Scottish independence and a less powerful United Kingdom. For a number of years Germany has campaigned for permanent membership of an expanded UN Security Council. This position, as part of the G4 with India, Japan and Brazil, was reiterated on 26 September 2012. [2] As the third largest contributor the United Nations budget and with the largest economy in Europe, the German claim for a seat would be one of the strongest if permanent membership was reformed due to the diminution of the UK. Already the USA, France and the UK have supported the concept of German permanent membership.

In regards to the EU, a reduction of UK influence, a more pro-EU integration policy by the UK, or even a withdrawal of the UK from full membership would increase German influence. In the last few years Germany has clashed with the UK a number of times over the creation of European wide initiatives such as the transaction tax. [3] Certainly Germany is anchored fully in the European Union in a manner that the UK has so far resisted. [4] It is likely that Germany would be able to more fully shape European institutions if the United Kingdom’s influence were reduced.

One area of German policy that would not seem to benefit by the break-up of the United Kingdom would be defence policy. Germany remains committed to NATO as the cornerstone of its national defence. Its commitment to the maintenance of the Atlantic Alliance have lead some to accuse Germany of silently reneging on its stated policy of removing all nuclear weapons from it soil. It certainly seems now that remaining American nuclear weapons still in Germany will not be removed any time soon. [5] A weakened UK would mean a weakened European voice within NATO and this could be seen as problematic for Germany. Potentially even more worrying is the prospect that an independent Scotland would adopt a non-NATO policy as part of an overall non-nuclear position. Such a position could help further weaken American faith in the Atlantic Alliance at a time when many are wondering whether the United States will start neglecting Europe to focus on its strategic interests in Asia. As Germany seems committed to keeping the United States firmly anchored into the defence of Europe a non-NATO Scotland would be a worrying development.


Even though much has been made of the Franco-German partnership during the last few decades, France would almost certainly view the prospect of Scottish independence with considerable trepidation. Again, speaking from a point of view of pure realpolitik, the French state would have much to lose through the break-up of the United Kingdom. It is true that publicly France has recently reiterated that it supports UN Security Council expansion including a permanent seat for Germany. [6] However it certainly would be plausible to assume that France, like the UK, enjoys its present position as one of only five permanent members especially as neither its present population, economic size, nor international influence could be said to merit such a special status. Maintaining the UK as it is presently would seem to further delay any reform of the Security Council and this could be said to be in French interest.

In defence terms France has moved increasingly closer to the UK in the last few years. After flirting for a while with the notion of closer EU integration of defence forces, France has started signing concrete agreements with the UK, including the 2010 UK-France Defence Cooperation Treaty. [7] There have been wide-ranging discussions between the UK and France about maritime security, naval construction and combined expeditionary force planning (amongst others). The aircraft carrier programmes being undertaken in both countries seem based on the assumption of continuing and ever-closer cooperation in this area. An independent Scotland is therefore potentially disruptive to French defence planning across the board. The maritime element of Anglo-French defence cooperation, for one, would have to be completely reconfigured. The diminution of the UK as a military partner could also produce a re-evaluation of France’s whole defence posture. At present France sees itself along with the UK as Europe’s only two nations with real military force. It would be loathe to shoulder the burden as Europe’s sole large militarily-capable nation.

In terms of the EU it could be said that a break-up of the United Kingdom would produce a situation in France similar to that of Germany. However it would also make it more likely that France would take an oppositional position to German plans. In many ways the existence of the UK has allowed France to be closer to Germany than it would be naturally. However, though many in France might welcome the push to greater integration that would follow from a reduced United Kingdom, they might also miss the UK’s counter-weight to a powerful Germany. Presently the UK is often seen as the obstructive power, which allows France to play a conciliatory role. However, without the UK, France’s freedom of choice within the EU might actually be reduced.

The United States

It is hard to see any advantage for the United States in the break-up of the United Kingdom and the creation of an independent Scotland. Indeed, such a development could be seen as very much against American interest. Though the ‘special relationship’ is often as much myth as reality, the UK has been the United States most reliable international partner for the past 60 years. In both the UN and international operations such as the two invasions of Iraq and the ongoing intervention in Afghanistan the UK has provided the United States consistent political support both diplomatically and in terms of real military commitment. Therefore on a prima facie level, the United States would want the United Kingdom to continue very much as is.

The great worry for the United States would be that an independent Scotland takes a strong anti-nuclear, non-NATO position. Already there are growing pressures in some European countries to push for a complete withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from Europe. When New Zealand actually took the step of banning all vessels with nuclear weapons from entering its territorial waters in the 1980s, the US reacted by removing New Zealand from its operational defence umbrella. If such a sentiment spread across Europe, aided by a new Scotland which took a strong non-nuclear stance, it could reinforce some present American notions that Europeans are not serious about national defence and should be left to their own devices.

A non-NATO Scotland would also undermine the United States’ present defence policies in Northern Europe. One of the only possible areas of state conflict in Europe today would be a dispute between Russia and Norway over possession of the oil fields of the Arctic-many of which are now in Norwegian hands but are in territories claimed by Russia. Because of this possible conflict, Norway has become one of the staunchest supporters of the NATO alliance and in particular in the US role within it. American military plans for the defence of northern Europe are based on access to Scottish bases. Denial of access by a non-NATO Scotland would therefore be a huge problem that is difficult to see overcome. (This is also the reason that Norway itself would be very much opposed to a non-NATO Scotland. Anything that would threaten American commitment to NATO would be extremely worrying to Norway).

When it comes to the specific question of the Security Council of the United Nations, while the US actually seems in no hurry to reform the institution, it has publicly supported permanent membership for Japan and India. It would not welcome with enthusiasm a reform process brought on by the UK’s break-up.

27 September 2012

[1] See Statement from the UK delegation to the United Nations, 26 January 2012. http://ukun.fco.gov.uk/en/news/?id=721692882&view=PressS

[2] http://www.rttnews.com/1972199/g-4-nations-call-for-unsc-expansion-stake-claim-for-permanent-membership.aspx?type=gn&Node=B1

[3] See: ‘Germany Rebukes UK over Tobin Tax Opposition’, Financial Times , 15 November 2011. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/25ef197c-0f90-11e1-88cc-00144feabdc0.html#axzz27f9tZSM3

[4] See: Stefan Lehne, ‘The Big Three in EU Foreign Policy’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 2012. http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/07/05/big-three-in-eu-foreign-policy/ck4c

[5] See Tobias Hecht, ‘Germany and its American Nukes’, American Institute for Contemporary German Studies , 12 September 2012, http://www.aicgs.org/2012/09/germany-and-its-american-nukes/

[6] See Statement from the French delegation to the United Nations, 27 August 2012. http://www.franceonu.org/france-at-the-united-nations/thematic-files/UN-Reform/security-council-reform/france-at-the-united-nations/thematic-files/UN-Reform/security-council-reform/article/security-council-reform

[7] See MOD (uk) ‘UK-France Defence Cooperation Treaty Annouced’, 2 November 2010. http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/DefenceNews/DefencePolicyAndBusiness/UkfranceDefenceCooperationTreatyAnnounced.htm

Prepared 17th October 2012