Should an independent Scotland be in NATO?

One of the big policy debates within the SNP is whether they should change their position about not seeking to be a member of NATO if they were in government in an independent Scotland.

So people might be interested in two documents that have just been produced by SNP CND arguing against the proposed change:

     Q & A – NATO and Nuclear Weapons
     NATO, Trident and Scottish Independence

I thought it would be useful to compare Scotland's situation with that of Wales. In principle, I have never had any objection to an independent Wales being a member of NATO. For me, the argument that by being part of this alliance we are therefore relying on nuclear weapons for our defence has never held water. My reasoning is that it is impossible to use such weapons for defensive purposes, and therefore they are irrelevant to our defence irrespective of what other countries might believe. No country is required, or expected, to see eye-to-eye with its allies on every issue. It is sufficient for the alliance to have a common purpose—namely that of mutual defence—but not necessary to agree on the type of weapons needed to implement that defence.


I do, however, have grave reservations about the direction NATO has taken in recent years, particularly over Afghanistan and Libya. So I'd like to repeat what I said in March last year, when NATO decided to intervene in Libya:

... The issue I want to focus on is why NATO as an organization should become involved. I don't think anyone could read the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 as anything other than setting up an alliance for mutual defence in response to an attack on any of its members. Yet NATO seems to be inexorably changing into a force that is openly being used for offensive purposes.

Perhaps, but only perhaps, one could claim that the security of some of NATO's member countries was threatened by Afghanistan. I would call it an indirect and at best a very tenuous link. Yet NATO is there, halfway across the world from the legitimate sphere of concern set out in its founding treaty. However in the case of Libya, there is absolutely no threat to the security of any other country, let alone one that is a member of NATO. It is a purely internal matter.

So it is perhaps legitimate for countries such as the USA, France and the UK ... plus others such as Belgium, Canada and Qatar to conduct attacks in Libya in their own right, as an "alliance of the willing". But it cannot be legitimate for a defensive organization to conduct such attacks, even if all 28 members were to agree that they want to be involved in the operation.

NATO has served us well over the past 60 years, and all organizations need to adapt over time; but to my mind these fundamental changes are now taking NATO way beyond its intended purpose and can only weaken it. In Afghanistan we have already seen the reluctance of some members to contribute their own forces to operations they aren't keen on. Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Iceland and Luxembourg have not contributed to the NATO led forces in Afghanistan, other members only contributed limited logistic support and others seem only to have made a nominal contribution on condition that their armed forces were as far out of harm's way as possible. In this new operation in Libya even fewer will take part. This is quite understandable, but by setting the precedent of only taking part if you want to, NATO runs the risk of countries taking the same attitude if any member were actually to be attacked ... and that's what it's really there for.

Syniadau, 28 March 2011

In short, if NATO remains a defensive organization I have no objection to an independent Wales being a member. But if NATO continues to get involved in operations that have nothing to do with defence, we should not seek to be part of it. At the very least we should be given cast iron guarantees that we could opt out of any operation which we consider not to be for defensive purposes.


If I'm any judge of the general opinion within the SNP, I think they would take exactly the same view ... if it were not for the fact that the UK's nuclear weapons are currently based in Scotland. So we need to look at that issue.

One of the things highlighted in the documents I linked to is how difficult it has been for other countries in NATO to get rid of the nuclear weapons that are based in their countries. There are nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey ... and the first three want to get rid of them, but can't. This is an extract from the SNP CND report:

Successive parliaments in Belgium have, since 2005, called on their government to put forward proposals for the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons. In April 2010 the Dutch parliament adopted a resolution urging their Foreign Minister to tell the US Government that the weapons in Holland should be withdrawn. Most political parties in Germany, including the Free Democratic Party (FDP), are opposed to the presence of these weapons. Since 2009, the FDP have been part of the coalition government and have filled the post of Foreign Minister. The FDP insisted that the coalition agreement includes a clause calling for the removal of US nuclear weapons from Germany.

The question of what to do with these bombs had been a topic of discussion within NATO for many years. In 2010, a concerted move was made by Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands to urge NATO to rethink its nuclear policy. However, this initiative has run into the sand. The alliance set up a Deterrence and Defence Review. The final drafting of the report from this review was dominated by a Quad of four countries, three of which were the states with their own nuclear weapons (Britain, France and the US). The report, agreed at the Chicago summit in May 2012, not only failed to recommend any significant change in nuclear policy, but it endorsed America’s plan to spend $11 billion modernising the B61 bombs. This B61-12 programme will turn these freefall nuclear bombs into precision guided weapons.

Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands could insist that the US must remove nuclear weapons from their soil. However, in each case, the democratic will of the population has not been carried out, because it was in conflict with the desire to maintain cohesion and consensus within NATO.

SNP CND – NATO, Trident and Scottish Independence

If these three countries have had so much difficulty in getting a fellow member of NATO to remove its nuclear weapons from their soil, the precedent has been set for the RUK to be equally intransigent over the removal of its nuclear weapons from Scotland. Bear in mind that the B-61 bombs are small and therefore there is no real technical difficulty in moving them elsewhere. That isn't the case with Trident.

I think a very good case could be made for saying that if Scotland is serious about getting rid of the nuclear weapons based there, they will find it harder to do if they become a member of NATO for purely political reasons.


There is a second factor which complicates matters even further. It hardly needs saying that CND as an organization is committed to getting rid of all nuclear weapons. It is clear that they regard getting rid of nuclear weapons from Scotland as a way of forcing the RUK to get rid of its nuclear weapons completely, because there is no obvious place to build alternative facilities.

I'm not at all comfortable with this. It is one thing for the government of an independent Scotland to decide to get rid of nuclear weapons, but it isn't right to exploit that situation to force what is left of the UK to get rid of its nuclear weapons too. Like it or not, the UK has democratically elected governments which have consistently chosen to retain nuclear weapons.

The government of an independent Scotland could no more say to the government of the RUK that it's their problem and they have to deal with it than the Dutch government could say it to the Americans. What can the Dutch do? Put the B-61s onto a barge, tow it to the middle of the Atlantic and tell the Americans to come and get them? Governments need to act in a rather more responsible way where nuclear weapons are concerned.

And that's the nub of the problem. Like it or not, there is currently nowhere else for Trident to be based. The weapons will have to stay in Scotland until the RUK builds new bases for the missiles and submarines or decides to decommission them. Either course of action will take time. Therefore the only practical option is for the RUK to retain a ten or fifteen year lease on the Faslane and Coulport bases, and the test of their good faith in removing the submarines and missiles when the lease expires will be whether they start to build alternative bases for them within the next few years.

However that has nothing to do with whether an independent Scotland is a part of NATO, which removes the argument that not being part of NATO is the only way to ensure that the weapons are removed from Scotland.


Which brings me back to the point from which I started. Nuclear weapons have nothing to do with membership of NATO. The real issue is the nature of NATO itself, and specifically what direction it might take in future.

If the SNP believes that NATO's aggressive operations in places like Afghanistan and Libya are not going to become the norm then NATO is an organization that is worth joining. If it's good enough for Norway, Denmark and Iceland, friendly countries that Scotland's armed forces will need to work with to defend themselves and Europe against any threat from the north, then it makes good sense for Scotland to be part of that defence structure. Besides that, NATO could do with another voice arguing to prevent it becoming involved in non-defensive operations such as Afghanistan and Libya.

So to my mind, the only reason to retain the policy of not joining NATO is if the SNP is convinced that NATO has moved irreversibly beyond its stated treaty aims to become an organization by which the USA and other countries (including, sadly, the UK) can seek to impose their will on other parts of the world through the use of force.

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Anonymous said...

It all depends on the circumstances of NATO, as you say. Salmond in fairness has always used the disastrous Iraq war as an example of what an independent Scotland would NOT be involved in, but Afghanistan is a bit cloudier for them and unlike Iraq was a NATO operation. I would imagine that the pro-NATO lobby in the SNP would attach conditions to their desire to seek membership.

Wales is probably in a different position and it would really depend on what kind of defence forces we had. We might get away with just joining Nato's partnership for peace like Ireland.

This however isn't a priority in Wales compared to fixing the economy and education.

Anonymous said...

I think the SNP should come out and say Scotland would stay in NATO.

Most people are for it why lose votes over an issue which would have to made as a policy of referendum held in an independent Scotland in any case.

There's an argument for a free Scotland to close Faslane - as you say MH sign a 15 year lease with rUK. That's normal and Russia signed a smilar lease with Ukraine over Sevastapol etc.

Also by threatining to pull out of NATO Scotland and Salmond are make unnecessary enemies from friendly states he needs to recognise Scotland as an independent state. The USA, Germany, Denmark etc are more likely to recognise and be less hostile to the ambition of independence if Scotland was to stay a part of NATO.

Also, is there really any morality in being neutral? Not being in NATO doesn't necessarily make one netural, but it tends to go together. Was Ireland or Sweden's (in)action during WW2 really a high moral stance?

Stay in NATO. Like the Head of State or currency it's another battle for another time and would need a different mandate.


Owen said...

I think one issue that could sway things in favour of Scottish NATO membership, would be the prospect of Russians buzzing their airspace as they do from time to time - not that the UK's response has been speedy in some cases. Scotland also has much larger maritime waters and land footprint to patrol than Wales

I think something that also needs to be factored in, is that building a new military from the ground up is likely to be quite a "shock", perhaps taking the best part of a decade until fully up and running. Joining an alliance like NATO straight away could put pressure on Scottish Armed Forces (or indeed Welsh) that they don't need. I made that point when I looked at Welsh defence earlier this year.

I'd see NATO membership, whether Scottish or Welsh, as a "long term goal". By that I mean aiming to have a defence forces capable of playing a full part at some point post-independence, but not as a priority. The priority would be to establish the training structures, military stance and any domestic defence requirements (fisheries patrols for instance). In Scotland's case it would also mean looking at the Trident/Faslane issue.

Anonymous said...

What do you MH think of the colonization of Tibet?

MH said...

Yes, if Scotland wasn't to become a member of NATO I'm sure it would have a relationship with NATO in the Partnership for Peace programme. However it's a very flexible arrangement which signifies as much or little as the length of a piece of string.

But I don't think "get away with" is the right way of looking at things. I think Wales and Scotland shoud play a full role in our defence and be prepared to be involved in trouble spots all over the world. It's a question of which ones.

And while I wouldn't disagree that the economy and education are important, no country has the luxury of being able to focus on one or two issues without considering all its other obligations too. We need to think about what our position will be on all these matters if we are serious about Wales becoming independent.


I'm inclined to agree about the importance of not needlessly antagonizing other countries, especially those which you hope to have good relationships with, M. America would certainly prefer an independent Scotland to be (or remain, for that's that it will be in strategic defence terms) a part of NATO, and I guess most others members would prefer it too.

In a sentence, the main point I was making is not to refuse to be part of NATO because some of its members have nuclear weapons. Or, more specifically, not to be sidetracked into thinking that being part of NATO is in some way an acknowledgement that your defence depends on nuclear weapons. Clear thinking is required, especially as opponents of independence will be anxious to portray it is as inconsistency or hypocrisy.

Concerns about the direction NATO is taking are much more important in deciding whether to be part of it than the fact that some countries have nuclear weapons. But to begin with I think it would be better for an independent Scotland and Wales to voice those concerns and seek to influence NATO's direction from within. However that could change if NATO (as opposed to certain individual countries that happen to be members of NATO) decided, say, to attack a country like Iran.


I'm not sure we should see membership of NATO as a long term goal, Owen. If we or Scotland decide we want to be members we will be immediately welcomed with open arms, irrespective or how good or bad the structure and organization of our armed forces is. In a sense it's more of a political statement of where we stand in the world than an objective measure of how well organized they are.

But yes, the pressure will be there. Countries like the USA, France and the RUK will be falling over themselves to persuade us to spend money on improving our armed forces, since each are major players in the arms trade. In Scotland's case, because of its vast sea area and that it stands in the front line in any attack from the north (i.e. over the pole from China and Russia either by air or rapidly melting sea), it will be under much more pressure than Wales will be.

But on the other hand neither Scotland nor Wales will start completely from scratch. We are entitled to our share of the UK's warships, planes, tanks, guns and everything else, and both Wales and Scotland account for a larger proportion of armed forces personnel relative to our size than England. So far as the lower ranks are concerned, the armed forces of Scotland and Wales will be well trained and experienced. The problems will be in higher ranks and overall logistics.

But it is important that we set up our own structures. The last thing I would want is for us to enter into some sort of joint agreement with the RUK that maintains the present structure. I think it's unsustainable as it stands.

Anonymous said...

you left out nato's use of cluster bombs in serbia in your list of nato's war crimes...cluster bombs which are still killing and maining people in serbia incidentally ....nato is nothing less than an instrument of US foreign policy its as simple as that...

why on earth would anyone who wants to see wales break off from one reactionary imperialist power - the UK - want a independent wales to join another reactionary imperial power ie NATO? And risk seeing a self governing wales becoming involved in future insane US escapades under sociopaths like mitt romney or worse?

also what on earth do you mean when you speak of a 'threat to europe from the north'? Are you referring to greenland or somewhere? As you surely cannot be resurrecting anti-russian cold war drivel that russia would invade western europe, or would form any kind of threat to a self governing scotland or wales?

While your suggestion that europe might face some kind of military attack 'over the pole' from china would make even the hawks at the pentagon fall about with laughter.

If you really are concerned about future military 'threats' to a self governing wales, or scotland, i would remind you that it is the US which has invaded or bombed dozens of countries right across the world in the last 6 decades, killing millions of people in the process.

In foreign policy terms i would hope that a self governing wales (and scotland) would take its place among the 'non aligned' nations of the world and in contrast to having 'our share' of the british state's war machine would do its best to promote peace and disarmament in the world.

I would also be very surpised if the SNP decided to support an independent scotland seeking to join NATO as it was its current leader alex salmond who very bravely became the first senior political figure in the uk to speak out against nato's illegal war on serbia in 1999.

Leigh Richards

MH said...

Talking about how any particular war or military action is conducted is a little different from talking about what wars or military actions NATO should undertake, Leigh. So I don't particularly want to address the use of cluster bombs. But I will say that I think NATO was right to take military action in the wars that followed the break up of Yugoslavia.

First, this was an area within NATO's legitimate sphere of concern. Yugoslavia was a buffer state between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. When it started to break up into its constituent nations, it was clear that the Serbs would not let the non-Serbian parts go without a fight ... an unequal fight because the Serbs had virtually all the weapons.

And second, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina clearly wanted to turn to the West and so, even though they were not formally NATO members, the attacks being mounted on them by Serbia were not in any practical sense different from attacks on a NATO member. I therefore think that NATO had a duty to use force to try and neutralize the attacking Serb forces. But, as I said, the question of whether military action was justified does not give carte blanche to the way those attacks were conducted.

As an aside, I'd also use NATO's action as a salutary reminder to those who say that countries should only use military force when it has been sanctioned by the UN. When the perceived interests of one of the permanent members of the Security Council are threatened, their veto will make it impossible to get UN approval. Ultimately countries must act on the basis of what they see as right and wrong, irrespective of what other countiries might think. Calling wars legal and illegal is largely meaningless.


I don't see NATO as a reactionary imperial power. I see it as an important alliance to protect the mutual security of its members. It is a good thing. However, it is only good to the extent that it sticks to its founding purpose, and that is why I criticize it when it goes beyond its purpose. I fully agree that NATO is in danger of becoming an organization by which US and others (including, sadly, the UK) try to impose their will on countries and regimes they don't like by use of aggressive force. I would like to believe that Afghanistan and Libya are abberations that NATO will learn from and not repeat. But time will tell, and I suspect Iran will be the next test. If NATO continues to go beyond its purpose, I believe it would be better to withdraw from it, or not seek to join it.

But if that happened, we would need to form another alliance to do the job for which NATO was set up. Perhaps the EU might form the basis of such an alliance. However I would not be over-critical of the US, for we need to bear in mind that their contribution to NATO more than outweighs the contribution of all the other members put together. We should be grateful to them for that, but I think we need to move on to a more equal relationship. If the countries of Europe made a greater contribution to NATO it would not only be fair and right in itself, but would also change the balance of power within NATO and lessen the chance of it being used as an organization to pursue US interests that go beyond NATO's purpose.


I also think you are underestimating the importance of defence. The risk of attack from any particular direction or by any particular country might be low, very low, but we have to maintain the capacity to resist it and we have to ceaselessly monitor and patrol the areas from which an attack against us might come. In Scotland's case, not being part of NATO would leave a rather large unprotected flank in Europe's collective defences. In strategic terms, that could not be left unfilled.

glynbeddau said...

I don't think Scotland should join NATO as its currently constructed and the Irish Republic don,t seem to concerned about not being a member.

But surely the question is . Should Scotland have the right to decide themselves whether to join NATO rather than have it decided for them by Westminster?

MH said...

You're quite right, Glyn. It isn't a once-and-for-all decision to be made when Scotland becomes independent. Any member could choose to withdraw if that's what its government wanted, and any non-member could apply to join if that's what its government wanted. The current debate is about what the SNP's policy should be. What actually happens in an independent Scotland will depend on what the government they elect decides to do.

However, as with EU membership, there is a question to be asked about whether Scotland is in unless it chooses to pull out, or out until/unless it applies to join. No-one is making any definitive statements on that as yet.

But because the SNP government will be handling the negotiations between the referendum in 2014 and the expected date of formal independence (perhaps May 2016, since that coincides with the date for the next elections to the Scottish Parliament, though I suspect it might be 1 January 2016, because the EU works on a six monthly cycle and because it gives the current government the opportunity to make appointments such as ambassadors and representatives) where they stand on the issue might well determine whether they start by being in or out.

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