Britain is about to have more money and manpower to pour into the West’s military alliance -- and more motivation to do so.
The people have spoken, and United Kingdom will leave the European Union. The United States and Europe will be confronted with a raft of bad news that goes along with that decision: economic turmoil, a faltering British economy, a deeply weakened political entity in the European Union itself, the high chance of a Scottish departure from the UK, to name just a few of the challenges. The political and economic institutions of the West all seem worse off than they were just 24 hours ago.
The sole exception might be the military. Brexit, counter-intuitive as it might sound, will likely produce a stronger NATO.
There are several reasons that the British departure from the EU portends a stronger transatlantic military alliance. First is the present state of heightened wariness among all NATO member states – and that includes EU members, as well as the United States, Canada, Norway, and Turkey — about adventurism by Putin’s Russia. The Kremlin’s goal has always been to be the strongest political entity on the continent, and it is likely to look for ways to further exploit the Brexit referendum’s centrifugal effects on the already fractious democracies of western Europe. Since its founding, NATO has provided the most resolute military balance against such efforts, and thus its stock can be expected to rise with publics in Europe.
Second, with the withdrawal from the European Union, the military of the UK will have more resources and manpower to support NATO. Much like Norway – a strong European economy that is not an EU member but a staunch member of NATO – the United Kingdom will have additional ships, troops, and aircraft to deploy on NATO missions because they will not have to support EU military efforts such as the counter-piracy operations off the coast of East Africa or EU missions in the Balkans. They will be able to assign more and higher caliber officers and troops to NATO billets in the Alliance’s command structure – at the moment, many are “dual hatted” into EU and NATO billets or are in EU military structures.
A third benefit for NATO will be a reduction in the quiet, but real, battlefield competition between NATO and the EU. Consider the respective anti-piracy military missions conducted off the coast of Africa for the past several years by the EU and NATO. Each has had different strategic priorities, with the EU working the “soft power” side of the equation more diligently than NATO. This competition has also manifested in Afghanistan and the Balkans, where both organizations over time have had different missions and priorities. Since the UK will no longer be obligated to support EU missions, its military will be able to focus solely on their work within the NATO alliance. And, given that European military efforts will be greatly diminished by the loss of British military muscle, the EU can be expected to defer to NATO more frequently. That will result in an increase in NATO’s workload, but also its effectiveness.
Finally, a new British government will presumably be a very motivated NATO partner. Now that it has chosen to become a relatively marginal economic player on the international stage, it will have to look for new ways to demonstrate value in its partnership with the United States if it hopes to maintain anything like the “special relationship” it has become accustomed to (and dependent on). Britain will no doubt calculate that continuing or improving its good work in NATO – where it has always been strong to begin with – will be an important show of good faith.
All of these military advantages are largely tactical, of course, and can’t be counted on to provide permanent, or long-term, strategic benefits. Indeed, it’s hard to predict how the political crisis in Europe will develop from here. There is still a looming possibility of a more widespread dissolution of the European Union, which could sow the seeds of real conflict and acrimony on the continent for the first time in a generation. And those conflicts can easily draw in the United States, as the previous century’s two world wars did. The EU has been a major part of helping keep the peace in Europe for decades. If it falls apart, the geopolitical tensions will be significant.
That raises the question of how Washington should adjust its security policies in the coming weeks. First, the United States should do all it can to reassure the rest of the EU that it still values their partnership and good work diplomatically and militarily. There are missions the EU has done quite well in the Balkans, Somalia, and Afghanistan, for example, that NATO would have been more hard-pressed to conduct. The French and Germans, who will continue the significant leadership role in the EU, should be clearly told that Washington intends to continue partnering with them on military and security matters.
In the case of Great Britain, Washington should do all it can to welcome greater involvement in NATO, as well as build strong bilateral military programs, continue with intelligence and information sharing, and partner with them across the spectrum of military activity. On the economic side, the United States needs to help the Brits construct a “Norway-like” relationship with the EU – a process that will involve encouraging the EU toward the same goal. The United States should also help Britain generally weather the economic storm the referendum will probably unleash upon its financial markets and broader economy. That should include beginning to think about a U.S.-U.K. free trade association.
There’s no doubt that we have entered a difficult era for the international system, politically, economically, and militarily. The ill effects will take several years to fully play out. But NATO stands ready, stronger probably than it was before, to help mitigate the pain.
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