Shadow Government

Post-Brexit Defense Policy

An analysis of Brexit's impact on U.S. defense capabilities.

TOPSHOT - Leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage (C) speaks during a press conference near the Houses of Parliament in central London on June 24, 2016.
Britain has voted to leave the European Union by 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent, final results from all 382 of Britain's local counting centres showed on Friday. / AFP / GLYN KIRK        (Photo credit should read GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage (C) speaks during a press conference near the Houses of Parliament in central London on June 24, 2016. Britain has voted to leave the European Union by 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent, final results from all 382 of Britain's local counting centres showed on Friday. / AFP / GLYN KIRK (Photo credit should read GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

Europeans often grumble that American presidential elections are unrepresentative: despite being so much affected by U.S. policies, they have no vote in our elections. Yesterday, that argument was reversed. Americans will be greatly affected by a decision they were not party to making. That is actually a rarity for the only country powerful enough to generally shield itself from the consequences of other states’ actions.

Britain was the major force preventing the EU from being a protectionist bloc that (further) diminished economic growth.  While other EU countries (notably Sweden, Finland, and Denmark) share Britain’s economic sensibilities, they are not weighty enough even in concert to sustain that line in a post-Britain EU. Not only is the transatlantic trade treaty probably dead, but prepare for much greater friction over American tech companies, imposition of costly labor standards, and tax rules.

But it may be in defense and foreign policy that Britain’s departure from the European Union has the greatest effect. The drop in the value of the British pound has created turmoil in markets; if it is sustained, it will send (as so many economists forecast) Britain into a recession that could be of long duration. That will certainly affect funds available for defense. The Strategic Defense and Security Review took near-term cuts on the expectation of greater spending in 2017. That is surely improbable now. The Cameron government had protected foreign assistance from any cuts, and that, too, is probably over.  So less money available across the board for defense, foreign aid, and intelligence.

Britain also prevented the EU from undertaking policies detrimental to transatlantic cooperation on intelligence; as the only European country in the “Five Eyes” collective, Britain knew what the United States knew about threats and capabilities and could veto EU policies. Anglosphere cooperation will look more foreign to Europeans now. That may result in France being formally invited in, but it could just as easily result in EU policies hostile to data collection, means of analysis, and actions taken by Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Later this year, the British government will need to determine whether to proceed with manufacture of a replacement for the submarines that carry its nuclear weapons. Britain’s submarine bases are in Scotland. In the aftermath of Britain leaving the EU, Scotland is sure to hold another referendum, and it will likely pass: faced with leaving the EU or leaving the United Kingdom, Scots will likely leave the UK. An independent Scotland may choose a long-term lease of bases on its territory; whether that is an adequate commitment for stationing the ultimate guarantee of Britain’s defense will be a hard call.

Cost has also been a major issue in the debate over whether to maintain a sea-based deterrent (a land-based nuclear force, in addition to being more vulnerable to attack, is not under consideration). The 31-billion pound sterling cost estimate in the government’s 2015 Strategic Defense and Security Review is predicated on use of current bases. At a minimum, Scotland’s independence will increase the cost associated with the British nuclear deterrent, and may call the decision into question.

It could be the case that Britain, feeling isolated outside the EU, embraces its nuclear deterrent as part of an independent posture toward the world. Based on the tenor of discussion in and over the BBC docudrama about whether to use its nuclear force, the trend in Britain is away from the logic of nuclear deterrence.

International institutions, long an effective means for Britain to punch above its weight, are likely to get a heavy dose of British activism, which may be good for NATO, the IMF, and U.N. But Britain will probably be less able to deliver European support for its initiatives from outside the EU caucus.

Not only will Britain likely be a weaker ally in the aftermath of Brexit, but Europe will also be feebler. Britain kept a strategic outlook and operational reflexes in the EU. France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and several other EU countries are likewise serious about the use of force to protect and advance western interests. But for all the furor during the British campaign about the specter of a European army, that is more likely with Britain out of the EU. Americans could be blase about the notion when Britain had a veto; now those who aspire to EU greatness might well create operational headquarters and exclude NATO participation in a demonstration that the EU can act militarily without Britain.

Our European allies — including Britain — are about to be much less willing and much less able to help us shape and police the international order.

Photo Credit: GLYN KIRK / Stringer

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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