Scottish Independence Is a Security Problem for the United States

U.S. President Joe Biden should use his voice to persuade Scots to stay with the United Kingdom.

By Azeem Ibrahim, a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC.
A man dressed in a kilt waves the Scottish flag and the flag of the European Union in Edinburgh, Scotland, on July 14, 2018.
A man dressed in a kilt waves the Scottish flag and the flag of the European Union in Edinburgh, Scotland, on July 14, 2018. Jeff Mitchell/Getty Images

Scottish politics in recent years has been consistently volatile, moving back and forth between scandals of incompetence, scandals of corruption, and even criminal scandals among its most prominent political figures. Yet throughout all that turmoil, the pivotal political question for the country remains whether to seek independence from the United Kingdom.

All that domestic turmoil, however, risks obscuring the most consequential aspect of Scottish independence—that it would be a geopolitical disaster for the United Kingdom, the United States, and Scotland itself. Scottish independence would effectively neutralize the U.K.’s military and diplomatic power on the global arena and deprive the United States of one of its most pivotal allies, an ally that remains a critical pillar of the United States’ defense structure.

Were Scotland to leave the United Kingdom, the U.K. would find its nuclear deterrent in disarray because Faslane, the royal naval base where the Trident nuclear submarines are located, is in Scotland. The Scottish National Party (SNP) is committed to decommissioning this base if Scotland becomes independent, and there is no location along the coast of England that is as well suited for a replacement base.

At the same time, the U.K. heartland on the island of Great Britain would become contestable territory should Scotland find alliances with powers that are hostile to the U.K. and the United States. To be sure, the prospect of Paris and Edinburgh joining together in the Auld Alliance is no longer the threat it once was. But small, desperate countries can have surprisingly radical politics, as Scotland has already shown.

Shortly afterward, the U.K.’s role and position in the global institutional order would be questioned. The U.K.’s permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council could be fiercely and credibly challenged by hostile incumbent members like Russia or emergent powers like India. And while the United Kingdom would be busy reorganizing its entire defense posture and capacity to reflect its new circumstances, its capacity to project any kind of military or diplomatic power internationally to resist any of these developments would be virtually nonexistent. Think of the effort that Brexit has taken, consuming the U.K.’s energy for years, and then multiple that many times over.

For its part, Scotland will find itself in an even more precarious position both strategically and fiscally. Thanks to its thinly distributed, and thus expensive, population, about 9 percent of Scottish public spending is directly subsidized by the U.K. government. With that subsidy gone, not only would Scotland struggle to quickly build its own defense infrastructure, but it would also need to look to just about any international partner possible for funding and investment to plug the gap and stem a likely political backlash against the SNP.

This vulnerability is extremely likely to serve as an opportunity for countries hostile to the United Kingdom and the United States, such as China and Russia, to come in and purchase influence and leverage with hard cash. This is not merely academic speculation. The SNP already has uncomfortably close ties to the Kremlin; former leader of the SNP Alex Salmond, effectively the father of the modern independence movement in Scotland who is embroiled in the current power struggle inside the party, has long had a political TV show air on RT, one of Moscow’s main propaganda outlets, while English-language Sputnik Radio is also headquartered in Edinburgh.

This should not be a surprise to anyone: The Kremlin will fund and signal-boost anyone who would undermine the strength of the Western alliance, from Scotland to Catalonia to any and every nationalist political force in Europe that is opposed to Washington and the European Union. Such ties are particularly visible with Scottish nationalists. At the very least, it means that the first government of an independent Scotland will already have a much more established relationship with Moscow than to Washington. That alone should set the alarms ringing in the White House.

And where the Kremlin already has political ties, China will be coming in with the money, capable of outbidding everyone else on that front and with an already established and refined method for checkbook diplomacy designed to ensnare its “trade partners” and bend them to Beijing’s geopolitical designs. If China were to fund and build a major port in Scotland as it did in Sri Lanka and Djibouti, that would already be a critical hole in the United States’ North Atlantic defense umbrella.

Could the United States move in as both Scotland’s and the remaining U.K.’s closest partner? Absolutely. And the remaining U.K. would need Washington’s backup by default—while also being able to offer precious little in return. But in Scotland, this would be an uphill battle. On top of preexisting ties to the Kremlin, Washington’s closeness to London would be regarded as suspicious. Culturally, Scotland leans much more toward the European social democratic model than the Anglo-Saxon political and economic model, so there would be inherent resistance to real and perceived expectations of the United States from a close economic relationship. Moreover, it seems extremely unlikely that the United States would, or indeed could, from a political point of view offer direct monetary benefits in the way China would.

For these reasons, mitigating the consequences of independence once it has already happened will be an extremely difficult and costly task. And that is why the independence scenario is a lose-lose scenario for everyone: Washington, London, and the people of Scotland themselves. It will only serve as an opportunity for Moscow and Beijing. And Moscow and Beijing are only interested in opportunities that will exclusively serve their own interests, not the interests of anyone in Scotland or anyone in the wider Western world.

From Washington’s point of view, the time and resources that would be absorbed by efforts to mitigate the geopolitical effects of Scottish independence have every chance to entirely derail what Washington really needs to be doing instead: rebuild the Western alliance after damage wrought by the Trump years.

U.S. President Joe Biden is already keenly aware of the importance of this project.

U.S. President Joe Biden is already keenly aware of the importance of this project. U.S. global power is in a downward spiral due to the unravelling post-World War II U.S. system of alliances, with consequences not just for U.S. interests but also its security. From climate change to global proliferation of political instability and consequent waves of mass migration, the consequences of the last decade’s lapse in U.S. leadership have been most visible in the Old World, yes, but they have already started washing up on U.S. shores in significant ways.

The only way to stem the tide of chaos borne of the global power vacuum left by former U.S. President Donald Trump is for the United States to rebuild a new, and hopefully improved, global rules-based order, guaranteed, once again, by U.S. military might and sustained by the U.S.-led network of alliances that have held the free world together since World War II.

The United Kingdom, in its current form, has been a crucial node in that network of alliances from the very beginning, and it remains such to this day. It is the only major ally that has remained unwaveringly devoted to this model of the world throughout the Trump years and as other traditional allies like the Europeans, the Japanese, and even Israel have begun to see their own interests as moving further away from Washington. But the prospect of Scottish independence threatens to render the U.K. powerless and thus useless in this project of global reconstruction, precisely at this critical junction when it would be most needed.

This is why the Biden administration needs to keep a very close eye on what is happening with separatism tendencies in the U.K., more than perhaps anywhere else in the world. Due to his closeness to Ireland, Biden is already keenly observing the consequences of Brexit in Northern Ireland. And he has already made a very useful intervention in that issue, when, during the presidential campaign, he threatened to block a future trade deal with the U.K. if the U.K. left the EU in a way that threatened the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Ireland.

Biden and his administration need to be equally alive to the real and imminent threat emerging from Scotland. But Biden would have a pivotal advantage if he engages with the issue in person: Trump was loathed by the people of Scotland while Biden’s dedication to the Good Friday Agreement is widely known and respected. Biden would come to this conversation with a very large pool of credibility and political capital—and the Scottish people would give him a fair hearing. That can make all the difference for the future of Scotland, the United Kingdom, and the Western alliance.

Azeem Ibrahim is a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.
 Twitter: @azeemibrahim