A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Adam Balcer and Krzysztof BluszHead of the Euroasia Project at WiseEuropa and vice president of WiseEuropa
Britain’s exit from the EU, regardless of when and how it will play out, is not good for NATO.
The likely turbulences in the EU that may follow Brexit will preoccupy NATO’s European members with their internal problems and distract the alliance from being an engaged security provider in Europe’s neighborhood. The UK may become particularly unfocused due to a looming perspective of Scotland’s secession and an uncertain future for Northern Ireland. If the economic consequences of Brexit make the new British government backtrack on its 2015 pledge to spare defense from its austerity policy, the situation will become even more complicated. The Kremlin will not miss a chance to pursue its tactics of divide and rule vis-à-vis the Europeans and will hastily increase its anti-NATO capabilities in Europe.
NATO will need to promptly reenvision its role in the European security architecture. The key concern will be the future of the 2010 Lancaster House treaties anchoring French-British military cooperation. The two countries are the European NATO members with the largest military firepower and the most developed bilateral cooperation in Europe—between politicians, generals, and industrialists. The pair used to be seen as an engine of the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy, which, without the UK, is now set to become a distant if not impossible dream. NATO’s responsibility for European security will immensely increase in the coming years.
Ian BondDirector of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform
In itself, Brexit is certainly bad for NATO. One of the most militarily capable and pro-NATO European powers is leaving the EU just at the moment when the union and NATO are starting to work together systematically. The EU’s new global strategy, presented in June, accepts the vital role that NATO plays and recognizes the need for Europe to do more for its own defense if it is to have “a healthy transatlantic partnership with the United States.”
Brexit risks weakening NATO in two ways. First, there are some officials in France and elsewhere who are more interested in Europe’s strategic autonomy than in real defensive capability and will welcome the fact that the UK can no longer obstruct their plans; that would risk a schism in NATO. Second, the UK itself may become more isolationist and less militarily engaged as it struggles with economic and constitutional problems resulting from Brexit.
There is a chance that the damage to NATO could be limited, however, provided that EU and NATO leaders can ensure that Britain does not turn in on itself and that it continues to contribute its considerable military and diplomatic assets to European security. They should start work at the July 8–9 NATO summit in Warsaw.
Ian BremmerPresident of Eurasia Group
Britain’s exit from the EU is bad for NATO. It maximally distracts and disunites America’s allies, who were already very different in their levels of commitment to the alliance. Brexit is a boon to Russia for the same reason—sowing divisions.
A contentious negotiating period between London and Brussels risks creating deep acrimony among the Europeans and less willingness to work together on any collective endeavor—NATO or otherwise. There’s no good news here.
Frances BurwellVice president for European Union and special initiatives at the Atlantic Council
At the July 8–9 NATO summit, much will be heard about the strength of the alliance, despite the British vote to leave the European Union. Some will claim that with a weakened EU, NATO must be made stronger, given the need to include Britain and reinforce the transatlantic bond. This is all true in the short term. But as Brexit negotiations begin—and uncertainties over the process persist—NATO will likely suffer from some of the fallout, just as does a child of divorce. Three elements will be especially problematic.
First, the UK is already discovering the economic consequences of its decision, and recession looks like a real possibility. The British defense budget, just starting to turn around from previous cuts, could find itself a target again.
Second, Russian President Vladimir Putin will assume that Europe is much weaker and more vulnerable. He will be encouraged to stimulate more dissension across the continent, and NATO is ill-equipped to respond to a political offensive.
Third, as EU-UK negotiations proceed, they will absorb tremendous time and energy from Europe’s already challenged leadership. Any promises of renewed focus on defense will be swept away as EU leaders concentrate on the terms of a difficult, complicated divorce.
Ivo DaalderPresident of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former U.S. ambassador to NATO
Britain’s exit from the EU poses the biggest challenge to the European project since its founding in the aftermath of Europe’s most destructive war, so it can hardly be a good thing for NATO, which has provided the security foundation for the project over the past sixty-five years. A strong Britain, in a strong Europe, is what Europe and NATO need. An inward-looking Britain and an inward-looking Europe, focused increasingly on national rather than Europe-wide concerns, are bad for Europe and bad for NATO.
These are the verities that the Brexit debate mostly ignored. And they are no less true now that Britons have voted to leave the EU. The question now is how to minimize the damage that Brexit has done. And here NATO can help. It is an instrument that can keep Britain at the political center of Europe, just as it keeps the United States and Canada tied to the core of Europe.
Stronger ties between the EU and NATO are now more important than ever. A strong EU and a strong NATO can go hand in hand; and Britain can be committed to both. The question is whether Britain, those who remain in the EU, and the United States are willing and able to build a stronger relationship between the two.
John R. DeniResearch professor of national security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College
In the short run, Britain’s exit from the EU will have little impact on NATO. In the long run, though, there is strong evidence to suggest that Brexit will negatively affect the alliance. There is reason to believe that the United Kingdom will not remain united for very long, as it enters a period of political and economic disarray. Scottish independence and the economic slump that seem certain to follow a withdrawal from the EU will very likely mean a diminished Britain, one that lacks the ability and, ultimately, the will to project force across time and distance.
Subsequently, this means NATO is likely to lose one of its three or four second-tier military powers—France, Germany, and perhaps Italy being the others—that have formed the backbone of major alliance military operations over the last quarter century, from the Western Balkans to Afghanistan. Imagine a post-Brexit rump UK—with a smaller defense budget, a less capable military, and reduced manpower—trying to achieve all that London did in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. This will be unlikely in the extreme, consequently diminishing NATO’s ability to conduct major military operations in Europe and beyond.
Karl-Heinz KampPresident of the Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin
Nothing that weakens the European Union is good for NATO. The zero-sum reasoning of the old beauty contest between NATO and EU—a view that was long cultivated in Washington and Paris—is fortunately over. Instead, Russia’s aggressive policies in the East and the turmoil caused by Islamist violence in the South require closer cooperation between the two organizations. It seemed that this insight was gradually gaining ground in capitals on both sides of the Atlantic, with NATO-EU cooperation becoming increasingly possible.
In that sense, the British exit from the EU is bad in every respect. It is definitively bad for the United Kingdom; this is why its prominent proponents are now starting to sneak away from taking responsibility for what they ignited. It is also bad for the European Union, which is losing one of its strongest and most pragmatic members. Finally, it is bad for NATO, even if Brexit has no immediate impact on alliance policies. NATO will lack the engagement of a key ally that is likely to spin around on itself for the coming two or three years. London will devote disproportionate time and energy to the management of leaving the EU—energy that would be urgently needed to cope with today’s security challenges.
This contribution reflects the personal opinion of the author.
John LoughAssociate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House
Yes and no. Britain’s exit from the EU reestablishes NATO as the single platform for managing European security. This will probably encourage greater cohesion among NATO member states, at least in the short term.
The absence of the UK from EU efforts to establish greater defense capacity is, however, a double-edged sword. Preserving NATO’s cohesion and operational effectiveness rests heavily on the United States. Washington has signaled in recent years that it not only expects Europe to invest more financially in defense but also wishes to see the EU play a more prominent role as a crisis manager and reduce its reliance on the United States. Washington’s desire for Europe to take the lead on stabilizing Ukraine is a clear example.
On the plus side, Brexit is going to force a rethink of previous assumptions about the EU’s ability to be an effective security and defense player. Clearly, with the loss of the UK, the union’s military and diplomatic capabilities are severely diminished. The obvious solution will be the creation within NATO of greater capacity for ad hoc European-led coalitions that do not come under the authority of the EU. However, it is far from clear that France and Germany will want to go down this path.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
There are two answers to this question, one factual, one speculative.
The factual answer is that the UK’s membership of NATO is in no way related to its EU membership, so leaving the latter will not affect the former. The UK has been a very active member of NATO and has provided troops and assets to major operations such as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014 or the operation over Libya in 2011 (Operation Ellamy, in the British Army’s terminology), and will continue to do so. The British government officially describes NATO as “the bedrock of the UK’s defence.”
The speculative answer is that Brexit may achieve two contradictory outcomes regarding NATO and the EU’s military capabilities. In a first phase, it is likely to reinforce London’s narrative that NATO represents the core of Europe’s defense, therefore leaving no room for an EU military architecture. In the longer term, assuming Brexit actually takes place and leads to some sort of reinforcement of key EU policies, the absence of the UK might leave more room for a debate on an EU defense policy. The exact delineation of such a potential development depends on the course the 27 remaining EU member states after Brexit will want to chart for themselves. The least one can say at this stage is that leaders are not at one on the subject.
James RogersDirector of the Department of Political and Strategic Studies at the Baltic Defence College and senior editor of European Geostrategy
Nobody really knows how Britain’s exit from the EU will affect the UK—or the rest of Europe. What we do know is that since before NATO was even formally construed, the UK has played the leading European role in founding and maintaining the alliance. By providing the intellectual rationale for NATO; by initiating the Dunkirk and Brussels treaties, which extended UK security guarantees to France and the Low Countries; by offering a robust military commitment, both conventional and nuclear; and by strongly supporting enlargement, the UK has always led from the front. NATO is hardwired into the British geostrategic DNA, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon, irrespective of Brexit.
Politically, unless the UK turns in on itself, London will likely—or at least should, if it is still capable of strategic thinking—throw its full weight behind NATO to compensate for Brexit. This would of course be good for NATO. The issue then becomes: How will Brexit impact the UK economically? If the economy nose-dives, especially in the longer term, London may continue to support NATO politically but may increasingly lack the means to underpin it. However, if there is a temporary blip and the economy recovers, or even surges in the longer term, British military resources will be available, perhaps in increasing numbers, to undergird NATO.
The author writes here strictly in a personal capacity.
Ulrich SpeckSenior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy
A British exit from the EU, if it happens, will weaken the union. The EU will lose a major European country, and finding consensus among the 27 remaining member states will by no means become easier. However, what weakens the EU also weakens NATO as the two are complementary organizations.
NATO is the transatlantic security pact that provided the safe space for European integration to develop during the Cold War. And it has done the same for Central Europe, allowing the EU enlargements that have taken place since the 1990s.
But the relationship is not a one-way street. The EU links European nation-states together in a dense web of interconnection. Governments are in constant interaction and are used to discussing every important issue and finding compromises that are acceptable to all.
Without the habit of cooperating in the EU, it would be harder to find common ground in NATO. If Britain moves out of the EU, cooperation between continental European NATO member states and the UK might become more difficult. Even more so if the divorce turns ugly, which might well happen.