Brexit or no Brexit, NATO must change

by Julian Lindley-French

November 14, 2017

Will Britain’s departure from the EU lead to the creation of an Anglosphere and a Eurosphere within NATO, or, perhaps, a U.S.-sphere and a German-sphere?

With all the hysteria over Brexit, little has been written about the strategic consequences of Britain’s pending split from the European Union, and even less about the impact Brexit could have on NATO. Brexit or no Brexit, NATO must change.

The once-dominant United States — still the only truly global power — is stretched thin the world over, with peer and not-so-peer competitors emerging to challenge its writ, at times and in places of their choosing, possibly in conjunction. At the very least, Europe (and Canada) will need to play a far stronger role in support of America’s global mission if they wish the Americans to continue to provide the central strut of European defence. In practice, that most likely will mean Europeans doing far more for their own defence.

And Britain? Sadly, since the 2016 EU referendum. Britain has become even more of a ‘Little Britain’. It’s strategic irresponsibility of the first order, given the threats Britain faces from Russia and Islamism. The sense of London’s exaggerated decline is reinforced by a train-crash defence policy that sees counter-terrorism massively funded at the expense of Britain’s conventional defence budget. The result is a British army that is smaller today than at any time since before the Napoleonic Wars. Consequently, Britain has sacrificed much of the strategic and political leverage its hitherto excellent armed forces have afforded London.

The EU is not much better, if at all. There is much talk in Brussels these days of a European Defence Union, of Europe’s new defence policy being achieved by deeper defence integration — something akin to the failed 1952-1954 European Defence Community.

But such integration would cost money to set up and would only ever create a shadow NATO — and few EU and NATO members seem willing to spend more money on defence, even when they say they do.

So, could NATO’s North American and European pillars be transformed into an Anglosphere and a Eurosphere? It certainly would be a neat political solution for a post-Brexit NATO. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the Alliance works — and there are challenges to such a formulation.

First, if the EU continues to drive for a hard post-Brexit relationship with the British, it may be increasingly difficult for any government in London to convince the British people that other Europeans are worth defending.

Second, it takes more than two to strategically tango. Would the United States, Canada and others such as Australia (and even, in time, India) entertain the idea of an Anglosphere?

Third, France is not going to abandon its strategic relationship with Britain, Brexit or no Brexit. Fourth, there will be a Brexit deal, and Britain’s continuing role in European defence will be part of it. Fifth … “Events, dear boy, events!”

But here’s the twist. Brexit or no Brexit, the pillars of NATO are shifting. The United States will demand more of its allies if Washington is to maintain a credible security and defence guarantee for Europe. The changing nature of conflict will tend to emphasize intelligence and power-projection, both of which play to Britain’s residual strengths.

As for Canada, it’s hard for an outsider to discern what Canadian defence policy is, apart from bumbling along in strategic suburbia while striving to be seen as the good neighbour. There is certainly no evidence Canada is preparing for future war. This is a mistake. NATO’s shifting pillars have had, and will have, profound implications for Canadian security and defence policy.

A formal Anglosphere and Eurosphere within NATO? Most likely not. A U.S.-sphere and German-sphere? Quite possibly, but don’t mention it in polite company. And Canada? Who knows?

Image credit: AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov

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