The SNP and NATO: Can they Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Bomb?

Dr. Daniel Kenealy, Academy of Government

Dr. Daniel Kenealy, Academy of Government

Writing in response to recent discussions of the future of an independent Scotland within or outwith NATO, the University of Edinburgh’s Dr. Dan Kenealy asks whether the SNP can overcome it’s historic opposition to the nuclear alliance and ‘learn to love the bomb’ and reflects upon NATO’s possible response to a Scottish application.

This week Alex Salmond went to the United States on a paradiplomatic mission to promote cultural and trade links (not to mention the idea of Scottish independence) under the badge ‘Scotland Week’. For those of us fascinated by the external and international dimensions of Scottish independence the week was most notable for stirring the issue of NATO membership. In Washington the First Minister stated that he was ‘certain’ that NATO would accept independent Scotland’s membership of the alliance.

Unlike the issue of EU membership it seems, from a careful reading of the statements put out over recent days, that NATO is generating some consensus. As far as I can see nobody is making the claim that Scotland would automatically continue/inherit NATO membership. Where views are conflicting is on the issue of how receptive NATO would be to membership for an independent Scotland. The discussion is not about process, but rather about politics.

Let’s consider the process. The issue is actually one of the simplest ones within the independence debate. While public international law is notoriously murky concerning state continuance and succession the overwhelming body of opinion, with which I agree, is that following independence the Remainder-of-the-UK (RUK) would be considered the continuator of the UK. Scotland would be a new state (or successor state to use the legal terminology). RUK would thus continue the UK’s membership of NATO unaffected. Scotland would be required to join as a new state. This seems very clear as a matter of international law.

NATO seems to be on the same page. An alliance spokesperson remarked:

It appears widely agreed that, as a matter of law, a Scotland which was declared its independence and thereby established its separate statehood would be viewed as a new state. A new state would not be a party to the North Atlantic treaty, and thus not a member of NATO. If it were to choose to apply for NATO membership, its application would be subject to the normal procedure, as outlined in Article 10 of the treaty.

The UK Ambassador in Washington, Sir Peter Westmacott, echoed the sentiment. An independent Scotland would thus need to signal its intention to join the alliance. The North Atlantic Council would have to decide, by consensus, to invite Scotland to join. Scotland would then go through a process, which may include drawing up a Membership Action Plan, the end point of which would be accession to the North Atlantic Treaty.

It remains an outstanding issue whether the North Atlantic Council, a body representing the 28 NATO member states, would begin to consider Scotland’s membership on the day of a Yes vote to independence, or only once an independent Scottish state had actually been constituted. If the Council opted for the former – the more pragmatic approach – then Scotland’s membership of NATO would to all intents and purposes continue seamlessly. If it opted for the latter – driven by a dogmatic belief that you have to be a fully constituted state (as opposed to a nascent one) before being considered for membership – then Scotland would be outside of NATO for at least a period of time. It is worth bearing in mind that, in international politics, pragmatism often wins the day.

The more fascinating element of the issue is the politics of it. Membership of NATO is not dispensed like candy. The alliance takes seriously the defence policy of a potential member, its military budget and capabilities, and its overall strategic stance. I do not want to dwell on the possible defence and military models that an independent Scotland might adopt. Suffice it to say that there is no reason, unless its government chose to, why an independent Scotland could not pass the Council’s scrutiny in terms of spending and capabilities.

But one issue remains and it looms very large. And that is the nuclear issue. NATO, for better or worse, is a nuclear alliance. Last year, at its annual conference in Perth, the SNP leadership succeeded in overturning the party’s long-standing opposition to NATO membership. Yet the change was won in a very narrow vote (fewer than 30 votes of 760 cast) and the issue of nuclear weapons remains divisive, not only within the SNP but in Scottish society broadly.

The move in Perth by the SNP leadership was a sign of the pragmatism that often animates their political strategy. It is also part of a broader strategy to persuade voters that independence need not be feared because so much of the international context in which Scotland is currently nested would remain the same: NATO, the EU, and so forth. Anything that undermines that, or causes uncertainty about that, is to the detriment of the Yes campaign.

Yet, while the SNP managed to orchestrate a U-turn on NATO membership they remain a party, and thus a government, committed to the removal of nuclear weapons from Scottish territory. Beyond that they remain opposed, in principle, to nuclear weapons. While the first issue might be fudged in a bid for NATO membership (Denmark and Norway both refuse to base nuclear weapons on their territory), the second issue may prove more difficult for the 28 alliance members to turn a blind eye to. Membership of NATO involves, as its former Secretary-General Lord Robertson has pointed out, acceptance of the strategic concept. Updated in 2010 the concept is clear on the issues of nuclear weapons:

‘It commits NATO to the goal of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons – but reconfirms that, as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance.’

The first part of this statement has been seized upon by the First Minister, but the second part is perhaps more important. It will only take one of the existing 28 members to take issue with Scotland’s anti-nuclear stance and things will get very tricky indeed.

There is a political deal to be done here and two sets of interests – those of the NATO alliance in aggregate and those of an independent Scotland – seem to be more convergent than divergent. Consider Scotland’s strategically important position, the likelihood that its defence and security arrangements would be closely linked with those of RUK, and the presence of strategic assets such as oil and gas in Scottish territorial waters and the case for NATO welcoming Scotland starts to become apparent. Consider Scotland’s need to ensure that its national security is defended collectively, as a small state facing an increasingly complex security environment, and the case for membership becomes apparent.

But in politics, entrenched negotiating positions and the power of long-held ideas can be the enemy of optimal decision-making. If an independent Scotland wished to remain coherent in its anti-nuclear issue it is hard to see how it can be a fully-functioning member of an alliance underpinned by the following notion: ‘the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategy nuclear forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States.’ One can go further and ask would an independent Scotland even allow nuclear submarines to navigate its territorial waters? It is also questionable to what extent NATO members will embrace the potentially disruptive removal of Trident from bases at Faslane and Coulport. Such a move could start Scotland off on the wrong foot, seeking entrance to an alliance while causing disruption to the nuclear deterrent of one its members.

The question I posed in my title, ‘Can they [the SNP] stop worrying and learn to love the bomb?’ can only be answered at present with ‘Almost certainly not’. The question for NATO members may thus become ‘Are you prepared to accept a fundamentally anti-nuclear state within your alliance?’ The answer to that question remains to be heard.

Daniel Kenealy is Deputy Director of the University of Edinburgh’s Academy of Government. He is a researcher in the Politics & International Relations subject area where he specialises in EU politics and International Relations.

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