Much has been written about the British vote to leave the European Union and its wider implications. It is perhaps the UK’s most important strategic decision in a generation or more. However, concrete predictions and forecasts about the post-Brexit future are still confined to the realm of uncertainty and speculation. This is particularly true for the twin themes of British access to the EU’s single market and EU immigration into the UK, which will dominate the Brexit agenda for the foreseeable future. Yet, as a recent roundtable on the security and defence implications of Brexit at the Joint Services Command and Staff College has shown, uncertainty is also the dominant feature in less central areas. In short, even leading security and defence experts cannot be sure about what is going to happen in their areas of expertise. The future EU-UK relationship may not be as complex in security and defence matters as it is in the economic and commercial field. After all, European security and defence integration is not particularly deep, as I argued already before the referendum. But it is contingent upon uncontrollable factors in other areas. For instance, EU-UK cooperation in defence procurement is dependent upon the type of access the UK gains to the EU’s single market, as Prof Matthew Uttley pointed out during the roundtable. It may even be influenced by the way President Putin of Russia is able to exploit the post-Brexit situation, as Dr Tracey German warned during the same event. The good news is that none of the roundtable participants expected a worst case scenario for EU-UK relations in matters of security and defence, although such a scenario certainly remains a possibility. Prof Luis Simon emphasized that the UK will remain a major political and military power even outside the EU. And Prof Malcolm Chalmers highlighted that the UK will remain a member of NATO, Europe’s most important defence organization. A completely different question is, of course, if the EU or Britain will actually gain any security and defence benefits from Brexit. And there were few, if any, positive answers to this question.
It could be argued that the most likely – or as some would argue, the most desirable – outcome of Brexit is no or only very little change of the current state of affair of European security, at least in terms of hard power. Although Prof Uttley cautioned that there is the possibility that a weaker pound means that the UK can buy less military hardware abroad, especially in the United States, the capabilities and structure of the armed forces in both the UK and the remaining EU member states will be largely unaffected by Brexit. Other classical power attributes such as population, geopolitical location or GDP will also remain by and large the same after Brexit. Likewise, European nations will retain their power to coerce other actors on the world stage, in particular if the UK joins the other EU member states in coercive actions such as imposing sanctions. However, the roundtable at the Joint Services Command and Staff College drew the audience’s attention to another, perhaps even more important form of power, namely soft power or, citing its standard definition, ‘getting others to want the outcomes that you want’. According to Joe Nye, who coined the term at the beginning of the 1990s, ‘The soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority)’.
While British culture may change only very slowly after Brexit, it are the UK’s political values and foreign policies where Brexit may have its most immediate impact. In the eyes of other nations, leaving the European Union is a sign that the UK is going to be more inward-looking and less committed to advanced forms of international cooperation. Perhaps quite tellingly Theresa May is the first Home Secretary to move straight into 10 Downing Street since Lord Palmerston in the 19th century. What is also clear from the magnitude of the Brexit decision is that – paradoxically – the UK’s relation with the EU will be at the centre stage of British foreign policy for years to come. In other words, even though the UK may want to re-emphasize its traditional political values of an open, outward-looking power committed to international cooperation by re-enforcing its ties with the United Nations, the Commonwealth and other international institutions, the necessary resources to do so will be absorbed by the more pressing need to implement Brexit, especially if it takes the form of a ‘hard Brexit’ that will sever the ties between Britain and the UK in a more profound way. So, despite the difficulty to gauge the exact knock-on effects of these developments, it is very likely that in a world of growing political populism other nations may want to follow the British example to withdraw from international organizations and re-nationalize their foreign and security policies. This, however, would certainly not be in the long-term national interest of the United Kingdom, as it depends for its own security on an open international system based on cooperation. In fact, such developments would be an ironic – and tragic – effect of its soft power: getting others to want the outcomes that the UK does not want by following the UK’s lead. In short, although we will always have NATO, as the Brexiteers (rightly) highlight, it are the intangible, hard-to-predict factors that we have to watch out for in the long-term.
Image via public domain pictures.