If Britain Is to Leave the EU, London Must Double-Down on NATO

British Royal marine commandos take part in Operation Sond Chara, the clearance of Nad-e Ali District of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan by Afghan national security force and troops deployed with the International Security Assistance Force 42-Commando in late December.

If defense spending continues to drop, how long can the UK lead?

In his first interview since being elected chairman of the NATO military committee, the UK’s Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach attempted to promote the centrality of the military alliance to European defense, stating the European powers should not attempt to duplicate NATO efforts. His comments come at a time of deep geopolitical uncertainty, with threats from within and threats from without rocking the once-solid Western alliance. Domestically, they also come as the UK MOD attempts a review of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. Inside the Western alliance, a number of rifts have opened up between those states moved by 2016 populism (i.e., post-referendum London and post-Trump Washington), and those continentalists who wish to double-down on the European Union project (i.e., French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel). Inevitably, this raises a number of critical questions about Britain’s role as a military power, the future of its influence inside NATO, and the overall effect its leadership will have for the Western alliance.

The Western alliance has long been cushioned from external threats by its strong economic leadership, its liberal-democratic philosophical foundations, and its formidable military technological advantages. One by one, these three pillars of Western strength have been weakened or seriously undermined. In the first instance, the Financial Crisis of 2007–08 came about because of poor regulations, hubris and large amounts of Chinese liquidity in the international markets. In the second instance, the very success of globalization—the internationalization of capital and labor—came with a hidden barb. In the wake of two decades of the offshoring of manufacturing and the import of cheap labor, Western working classes have run to elect populist leaders and far-left parties in order to punish the “Davos set.” The final pillar of military technological advantages has fallen prey to complacency and the inability of political leadership—notably in the European part of the West—to argue for a defense spending proportional to the declining security environment.

This declining threat environment is no longer a matter of debate as it was a decade ago. No longer concerned with “failed states,” the West has other, more pressing concerns on its western and southern borders, including Russian revanchism, refugee flows and ISIS-organized attacks within the West. The recent decision by Sweden to conduct joint military exercises with American and French armed forces earlier this month—in the wake of a large Russian exercise—signals the return to a Russia seemingly hungry for prestige and for a sphere of influence. Given its willingness to attack Western democracies at the ballot box, it has become clear that Russia poses a unique and singular threat to Europe. Despite these very real threats, the West continues to suffer from a lack of internal cohesion. Expressing a sense of European disenchantment with both the United States and the United Kingdom, Chancellor Merkel recently proclaimed, “The times in which we [Europeans] can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days.” While Germany’s frustrations are somewhat unfair—given its shoddy record on the 2 percent rule—it does mark a dangerous trend toward fragmentation in one of the world’s most long-lasting and successful alliances.

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