Arthur I. Cyr: Britain, the European Union and our national security
“Spooked by Brexit, Mr. Bond?” That is the caption under a photograph of actor Daniel Craig, the current James Bond, pistol in hand, looking concerned. The picture appeared in a May 2016 issue of “The Economist,” the influential weekly published in London.
The illustration is in an article on defense and security implications of departing from the European Union (EU). Brexit is the shorthand term for Britain leaving the EU. Pro-Brexit supporters had just narrowly won a referendum.
In real life, current developments underscore both the image and the reality of this important “Economist” analysis. On Oct. 20, hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors marched through London to Parliament to demand a second referendum to approve any Brexit decision.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s government struggles in internal division and external disagreement with EU officials over Brexit. Nevertheless, she remains firmly committed to separating from Europe.
Meanwhile, with vastly less media attention, on Oct. 19, Sir John Sawers delivered an important speech. He is former chief of MI6, the secret government agency responsible for the foreign security of the nation.
Sir John spoke at a lunch sponsored by the Edward Heath Charitable Foundation, named for the prime minister who worked for years successfully to bring the United Kingdom — Britain plus Northern Ireland — into the European Economic Community, predecessor to the current EU.
The event was in Salisbury, scene of a vicious poison attack in March by Russian agents on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. Sir John bluntly stated the Brexit controversy weakens Britain: “I don’t believe Russia would have used a nerve agent on the streets of an American or a German city.” They would have feared the consequences.
He argued Britain’s isolation, by contrast, invites attack. Withdrawal from Europe is occurring simultaneously with growing distance from Washington, thanks to the United States government “stepping back from its enlightened leadership in the world.” Sir John criticized U.S. officials in harsh, devastating terms for abandonment of past leadership.
While media and political commentary about Brexit focuses almost exclusively on economic dimensions, there are significant security implications as well. The EU facilitates defense collaboration among members. The organization has undertaken limited military missions, ranging as far beyond Europe as Indonesia.
Departure of Britain from formal EU membership would create pressures to reemphasize NATO and transatlantic cooperation more generally. In that regard, there may be opportunities.
After World War II, Britain played an important role in effecting military as well as economic partnership among European powers. London and Washington led in developing transatlantic ties.
The British approach to foreign policy favors evolution and incrementalism, while Americans at times demonstrate dramatic shifts and reversals in policy. The British have given extremely high priority to human intelligence, using people rather than impersonal electronic means, again in contrast to the U.S.
NATO provides a durable structure for defense cooperation, including in the field of intelligence. Additionally, there is the informal but important “Five Eyes” intelligence network, which includes Australia, Canada and New Zealand along with the United Kingdom and the United States. Closer cooperation among full-time working level professionals is highly desirable.
Both Britain and Ireland are EU members, but Ireland is strongly neutral regarding NATO. Brexit could close the open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, in turn sparking renewed violence between Catholics and Protestants.
The best result overall would be for Britain to remain in the EU. Those demonstrators deserve thanks.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact email@example.com.