Professor Michael E. Smith, the Chair of International Relations at the University of Aberdeen, is a man who it’s fair to say knows his onions when it comes to the politics of transatlantic defence. A native of the USA who describes himself as “increasingly intrigued about independence”, he’s written extensively on EU military and security policy, and also understands the internal machinations of NATO a touch better than plebs such as ourselves or even, dare we say it, Willie Rennie.
So we were extremely delighted when he agreed to give Wings Over Scotland an exclusive interview on the subject of an independent Scotland’s future relationship with the West’s main military alliance.
WINGS OVER SCOTLAND: There’s been a lot of talk about NATO not accepting an independent Scotland as a member if it insists on getting rid of Trident. How real a danger is that? Who actually needs who the most here?
PROF. MICHAEL E. SMITH: One thing to remember is that NATO is seeking a purpose, as you probably know. It needs to go out of area or out of business, as the saying goes. But a number of member states have a problem with that. So the Trident issue is kind of a diversion. Also, NATO does offer “second-class” membership in the form of partners, so Scotland could be part of it without the obligations of full membership.
WOS: Is NATO without the Warsaw Pact a little like Celtic without Rangers, then – in the absence of its traditional enemy, there’s no need for the big-name players who command the high salaries?
SMITH: Exactly, and EU members are reducing defence spending precisely because they don’t feel threatened by a major power. So Scottish independence has to be seen in that context – is NATO even necessary at all, with or without nukes?
At the same time, the EU can’t get its own act together on the ‘defence’ part of the Common Security & Defence Policy. So NATO may be necessary but only as an insurance policy against a major threat to Europe (a rogue Russia). But even then, Scotland could be part of the defence guarantee even without full membership.
Even during the Cold War, the US was willing to secure neutral European states, in secret. With Scotland’s strategic sea position, it is ludicrous to think that Western allies would refuse to help defend Scotland against a major foreign attack, even if NATO did not exist.
WOS: But that strategic position is also a good reason to want Scotland onside officially, presumably?
SMITH: Yes, of course; the more transparent the commitment, the better. But the Trident issue is more of a UK concern, not an American one. As per the recent story in the New York Times, the US would rather have more conventional-weapons spending in the UK/EU, not nukes. So, like some other stories coming from the unionist side, the Trident issue comes very close to scaremongering.
WOS: Would it be fair to say that in terms of NATO’s total nuclear arsenal, Trident is pretty insignificant?
SMITH: Yes, of course. Besides, what little it does have is supplied by the US. The UK would almost certainly have to discuss when/if to launch the missiles with the US, if it ever came to that. So the ‘deterrent’ is small and not very independent.
WOS: This seems to be a hotly-contested issue that comes up regularly but which nobody has a definitive answer to. What’s the reality of whether the UK could really use Trident alone?
SMITH: Technically such use is supposed to be under joint control of NATO (ie a ‘first use’ situation on the part of NATO). But if the UK came under nuclear attack first, then I suppose it would have the capability to launch on its own.
Even so, it’s hard to imagine such a strike without some discussion with allies, unless the time factor was very short. In that case, we might be in a WW3 situation, and then we’re all doomed!
WOS: And it’s exceptionally hard to imagine a scenario where anyone would start a war by attacking the UK, rather than the US or in eastern or southern Europe. But of course, you never know with space monsters.
SMITH: Ha ha. Strategic nukes are no use against terrorists or in a first-use situation against small states (Iran), so NATO’s main strategic purpose is deterrence against another major power. Since US nukes can do that on their own (including the ones based in other EU states), Trident is superfluous to strategic purposes. It was the case even during the Cold War, and more so today.
And having the Trident base in Scotland makes it a target of other nuclear powers, so the arguments for removing it outweigh the arguments for keeping it here. It’s a UK status symbol, more than anything else. It also helps to justify UK’s seat on the UNSC.
WOS: So in a nutshell, the removal of Trident wouldn’t be considered by NATO to be an obstacle to Scotland’s membership, regardless of whether it was moved to elsewhere in the rUK or if it had to be scrapped because there was nowhere for it to go?
SMITH: Well remember the UK would have a voice on this in NATO (and with EU membership, if the UK is still part of the EU), but from a strategic/American perspective, the location of Trident should not be an issue. If the UK was smart, it would use Scottish independence as an excuse to scrap Trident altogether and invest the money elsewhere. But the UK government hasn’t been acting very smart lately!
WOS: That’s an interesting aspect – how would NATO be likely to react if the UK insisted Scotland keep Trident for, say, 5-10 years? (Although from what you’ve said, it ultimately wouldn’t really matter anyway.) Might NATO be more likely to lean on the UK to fall into line with the views revealed in the NY Times article, or would it have to side with the bigger, established nation?
SMITH: I think the real worry for Scotland is that the UK might try to make Trident a condition of its support for Scottish membership of the EU/NATO. If that happened, the US might have to encourage the UK to back off, yes. But this assumes that the UK stays within the EU itself, which is also an open question.
WOS: So in reality, neither the US nor NATO are likely to object to an independent Scotland’s membership if Trident is expelled – the only likely obstacle is the UK being stubborn about it, which the USA wouldn’t be very happy about. Is that a fair summary?
SMITH: Yes. And again, even if Scotland is kept out of NATO by a vindictive UK or whatever, it is still a strategic part of the North Atlantic and would fall under Alliance protection in a worst-case scenario: a major attack against Europe.
WOS: Professor Smith, thanks very much for your time.
To our ears, that seems to be several myths conclusively debunked for the price of one. NATO will want Scotland as a member, it won’t care whether we have Trident or not, it would defend us regardless of membership status because of our strategic position in the North Atlantic, and Scotland expelling Trident from its waters might well be the nudge needed to bring about the whole UK’s nuclear disarmament, under pressure from NATO/the USA who want the money spent elsewhere.
Much of that reflects stuff we’ve been saying on this site for months, of course. But it’s nice to have it confirmed by someone who actually knows what he’s talking about.