If you’re not paying attention to what is unfolding in Scotland this week, you should be. It’s a safe bet it’s being watched in a lot of places by a lot of people who wish the U.S. harm.
On Thursday, Scots will vote in a referendum on their independence from the United Kingdom after spending more than 300 years as a part of it. The notion they would vote “aye” was unthinkable for months — even years; the prospect was discussed when I worked in Europe from 2004-2009 but wasn’t considered a truly serious possibility. Yet, opinion polls show those just now making up their minds are leaning toward independence. It appears the vote will be a close one.
If the Scots go through with it, there could be a number of consequences for Americans. At the top of the list is what it would mean for NATO.
Already, the U.K. is one of just four of NATO’s 28 members that spends the required 2 percent of annual GDP on its military. Given that the others are Greece and Estonia, that means the U.K. is one of the few NATO allies besides the U.S. that can contribute to the alliance with the robustness originally envisioned. But Scottish independence would reduce the British military’s ranks by an estimated 1 in 10, and the new nation’s military would have its hands full trying to provide for its own defense, much less contribute to international alliances.
I would imagine Vladimir Putin, who has been testing NATO’s reflexes for some time now, is keenly interested in whether the U.K. breaks apart in this way. One of NATO’s most critical members would no doubt lose itself in a bout of navel-gazing just when Russia may feel emboldened to make more mischief in Ukraine, or worse, in one of the Baltic countries that actually belong to NATO.
There could be a spillover effect as well. There are restive regions in France, Spain, Italy and Belgium that have long talked about secession as well. If they see Scotland do it — and particularly if they see Edinburgh negotiate continued inclusion in institutions such as the European Union — they may move from talk to action.
This could have consequences whether they actually secede or not, and whether any newly independent nations, including Scotland, remain in the EU or NATO. A government trying to keep from losing important regions will not be as attentive to international affairs. The potential for exploitation by Putin or anyone else who wishes the West harm is great.
Even if the Putins of the world don’t change course, there could be great consequences to America of a balkanization of Europe beyond the Balkans. This appears to be further evidence the world order that has prevailed since the end of World War II is breaking apart. (If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend this piece by the New York Times’ Roger Cohen on this subject.)
It would appear neither President Obama nor any senior member of his administration, past or present, has an answer as to what succeeds the present world order. But in their defense, who does? Who among the possible contenders in 2016 has been thinking deeply about what the currents of history around the world, including in places like Scotland we believed to be settled, mean for the future? Or how America might shape them going forward in a way that serves our interests? (To those tempted to answer, “Hillary Clinton,” by all means, tell us what she accomplished as secretary of state to make the situation better rather than worse.)
These questions may seem out of place in an America that wants to focus on, as Cohen puts it, having “bridges to build and education systems to fix.” But if the questions are not answered satisfactorily, we may well return to one of those periods of history where bridges and schools are the least of anyone’s worries.