Scotland & NATO: The real debate


By Peter A Bell
Notwithstanding the mischief-making efforts of the BBC and others to turn the issue of SNP policy on NATO membership into a contrived controversy, there is unquestionably a genuine debate to be had.

There seems little point in hoping that this debate will be advanced by those whose sole purpose is to find in it a stick with which to beat the SNP or its leadership.

By Peter A Bell
Notwithstanding the mischief-making efforts of the BBC and others to turn the issue of SNP policy on NATO membership into a contrived controversy, there is unquestionably a genuine debate to be had.

There seems little point in hoping that this debate will be advanced by those whose sole purpose is to find in it a stick with which to beat the SNP or its leadership.

Fortunately, there remain in the desert of Scotland’s mainstream media a few oases of intelligent, reasoned journalism.  One voice of sanity that manages to rise above the cacophony of rancorous anti-SNP propaganda is that of George Kerevan.

In a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece in The Scotsman (It can happen!), Kerevan suggests that NATO membership is “a question of morality”.  A suggestion that would doubtless prompt the response from many that non-membership is equally a question of morality.

There is a subset of this group who would go further and insist that even to think about the possibility of discussing a change to the SNP’s long-standing policy of non-membership is to cross one of their “red lines”.

It was this group which was the target audience of those elements of the media intent on creating an impression of a damaging “split” within the party.  Kerevan’s argument is addressed to the more open-minded among us.

Since I aspire to count myself among this latter group it may be useful if I state the view on the issue of NATO membership that I brought to George Kerevan’s piece.  I have always opposed NATO membership.  I have tended to see NATO, from its inception, as primarily an instrument of US foreign policy and an extension of US military power in Europe.  As Kerevan notes,

…British foreign policy for the past 15 years has been conditioned by brown-nosing the White House…

I would have put it at more than 15 years, but we’ll let that one go.

For those of us who are not content with this situation – which, I confidently assert, takes us well beyond the SNP, the independence movement and Scotland – a US-dominated NATO has to be seen as a very big part of the problem.

And it is a problem which did not, as some might have hoped, diminish with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In fact, it got worse.  With the evaporation of its raison d’etre, NATO was obliged to cast around in search of a new role.  For various reasons, political, military and economic, simply dissolving the alliance was not seen as an option.

We are not here concerned with what the arguments were.  We need merely note the outcome – which was that NATO was transformed from an extension of US military power in Europe into an instrument of US militarism on a global scale.  NATO has become a device by which the US can access European resources and political support in pursuit of its own foreign policy objectives.

I am aware that not everybody sees NATO this way.  But, I repeat, it is the perspective that I bring to George Kerevan’s argument about a “moral” case for a rethink of SNP policy on Scotland’s membership of NATO.

And, of course, we cannot ignore the huge nuclear elephant in the room.  Kerevan rightly points out that “the alliance is heading towards a non-nuclear policy”.  Rather wisely he does not posit this as a reason why Scotland should consider joining NATO. 

For all that the alliance has undeniably changed in recent years, in ways both positive and negative, it continues to be an alliance fundamentally based on nuclear capability.  It is simply not enough to say that it does other things besides waving the big nuclear stick.  Nor is it enough to say that it only ever actually uses “conventional” weapons.  It isn’t even enough to point out the fact that the vast majority of NATO members do not possess WMD and officially abhor their very existence.

There is no escaping the fact that NATO is a nuclear power.  It is perfectly legitimate to ask how it might be possible to reconcile being a part of a nuclear alliance with implacable opposition to the development and possession of weapons of mass destruction.

It is not my purpose here to debate the fundamental questions around the utility and morality of nuclear weapons.  I will say only this.  The arguments that Iran might deploy in support of any claim it might wish to make to a “right” have nuclear weapons are precisely the same as the arguments advanced by apologists for the existing “nuclear club”.  And all the arguments against Iran having a nuclear capability apply equally to the existing nuclear powers.  Particularly those whose readiness to use WMD has so tragically been placed beyond doubt.

It will be clear from the foregoing that George Kerevan has a bit of a job on his hands if he is hoping to persuade me that there is any case for Scotland being a member of NATO, never mind a moral one.  But he deserves a hearing.

The central claim is that NATO membership not only meshes with the vision of Scotland’s place and role in the family of nations as enunciated by Alex Salmond, it is essential to a realisation of that vision.  A vision based on a particular understanding of the word “moral”.  Kerevan outlines this vision with reference to trade relations, but the relevance to other aspects of foreign policy is quite evident.

Salmond claims a “moral” approach to international relationships.  Moral not in the sense of “good”, but of understanding that being part of a global free trade economy brings responsibilities as well as rights.  He believes that lasting trade partnerships can only be achieved if rich Scotland appreciates the problems, needs and aspirations of other nation states.

The suggestion here is that Scotland has a role to play in world affairs and that this role is best served by engagement and active participation rather than what might seen as the kind of petulant standoffishness that all too often blights the UK’s dealings with the European Union.

If indeed NATO is moving away from being a nuclear power, can Scotland play a part in supporting and even accelerating the process?  And is compromising the anti-nuclear principle a price worth paying for effecting such a transformation of one of the world’s major military alliances?  Both reasonable questions.  But Kerevan goes further.

Let’s be clear, the argument for joining Nato is not simply to make that organisation less committed to using weapons of mass destruction.  An independent, oil-rich Scotland, strategically situated on the new global sea lanes opening up with the melting of the Arctic icecap, faces major security issues.  Neutrality is not an option.  Nato membership is the price of the international engagement which lies at the heart of Alex Salmond’s “moral” foreign policy.

According to this view, Scotland’s membership of NATO is not merely an option, an opportunity and, perhaps, a responsibility; it is a necessary precondition for a foreign policy philosophy informed by Alex Salmond’s stated watchwords of “sympathy, empathy and solidarity”.

But this presupposes there being no alternative ways of pursuing this foreign policy vision.  And I am far from persuaded that this is the case.

I’m pretty sure that the SNP and all of Scotland can have a debate about all aspects of Scotland’s future that will throw up many options.  If we can only keep that debate free from the petty-politicking and Neanderthal tribalism of the anti-independence parties as well as the reckless sensationalism of the media.