I want to make a point which I don’t think has been made clearly enough in relation to the UK’s current defence posture and the possible defence posture of an independent Scotland. That point is that the establishment position on our defence posture appears or disappears according to its credibility. And that is not a sensible defence posture.
Because the great thing about ‘Atlanticism’ (our dominant defence posture) is that it will reliably and without fail offer the anti-war commentator like me a regular supply of ‘told you so’ moments. And we’re back in a phase when most of the planet can see that Atlanticism is failing. So let’s look at this ideology, what it has meant for Scotland and why an independent Scotland should do something different.
Atlanticism isn’t really desperately well defined, but then again it doesn’t need to be. It is either a shorthand for ‘the elite table of the western international order’ or for ‘the process where Britain gets down on its knees and does what it is told by the US’. Either is accurate.
Atlanticism is really a collection of ideas that you might call ‘the Washington Consensus‘, but expanded. It means unquestioning support for Nato. It means belief that protecting international free trade is a non-negotiable goal in all occasions. It means compliance with trade rules (until it doesn’t – which is whenever it doesn’t suit America).
It means a fairly coordinated ‘Overton Window’ (yes, on guns and healthcare the US and Britain diverge, but people forget how much of our politics is just a direct import from US politics, things like Blairism or growth-first, or destroy Corbyns, or never criticise Isreal). It means corporate mergers and extensive surveillance. It means believing in the ‘Special Relationship’ a lot.
Tony Blair is probably the human embodiment of Atlanticism (in Scotland the human form of Atlanticism is Alyn Smith or Stewart McDonald). If you want to know what an Atlanticist is, pick a context and think about what Blair would do, particularly in relation to global economics and geopolitics generally.
The immediate postwar era was the high-point of Atlanticism. The US hadn’t really begun its hypocrisy phase in earnest, was genuinely participating in creating institutions like the United Nations and the International Convention on Human Rights, and investing heavily to help rebuilt a shattered continent. Plus there was a convenient ‘enemy’ in the Soviet Union against which to define ourselves.
This golden era is brief and starts to come apart seriously during the Vietnam war and then Watergate. From there, Pax Americana was best supported through partial readings of the world, like the suggestion that we were all in favour of democracies despite the sheer number of inconvenient democracies we overthrew.
in relation to Scotland becoming a small, independent nation and thinking about a position to be taken towards current events in the Middle East, who do you want to be, Ireland or Micronesia?
The swing goes back and forth – the Cold War kept providing Atlanticism with rhetoric and then the actions of the US required Atlanticists to look away or come up with grave distortions, like when the US went on a rampage through Latin America in the 1980s, or the Iran Contra scandal, or its endless harmful meddling in the Middle East generally.
Perhaps the biggest blow to Atlanticism of late was the Iraq war and its aftermath, another bloody US rampage that was impossible to defend (the US barely defends it own track record post-World Trade Centre attack anymore). And since the ‘enemy’ was no longer a state actor, the positives from Atlanticism were hard to derive.
And that is precisely why Atlanticists jumped on the Russian invasion of Ukraine with such glee. It was the best advert for Atlanticism in decades. It was a conflict where it was eminently easy to brush aside the complicating factors (like constant US interference in internal Ukrainian politics to overthrow democratically elected pro-Russian leaders or the breaking of promises to Russia about Nato encroaching on its borders).
It was the perfect, primary school picture of right and wrong and the Natoists went mad for it. Anything that looked like previous Western complicity in escalating conflict with Russia was aggresively ignored and the bloodshed was turned into an unsubtle advert for the militarisation of Europe (Atlanticists very rarely see a war they don’t like).
In Scotland we were utterly bombarded with this story. There wasn’t a mainstream commentator to be found, left(ish), right or centre, who wasn’t gushing over Nato and why Scotland must be an enthusiastic member. All good, all moral, all wise – just maintaining order over the black, brown and yellow people and the Slavs.
That’s all Nato is for, right? Maintaining the international order? That’s why all the liberals were so, so keen to promote the Ukraine war as the turning point when the post-Iraq anti-war sentiment of the Western world could finally be put to rest and the weapon could start flowing faster again (not that they ever stopped).
But Nato is not a moral body in any sense whatsoever and nor is the US. Both are utterly self-serving bodies, and that is why, without fail, their moral posturing always comes back to bite them.
Mentions of Nato are thin on the ground now. Yes, this is partly because we let a Muslim country in which simply isn’t on board with the idea that the Middle East belongs to America. But if mentions of Nato are rare, sober reflection on the Nato love-in of the last two years are thinner.
To give you an idea of why (in the Scottish context), ask yourself this – in relation to becoming a small, independent nation and thinking about a position to be taken towards current events in the Middle East, who do you want to be, Ireland or Micronesia?
Micronesia (made up of the Caroline, Gilbert, Mariana and Marshall island groups, so basically Western colonies) was one of the eight tiny countries who voted against a ceasefire in Gaza under direction from Isreal and the US. Ireland has been stunningly good at taking a principled stance, standing next to South Africa in its genocide case at the International Court of Justice.
Being in Nato means no longer having any meaningful free choice over your foreign policy or your defence policy
Being in Nato means no longer having any meaningful free choice over your foreign policy or your defence policy. Countries which were actually founder members of the group that created the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons later recanted and voted against – but only those ones that had joined Nato in the intervening period. That’s how it works and people should stop pretending otherwise.
Meanwhile how is Ireland doing? Has anyone invaded it for taking a principled stance on international politics? Nope, they have not. Ireland remains uninvaded and unattacked. So can some of the screaming Atlanticists in Scotland explain to me why that is a bad option for an independent Scotland? Or for Britain right now?
The Western coalition is no more moral than China, or Putin’s Russia, or the Global South. We love morality when it tallies with our self interest and then we comfortably dispense with it any time it doesn’t tally with our self interest. On Gaza it is China and Russia who represent the moral high ground.
So set aside those two giant straw men, the idea that if an independent Scotland would be invaded overnight if it didn’t joint Nato or that the only way to express a moral position on geopolitics is to join Nato, two of the daftest and most self-serving arguments available, what then is your case?
Or more specifically, will one of you just be honest and admit the great attraction; to maintain Western global dominance for our own selfish interests? That’s what Nato is for. It is to keep our boot on the neck of the world.
Atlanticism can’t actually admit that it is just an abuse of power to keep the rest of the world subjugated because it would then fall apart under the weight of its own internal contradictions. So it pretends it’s about morality.
That is the great thing about it – it undermines itself so regularly that it disappears from view regularly. I’m not seeing those long pro-Nato articles flooding your reading lists right now, because we’re in a ‘patently hypocritical phase’. But they’ll be back as soon as we happen to be on the ‘right side’ of a dispute some time in the future.
And yet here I am, consistent, not hypocritical, the same position as always. Scotland (and the world) will benefit most from non-aligned countries working in moral groupings on a case-by-case basis and in regional groupings to maintain our own regional security within our own territory.
That will still be the moral position tomorrow, the day after that and the day after that, even as Atlanticism doesn’t know which of its two faces to show the world today.