The SNP’s foreign policy plan is stuck in the Cold War – the pro-indy left must challenge it

On Tuesday, SNP MPs Alyn Smith and Stewart McDonald –– both leading lights in the party’s foreign policy team –– published an opinion piece in Foreign Policy magazine announcing the launch of ‘Project No Surprises’, an initiative designed to “engage with the wider world to explain, contextualize, and reassure” them of Scotland’s continued place in the established international order. Much of the article is dedicated to an uncontroversial analysis of the current state of the independence debate, as well as the failure of the Yes campaign to communicate the implications of independence to the outside world. This is a failing, Smith and McDonald suggest, which led to the multitude of interventions by foreign powers skittish over the unknown prospect of an independent Scotland against a ‘Yes’ vote in the 2014 referendum. Yet, buried at the conclusion of their otherwise anodyne editorial is the authors’ prescription for how to avoid such confusion in a prospective future referendum: “an independent Scotland will be a reliable and constructive partner, a staunch ally, and a fierce friend…Unlike Ireland, Scotland will seek to be a reliable NATO partner; it’s in too vital a strategic position not to be”.

This intervention is the latest in the long internal battle within the SNP over NATO membership, one which dates back to a time when internecine conflict was an exceptional event rather than the party’s modus operandi. Consistent with their opposition to the Scotland-based UK nuclear deterrent, the SNP maintained an opposition to NATO membership for the entire latter half of the 20th century. This position was not one without dissenting voices – party leader Gordon Wilson (largely seen to be on the party right) regularly fought to have conference back membership in the treaty organisation – but the stance gained little support as the ideological base of the party gravitated towards a more left-wing orientation in the 1980s. 

The 1990s and 2000s saw the NATO debate ossify somewhat, with the bombing campaign in the Balkans, the UK’s acquiescence to the United States’ illegal intervention in Iraq, and the now-Alex Salmond led SNP’s principled opposition to both seemingly cementing the party’s anti-militarist credentials. These credentials would go on to be a major driving force behind the collapse of the Labour base which would power their 2007 election victory. Yet, five years later, a now-majority SNP government, freshly granted its existential aim of a referendum on independence, was poised to produce a prospectus for an independent Scotland which could appeal to those wary of drastic change. Many inside the party saw a commitment to NATO membership as a key part of this new pragmatic pitch to the voters. And so, it was left to a tag team of Anguses Robertson and Macneil (an alliance which now seems unthinkable) to introduce a resolution to the 2012 party conference stating that an independent Scotland would remain a NATO member. In a process that would come to be repeated again and again in subsequent years, the motion was rammed through by the leadership after a gag-order was enforced on elected officials. One can only imagine that Macneil and Salmond’s position on the use of such secretive tactics has evolved in the years since. 

In the intervening period, NATO membership has gone from hotly contested ground to party line, consistent with a general trend towards a more Atlanticist foreign policy orientation under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership. This realignment was perhaps best illustrated by the First Minister herself, who, speaking to the Council on Foreign relations, reiterated the party’s support for the US-led international order, stating, “We would consider ourselves to be a key ally of the United States…Do not think that the SNP and the Scottish government takes a markedly different position from the UK government on the vast majority of international issues. We don’t”. This was underlined in a roundtable held by the same organisation with cabinet secretary for constitutional affairs Mike Russell last year, where he bluntly affirmed that: “We plan to have membership with NATO. Who wouldn’t? That has been an issue in the party over the years. I have always been strongly on the wing that says [leaving NATO] would be utter madness, given both where we are geographically, and also where our politics are.” It is abundantly clear that the leadership sees any further debate on this issue as a farcical distraction: it is SNP policy, and, therefore, owing to the hegemonic position they hold within the national movement, Scotland’s inarguable destiny. 

“We would consider ourselves to be a key ally of the United States…Do not think that the SNP and the Scottish government takes a markedly different position from the UK government on the vast majority of international issues. We don’t”

Nicola Sturgeon, speech to the Council on Foreign Relations

The figures of McDonald and Smith in many ways exemplify this new reactionary foreign policy order. McDonald, when he isn’t exploiting the heroic anti-regime protests in Belarus to whip up an absurd Red Scare-esque conspiracy against the SNP left, devotes himself to the causes of the Atlanticist orthodoxy. He is a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China – a rag-tag group of politicians who seek to form a Cold War style pact to counter the growing influence of the People’s Republic; that this global alliance includes several far-right parties – such as the virulently Islamophobic Swiss People’s Party, whose Yves Nidegger serves as the organisation’s co-chair – appears to be of little concern. The majority of the pair’s foreign policy publications in the past few years has been focused around feeding the fires of Russia-based hysteria which have transfixed western liberals in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump. Their regular output of articles demanding that the UK government take a harsh line against all things Russian, or anything which could be perceived to be Russian, flattens the incredibly complex geopolitical situation in Ukraine (where McDonald holds the highest national honor of the Order of Merit) into a simplistic fight between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. In performative acts, like Macdonald’s denunciation of anyone appearing on Russia Today as “part of the problem”, the duo plays out a cartoonish vision of foreign affairs where a vicious civil conflict – one which includes complex and problematic alliances on both sides – is subsumed beneath a regime of gesture politics and, ultimately, does nothing to improve the conditions of those living in the crossfire. As if to illustrate the hollow opportunism inherent in this worldview, Smith made his last appearance on Russia Today as late as 2012 (helpfully preserved for posterity on his own YouTube channel); the state-owned network has apparently only become an organ of Putin’s dezinformatsia campaign in the years since.

It is easy to take potshots at what is, in all honesty, the mainstream liberal foreign policy consensus amongst most Western politicians. Yet, it is precisely Smith and McDonald’s vigorous defense of this consensus, and indeed, their desire to see the nation more closely aligned to such a regime, which should worry all those Scots who hope that an independent Scotland would diverge from the murderous foreign policy of the UK state. The duo’s belief that foreign powers will be convinced that an independent Scotland will not disrupt the international order if only it subscribes to outdated militarist alliances and an interventionist stance is not only grossly immoral, but deeply naïve. Moreover, it is grounded in a fundamentally ahistorical understanding of the geopolitical forces which motivated interventions in favour of preserving the Union, such as then-President Obama’s declaration of support for a “strong and united” UK in June of 2014. 

It is abundantly clear that the leadership sees any further debate on this issue as a farcical distraction: it is SNP policy, and, therefore, owing to the hegemonic position they hold within the national movement, Scotland’s inarguable destiny. 

The litany of Scottish foreign policy hawks are correct on one aspect: Scotland possesses a unique geopolitical position – situated as it is at the confluence of the Atlantic, European and Arctic theatres. The desire to maintain the stable status quo: US control over this key strategic area, which Scotland’s status as an integral part of the UK all but guaranteed, ultimately overrode any assurances of continued NATO membership that the SNP leadership could provide. It is this, not a ‘lack of engagement’, which drove the Obama administration to their unprecedented interference, and will be the sole consideration for Joe Biden should he face the same question during a hypothetical second referendum. One must ask if an administration committed to a foreign policy doctrine which sees the world entering a new era of ‘great power competition’ would be inclined to risk breaking up such a staunch ally, regardless of how far Scottish foreign policymakers may bend the knee. 

If the era of US-led military blocs is returning, Scotland certainly has some experience. Since World War II, the United States has maintained an active military presence in Scotland; berthing its submarine-borne strategic nuclear deterrent at Holy Loch and its successor installation at Faslane and, in the past two decades, utilizing Prestwick airport for its illegal Rendition program, where foreign nationals were transported to countries where they could be ‘legally’ tortured [1]. With figures on both sides of the Atlantic engaged in ginning-up renewed hostilities with Russia, Scotland’s geopolitical value is likely to rise to levels unseen since the Cold War, when the nation’s position on the key submarine transit route known as the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap (GIUK), and relative proximity to Russia as a base for signals intelligence gathering resulted in the proliferation of monitoring installations like those at Kirknewton and the construction of a hydrophone array (known as SOSUS) which monitored GIUK for transiting Soviet submarines. Such close collaboration with NATO operations produced whole generations of Scots who grew up with the fear of impending nuclear annihilation; one government report suggested that a Soviet nuclear attack on the US base at the Holy Loch (all but a certainty in the event of an exchange) would result in 96,000 casualties in Glasgow alone. Why should such a fear be visited on the children of the future as a result of a conflict with origins in a political dispute half a world away? 

The nuclear issue is one which cuts to the heart of the NATO debate. Even amidst their proclamations of fealty to the alliance, the SNP hawks have previously offered one condition – that NATO membership comes with a guarantee that no nuclear weapons will be stored in or transported through Scotland. This is a proposition with very little grounding in reality. Norway and Denmark – countries who, while members of NATO, have adopted legislation outlawing the presence of nuclear arms in their territory, were forced by the alliance in the 1980s to implement a compromise policy in which they ‘assume’ any NATO-flagged ships or planes transiting their bases are not carrying atomic weapons. This policy of willful ignorance represents the best-case scenario for an independent Scotland in NATO, as well as a total betrayal of the majority of Scots who oppose the continued presence of nuclear weapons in the country without the government’s consent. NATO leadership has made it clear that there is no immediate prospect of a retreat on the nuclear question – one which is central to the alliance’s continued existence. No matter how many concessions they may be willing to make, the nuclear question is one circle that the pro-NATO lobby are yet to square; there remains no option short of complete capitulation. Perhaps that is why the precondition is markedly absent from Smith and McDonald’s latest article.  

All of this emphasises the urgent need for the left wing of the independence movement to articulate an alternative vision of what a Scottish foreign policy would look like. That such a rejection of the Atlanticist global order would come from a nation previously at the core of that regime would be all the more powerful. It will be a titanic undertaking, but the building blocks are already there, waiting to be assembled. One must only look to the tremendous outpourings of solidarity with the oppressed peoples of the world – whether in Catalunya, apartheid South Africa, occupied Palestine or elsewhere that have been a fixture of Scotland’s civic tradition – to see that an internationalist, liberational foreign policy is not only conceivable, but already exists amongst us. 

[1] Indeed, far from driving them out in the wake of this scandal, the Scottish Government has pursued deeper ties with the US military at Prestwick, allowing the airport to be used for “active duty missions”. 

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