When I was supreme allied commander of Nato, I often sought guidance in the speeches of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Shot throughout his thinking was the powerful idea that a democratic and unified European continent would represent a profound geopolitical advantage for the United States.
The next 70 years fulfilled his vision: The general consolidation of Europe and the creation first of a common economic market, then a political union. The US gained a strong partner willing to advance shared values throughout the world.
But that partnership is increasingly imperilled these days, as we watch UK prime minister Boris Johnson returning empty-handed from a visit to negotiate a new Brexit agreement. While there is still hope for a measured, agreed-upon departure programme, the odds are shifting to a disorderly crash-out with some high costs to US and global security. What are these challenges, and how should we think about them?
First and foremost, the EU will be without a strong, articulate voice advocating for adequate defence spending and military coalition building. Again and again when I was the Nato commander, I knew I could count on the British voice inside the EU to support US positions in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria, the Balkans and on counter-piracy missions.
While France has recently been fairly strong on spending and policy, without the United Kingdom, the European Union will likely be far less oriented toward military missions, no matter how justified or important to the United States.
Brexit will also mean that Britain won’t contribute forces to EU missions around the world. Today, the Europeans participate in UN efforts globally, from humanitarian response to peacekeeping. Typically, the US does not, relying on the EU and others to take up such projects in the Middle East, Africa or even Latin America.
With the departure of the United Kingdom, the most capable military in the European Union will be stepping away. It seems unlikely that Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland — the other five major militaries — will be willing to make up the difference. (In a spot of possible good news, Britain may be willing to put more emphasis on participation in Nato.)
Five Eyes structure
A third concern will be the reduction in shared intelligence and cybersecurity. Given that intelligence analysis is really about combining information from a vast number of sources to build up a “mosaic” picture, this means European assessments will be far less valuable. While the British will perhaps increase activity within the so-called Five Eyes structure (US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), the reduction in quality of EU-produced products will create a net loss for global intelligence.
Another concern is reduced cohesion in European defence projects — the shared production and maintenance of high-end hardware ranging from fighter jets to tanks to missile-defence systems. How the various UK defence firms will choose to find partners remains to be seen, and they certainly will be looking more to the US; but the overall reduction in defence technology coming from Europe will be a blow to the global security system.
Finally, the loss of political energy and international “throw weight” for Europe will be noticeable. Think about the UN. Security Council: At the moment, two of the five permanent seats are part of the EU. After the UK’s departure, only France will retain veto power representing the group. Any international organisation which has an EU representative will sense this significant weakening of the union. More broadly, as the EU seeks to influence international events through negotiation and engagement, the departure of its second largest economy and population will be significant.
None of this is necessarily a death knell for the EU (in fact, many would bet on the dissolution of the UK coming first, with the potential departures of Scotland and Northern Ireland).
The remaining 27 nations in the EU collectively have the second-largest gross domestic product globally, ahead of China. Europe retains a large, well-educated population and a peaceful continent. But the departure of the UK not only weakens the union, it saps America’s global strength.
Eisenhower would be profoundly saddened to see this step back from all the postwar progress, and no doubt would encourage the rest of the Europeans to continue on a unified path in the wake of Britain’s departure.
James Stavridis is the former supreme allied commander of Nato, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University