On a Monday afternoon last October, I sat in a lecture hall to listen to General Philip Breedlove (retired) deliver a public talk at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The chosen topic that day was The Return of Great Power Rivalry in Europe. His talk was predominantly focused on US/NATO-Russia relations. At the outset, Breedlove described himself as a “hopeless optimist”. Coming from the man who headed-up the United States’ European Command and NATO’s Allied Command during the period which saw Russia’s annexation of Crimea, this statement might appear somewhat surprising. Yet it is this disposition which underpins his “pessimistic outlook” for relations between the US, Russia, and Europe.

Although Breedlove sees many challenges in the current US-Russia relationship, he also sees potential paths forward towards better understanding and cooperation on small-scale mutual interests. This is the basis for some optimism with regard to one of the most pressing strategic dyads in the current global environment.


General Breedlove delivering his lecture at Georgia Institute of Technology. Image: Jessica Palacios (GaTech).

That same day, I had the chance to sit down with General Breedlove to gain insights into his thinking on the current challenges facing the UK’s role within NATO as it leaves the European Union. The extensive overlap between EU and NATO membership suggests that Brexit may well impact the UK’s political standing within NATO. I was also able to ascertain his views on Scotland’s security role in the UK and Europe.

Following up on the initial October interview, I recently approached the General to review the content and to offer him the opportunity to expand on our initial discussion in light of recent developments. Below, you’ll find the details of our conversation. Breedlove is fascinating and articulate. I have left the discussion largely untouched as I want readers to get the full sense of how he perceives these key issues, rather than filter them through my writing.


THE TRANSATLANTIC SECURITY PICTURE: AN OVERVIEW

Before we get to the interview, however, some scene-setting is in order. That the UK is leaving the EU, but not Europe, has been the UK government’s mantra since the June 2016 referendum. NATO is probably at the forefront of the government’s thinking when its representatives utter this soundbite. Since its inception, the UK has played a leading role within the organisation, which remains critical for European regional security interests.

Aside from political assurances, there are real challenges ahead for the the UK’s future role within the alliance: negative economic implications of leaving the EU customs union and single market could reduce the UK’s ability to meet its defence expenditure obligations; an ill-tempered separation from the EU could sour relations with European NATO allies; the immense political bureaucratic strain of extracting the UK from over forty years’ worth of integration with the EU will divert the attentions of the UK’s politicians and civil servants, leaving less bandwidth and political capital for proactive engagement with NATO; and the trajectory of closer EU-NATO cooperation could leave the UK as a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker in a domain where it has, until now, enjoyed considerable influence.

All of these scenarios pertain to the implications of Brexit, without touching on lingering concerns over President Donald Trump’s views on NATO – even after affirming his commitment to honouring the collective defence requirement – or the current political tensions between Europe and Turkey, the impact of Russia’s regional activities, or the rise of populist, far-right movements in some EU/NATO countries that, in some senses, challenge the very values that both entities were devised to protect and disseminate.

BREXIT

A plethora of officials (current and former) and observers have offered up perspectives on Brexit’s security implications. The former US ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, described Brexit as “the biggest challenge to the European project since its founding in the aftermath of Europe’s most destructive war”. Italy’s former NATO permanent representative, Stefano Stefanini, contended that “by fracturing the EU, Britain has put a question mark over Western cohesion. If the EU can be split, why not NATO?”.

Tying into this was apprehension that Brexit is ‘good news’ for Putin’s Russia, if it leads to a Europe divided by internal disagreements that distracted attention from Russian activities in Eastern Europe. In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, America’s former Russia ambassador, Michael McFaul, tweeted: ‘Putin benefits from a weaker Europe. UK vote makes EU weaker. It’s just that simple’.


In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, America’s former Russia ambassador, Michael McFaul, tweeted: ‘Putin benefits from a weaker Europe. UK vote makes EU weaker. It’s just that simple’.

However, not all reactions have been pessimistic. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg averred that the UK’s “position in NATO [would] remain unchanged”. James Rogers has argued that the UK’s commitment to European security predates NATO, and that “Politically, unless the UK turns in on itself, London will likely—or at least should, if it is still capable of strategic thinking—throw its full weight behind NATO to compensate for Brexit”. Bruno Lété  of the German Marshall Fund argued that the UK would “seek to reinforce its role and commitments to NATO… [as] the last remaining international institution where London can have direct interaction on a multilateral level with its European allies”.

The ripple-effects of Brexit for NATO, and the West more broadly, will not be known until the final settlement of the future UK-EU relationship has been agreed. Fears that Brexit may lead to divergence between the EU and NATO, without the UK to ‘bridge the breach’, now appear overly pessimistic. Even taking the UK out of the equation, the 2016 declaration of EU-NATO common principles, followed in 2017 by various EU statements declaring the commitment to shape defence policies to complement – rather than supplement – NATO structures, appears to show the strength of political will to improve strategic relations between the two.



The UK government says it is seeking a security relationship with the EU that is ‘as close as possible to being a member state’. While it remains to be seen whether this will materialise, the intention to preserve as much of the current arrangements is certainly there. This could include – albeit it presently seems unlikely – future UK participation in the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) defence framework, recently approved by the European Council.

Thus, to retain influence, the UK might strategically opt in on EU initiatives to prevent future loss of influence as the two regional organisations intensify their connections. However, third-party states may only participate following a decision by Qualified Majority Vote of those EU Member States fully signed-up to PESCO. Further, the UK would have no decision-making rights over the direction of PESCO or specific projects, something which may in fact limit interest from the British side.


If the UK is concerned that greater EU integration in the domain of defence could be detrimental to NATO’s importance, then Brexit eliminates its ability to shape its direction or even block progress on this front.

If the UK is concerned that greater EU integration in the domain of defence could be detrimental to NATO’s importance, then Brexit eliminates its ability to shape its direction or even block progress on this front. The chances of such a shift remain minimal; representations of PESCO as an ‘EU army’ in some sections of the British press are baseless. A 2017 House of Commons Library research paper pointed out that ‘any capabilities developed through PESCO will….remain owned and operated by Member States. They will not be “EU” assets, or form the basis of an “EU army”‘

Moreover, NATO has welcomed PESCO, with Stoltenberg opining – ahead of his November 2017 meeting with EU Defence Ministers – that it could “strengthen the European pillar within NATO”. The following month, a meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers resulted in an agreement for greater cooperation within the areas of military mobility, information sharing, and promoting the role of women in peace and security.

Although the UK will continue to exert influence through NATO, it will no longer have the ability to drive cooperation from both sides – unlike France and Germany, who will remain prominent players in both organisations.

THE SCOTTISH DIMENSION

Having voted to remain in the EU by a significant margin, Scotland may choose to revisit the future of its relations with the rest of the UK, the EU, and – by extension – NATO. Although public opinion does not suggest any urgent desire to re-visit the constitutional question at the ballot box, the fact remains that the raison d’être of the Scottish National Party is to achieve Scottish independence. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made clear her view that there is a mandate for another referendum within the lifetime of the current Scottish parliament, and has suggested that a decision will depend on the shape and substance of the Brexit deal.

With that comes the need to address how an independent Scotland would provide for its own security. The SNP has committed to NATO membership since 2012, although current Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has warned that automatic membership is not guaranteed. This may seem to be at odds with the position laid out by the SNP government in the Scotland’s Future paper (2013): that it would be possible to negotiate a ‘transition from being a NATO member as part of the UK to becoming an independent member of the alliance’.


Having voted to remain in the EU by a significant margin, Scotland may choose to revisit the future of its relations with the rest of the UK, the EU, and by extension, NATO.

The SNP’s anti-nuclear weapons stance – in line with a sizeable chunk of Scottish public opinion, but by no means a convincing majority – clashes with NATO’s insistence that the location of the British deterrent capability should remain unchanged. NATO’s rationale is predicated on avoiding any possible weakening of the UK’s ability to maintain its nuclear forces, something which may constitute a precondition for an independent Scotland to sign the Washington Treaty. Presently, this is a hypothetical quandary only, but it nevertheless warrants serious consideration from both sides.

A recent paper commissioned as part of the Common Weal’s White Paper Project, and authored by the defence policy consultant Garry Macdonald, argued for an associate membership arrangement for an independent Scotland – e.g. the Partnership for Peace – due to potential ‘demands and expectations on Scotland that might be viewed as contrary to its national interest’. Although not explicated, conceivably this would refer to any demand by NATO that the UK’s nuclear bases in Scotland remain in situ. Unfortunately, the paper did not attempt to engage with a discussion of how a newly independent Scottish government (assuming that it would still be led by the SNP at that point) and NATO may reconcile their different positions on the issue.

The SNP government announced, in March 2017, that it would undertake a review of its defence policy. The results of this review are, at the time of writing, still pending. How Scotland’s prospective relationship with NATO (and the EU’s PESCO mechanism) are dealt with in the new policy will be of considerable interest, not only to the Scottish public but also to NATO and EU members themselves.

Constitutional changes are afoot in the UK, and conversations about the defence of the British Isles are needed. Undoubtedly, NATO will be central to these discussions, whether they are taking place in Brussels, London, or Edinburgh. But the EU will also be a part of that discussion, and it needs to be taken more seriously as an actor in the security and defence domain. European and transatlantic cooperation has been the bedrock of regional security cooperation – on this, the relevant parties appear to be in agreement.

These are some of the issues I asked General Breedlove – someone with firsthand experience at the very pinnacle of NATO military leadership – to weigh in on. As an important disclaimer, Breedlove’s views are his personal positions, and should not be read as indicative of US or NATO views on any given issue, now or in the past.


THE INTERVIEW

Scott Brown (SB): In the run-up to the Brexit vote, there was lots of talk about potential security implications. We had interventions from former NATO Secretary Generals saying that we – the alliance – need a strong UK fully engaged in Europe, that there was no separation between political, economic, or security issues. They talked about Russia basically being an adversary; Stoltenberg issued such statements as well. There was also talk of the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander being switched to an EU member state, such as France. On the other hand, there were people that argued that the UK would become more involved in NATO to maintain its influence, once free from the EU. What’s your perspective of the implications of Brexit as far as the UK’s relationship with NATO, and NATO-Europe relations in general, are concerned?

Phil Breedlove (PB): My view is not shared by a lot of people, but I have a series of thoughts as to why I feel like I do.

First and foremost, the UK leaving the EU, to me, doesn’t threaten European security. Because the UK is not leaving NATO, and NATO is the military security of Europe. The EU and its military security force is very important – I don’t want to minimise that at all – but the command and control capabilities, the capability to move, shoot, sense, fight, that NATO has developed over time, is the security of Europe.

Second, the UK being a part of NATO means they’re going to continue to upgrade their military, continue to train, continue to do all those things that would keep them a viable member of NATO. If we were talking about this months ago, we would have said that. Today, we can say that it has been borne out. In fact, I think that NATO has benefited a bit, because the UK has come forward to demonstrate its commitment to NATO: taking up part of the battlegroup positions in the Baltics, and other things. These are all things that I think have been additive, and the UK is not hiding it. They have talked about it – they are going to demonstrate their commitment to the European security arrangement. So I’m not threatened by the UK pulling out of the European Union in a military sense.


“If Brexit were to severely affect the pound and reduce the UK’s buying power when it comes to defence-related issues, that would worry me.”

Two things that do worry me about Brexit are not military. One, it shows a chink in the armour of Europe, and we know that Russia wants to find all those cracks and live in those cracks, expand those cracks, try to further divide. So from a political sense, the fact that there’s this chink in the armour; that worries me a bit. And the second thing that has worried me about Brexit is that the UK has a good military budget, and it has aspirations that NATO and the West desperately need them to meet as far as military capabilities are concerned. Now if Brexit were to severely affect the pound and reduce the UK’s buying power when it comes to defence-related issues; that would worry me.

So just to be clear: from a purely military sense, it doesn’t worry me at all because the UK is a strong, very capable, multi-role partner and ally in NATO. Their position in that way has only been strengthened because of their determination to show Europe that they’re still engaged, and so from a purely military sense, I have no issue. But from a political sense, that it was the first crack in the armour, and the concern that the buying power of the pound might be affected; that’s what worries me.

SB: A lot of the narrative around EU-NATO cooperation places the UK as a key driver in those endeavours. With the UK removing itself from the EU, might there be a reduction in bilateral cooperation, or do you expect NATO and the EU to ride that out and continue working together? And there’s also the issue of the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander (DSACEUR) of NATO always being from the UK: do you need someone who’s from a prominent EU member state to assume this position, or could the UK continue to hold that position after Brexit?

PB: First, I think that EU-NATO cooperation is already better than many understand. I point backwards and capture what happened off the coast of Somalia (the anti-piracy Operation Ocean Shield) where we took the best tools of the EU and combined them with the best tools of NATO. We have to admit that there were some changes to what the shipping companies did too, in their speed of transit, where they transited, and everything else. The changes that carriers made, coupled with the tools that NATO and the EU brought to the table, eliminated the pirates from taking down ships.


NATO and the EU have worked successfully to combat piracy off the horn of Africa. Image: NATO.

Let’s delve into that a little bit. What does NATO bring? NATO brings military capability, sensors – things it has used well in the past – and known and understood command-and-control centres to bring sea power to bear on a problem. That command-and-control, and linking everything together, is not an EU strength – that is a NATO strength. NATO could essentially drive the pirates off the waters – so they went ashore, and they kept hiding and waiting and looking for opportunity. NATO has no ability to reach in there, because it doesn’t have the capabilities – government, legal, et cetera – to go after the pirates onshore in Somalia. It was the EU that brought that connective tissue to bear on the situation, because its strengths are in the government functions.

So you have an EU operation onshore, coupled with a NATO operation on the sea, and it gave the pirates no sanctuary. Again, we need to give credence to the change in tactics and procedures of the shipping companies with adding security and other things, but this combination essentially eliminated the Somali pirate issue. The strengths of NATO – military capability, command-and-control, the ability to link all of the weapons of a military organisation together and employ them – with the EU’s strengths, which are all those other things that a government does, meant that the two of them made a great team.

Let’s also think about Bosnia and Herzegovina. You have an EU force, and the EU has great forces, troops; many of them NATO. But the strength of the EU is not command-and-control, fusion of intelligence, sensors, all of those things – those are strengths of NATO. So what do we do? We make the Deputy SACEUR a commander of an EU force because of what NATO can bring, coupling with what the EU can bring.


“There should be more and more working together of the EU and NATO. I think that this is the future.”

Those are two examples from my time where we were able to pick and choose the things that the two organisations are best at, and put them together. There should be more and more working together of the EU and NATO. I think that this is the future. There are some problems out there – some of the states that are not in the organisation don’t exactly sign up to some of the things the other organisation is doing – and we need to get past these political issues and realise that cooperation makes us stronger.

Let’s go back to the issue of Deputy SACEUR. This is Phil Breedlove’s personal opinion – I can’t speak for the NATO Secretary General, and I can’t speak for the twenty-nine member nations. The UK falling out of the EU has absolutely nothing to do with who is the DSACEUR of NATO. I think there is a great division of duties out there in NATO. The SACT [Supreme Allied Commander Transformation] being a Frenchman, the chief of staff of NATO being a German four-star general (and mine was a guy named Werner Freers: he was absolutely fabulous), and the DSACEUR being a Brit. I think this is a great way forward, to acknowledge three incredibly capable countries in our alliance. I think the call for changing the DSACEUR is not a serious one.

SB: The EU has a new plan to be formalised at the end of the year, the Permanent Structured Cooperation on security defence (PESCO). Do you see this as being good for EU-NATO cooperation, that the states are working on their own structures? Or do you think that perhaps the European countries are putting their emphasis in the wrong place by trying to build up the EU’s structures?

PB: First of all, anything where European nations are investing in their defence is a good thing for the EU and it’s a good thing for NATO. It’s hard to tear apart where that would be good for one but not the other. The investments in defence and capabilities in EU nations, I think is a positive thing. Where I have spoken sharply, and where my mind has not changed, is if the EU nations are investing to build capabilities that already exist in NATO – that’s something I don’t support.


“Where I have spoken sharply, and where my mind has not changed, is if the EU nations are investing to build capabilities that already exist in NATO – that’s something I don’t support.”

We have so many challenges to readiness – re-equipping our forces, training our forces – that our first dollar spent should not be new brick-and-mortar posts, new flag-posts, general’s offices, et cetera. If the EU nations are investing in their readiness capabilities and re-capitalising their forces; that benefits everybody. If, however, they are building new headquarters and officer’s quarters and messes and things like that, I think that’s something that should be looked at very carefully.

SB: Shifting to Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) adopted the position of supporting NATO membership in 2012, ahead of the 2014 independence referendum. During that campaign, First Minister Alex Salmond said he was certain that NATO members would welcome a non-nuclear Scotland, and that he didn’t see their anti-UK nuclear deterrent policy as an obstacle to membership. Others take a different view, saying that Scotland essentially has to choose between NATO membership and its opposition to hosting the Trident nuclear system on its own territory. Media coverage in August 2013 said that Scottish civil servants had been told by NATO officials in Brussels that if they had a standing territorial military dispute with a NATO member, they wouldn’t get to sign the Washington Treaty – that was interpreted as a reference to the Trident issue with the UK. Do you see this situation as clear-cut? Would an independent Scotland have to choose between Trident and NATO membership?

PB: Let me speak out on both sides of the issue. First of all, I absolutely support, in a large sense, democratic processes and the right of people to self-determination. I was a loud voice to say that Montenegro deserved to make its choice, and that it should not be forced into an Eastern or Western camp, and I continue to say this. I’m a firm believer that democratic processes and the rights of people are very important.

I understand the tool that some talk about where, if you have an internal dispute, you’ll never be a part of NATO. That’s the tool that Russia uses – we call it a pocket veto: grab a piece of Georgia and hold onto it, so Georgia will never be in NATO; grab a piece of Ukraine and hold onto it, so Ukraine will never be in NATO. There are those that may try to make that type of interpretation.


“Whatever the future holds as relates to Scottish independence, I would expect all parties to come to some sort of agreement that does not take away from NATO the UK’s ability to contribute its nuclear capabilities.”

I will say this – I share one concern, and that is that these two peoples [Scotland and the wider UK] need to work out a future that does not interrupt the UK’s capability to bring its nuclear force to NATO. NATO only has three great nuclear powers, and we need those. The French contribution – albeit, it is somewhat separate – the British contribution, which is more closely aligned to NATO, and the US contribution.

This diversity of capability, diversity of political statements to the world, and this commitment to maintaining these capabilities, is an important signal to a Russia that now routinely talks about nuclear operations as a normal extension of conventional operations. What I would say is this: whatever the future holds as relates to Scottish independence, I would expect all parties to come to some sort of agreement that does not take away from NATO the UK’s ability to contribute its nuclear capabilities.

SB: The SNP’s softening of its position just before the 2014 referendum indicated that it would accept and negotiate the timescale for removing Trident from Scotland, so as not to interrupt the UK’s deterrence capability. It became less the case that they were trying to force the UK into disarmament, and more one of displacement. The SNP also effectively articulated a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy with respect to other NATO allies using Scottish ports, regardless of whether they were carrying nuclear weapons. Would you see that as a satisfactory solution, in terms of a future Scottish role in NATO?

PB: I think that’s what I’m asking for – we need to work a regime forward that doesn’t hamper the UK’s ability to contribute to NATO’s nuclear capability. I believe that one of the concerns about that future is the financial costs involved. So we go back to my original point in one of your previous questions: we don’t want to impact the UK’s ability to meet its current goals on re-equipping, training, and using its fleet. I think that there’s a lot of work to be done there.

SB: There was a great quote in one of the media reports at the time, from a defence source, who said that the cost of relocating the Trident system from Scotland would be ‘eye-wateringly high’.

PB: It’s never as good or bad as you first hear. You know how this goes. The first thing I learned as a commander is: the first story in your door, it’s never as good or as bad as that story. The second axiom is: there’s two sides to every story. So I think we need to do due diligence, be non-emotional, and then look at a way forward. And I’ll state for the third time: we need do to nothing to interrupt the UK’s ability to bring more deterrence to the NATO arsenal.

SB: Given the logistical costs and challenges, would there be any provision for other NATO members helping the UK in this relocation process, such as temporary port access for the UK, or even financial or logistical support, including support to go in and construct new ports?

PB: I don’t think any of that is off the table. I think that before we would potentially lose a UK contribution, we should look at all opportunities.

SB: The Scottish government often looks to the Nordic countries as examples of how an independent Scotland would shape its defence infrastructure. Particularly in Scotland’s Future – the white paper that addressed everything before the 2014 referendum – the defence and security section constantly reiterated the idea of Scotland shaping itself to be integrated with NATO. Some were surprised at the figure put out for their initial defence budget – two and a half billion pounds annually – because what was being proposed was going further than territorial defence; it was about contributing to NATO. As a former NATO commander, what kind of contribution would you look for smaller states like Scotland to make? What do they bring to the table?

PB: The first question is: does Scotland intend to be a NATO ally or is it looking to be ‘integrated’? Are they looking for the Finnish or the Swedish approach, or are they looking for a Belgium-France-UK-type approach?

SB: Denmark and Norway are the ones that I have seen cited as models.

PB: So both of those states are NATO allies. So if Scotland is looking to be a NATO ally, then all articles and treaties apply to an ally. But if Scotland is looking from the outside of the alliance – à la Sweden and Finland – that’s a different set of conclusions, and a different set of responsibilities and commitments by the NATO alliance to Scotland. So before I would make any judgements about what kind of relationship, we’d need to understand if Scotland is a NATO ally or not.

Finland and Sweden are incredibly capable, and very close countries. They exercise with NATO and are interoperable at a level greater than some of our own allies. They are extremely capable nations that enjoy a very close relationship with NATO. But there’s a difference between being an ally and not being an ally.


“If Scotland is looking to be a NATO ally, then all articles and treaties apply to an ally. But if Scotland is looking from the outside of the alliance – à la Sweden and Finland – that’s a different set of conclusions, and a different set of responsibilities and commitments by the NATO alliance to Scotland.” 

SB: In March 2017, the SNP’s (then) defence spokesperson Brendan O’Hara talked about the Faslane naval base having a bright, non-nuclear future as a conventional base for an independent Scotland, its allies and partners. Would you see an independent Scotland having an important geostrategic place in NATO – when you look at the North Sea, for instance? Would it be an important part of NATO’s overall picture?

PB: Let’s go back to your supposition in the last question about Scotland as an ally. The way we work with allies on their bases is very important. Clearly, Scotland has a very important geostrategic position. Scotland acting as an ally would be very important, of course. Scotland acting in the capacity of a partner could be different, but doesn’t have to be different. In any case, Faslane and other facilities are critical pieces of infrastructure that can play important parts in our [NATO’s] future.

The whole discussion of Faslane and what that would mean, and a phased change and what that means to UK spending, et cetera; those are all things that need to be examined when you begin to see how it’s going to work. If it’s a ten-year process, that is going to work very differently than a two-year process. NATO is a nuclear alliance and it would be interesting to understand how we would have a non-nuclear ally.


HMNB Clyde (Faslane), home to the UK’s Trident system. Image: LPhot Stevie Burke, Royal Navy [public domain]

SB: You mentioned the importance of the US, the UK, and France as nuclear-capable states. Part of the narrative around possible UK nuclear disarmament is that disarmament would free up UK resources to invest in conventional capabilities that could contribute more to the actual operations that NATO is undertaking. Is that a plausible future for the UK, or do you think that the burden-sharing concept has to extend to nuclear capabilities as well, since NATO cannot only rely on the US?

PB: So again, this is Phil Breedlove’s opinion, not that of NATO, the twenty-nine member nations. I believe the UK needs to remain nuclear in NATO. I think that NATO needs a diverse nuclear capability. Our opponent is moving more and more towards reliance on its nuclear forces, and everyone understands the economic issues of Russia, et cetera. They may, depending on where you read, have already started cutting back on conventional funding. But they are not cutting back on their nuclear forces. We need to remain a robust nuclear force, and I believe that it’s incredibly important that the UK remain in there.


“I think that NATO needs a diverse nuclear capability. Our opponent is moving more and more towards reliance on its nuclear forces.”

SB: The UK’s Labour party, currently in opposition but theoretically getting closer to government, has an official policy to support trying to renew and maintain a UK nuclear deterrent. But it’s well-known that its leader Jeremy Corbyn has, for decades, been pro disarmament. Supposing the UK ends up in a situation where the government does back disarmament at some point: what are the implications for the UK’s relationship with NATO? How does that affect Britain’s position in NATO?

PB: Let’s go back to one of my points. I believe in the democratic process, and so I make no judgement on what the people of the UK choose to do via their democratic processes. Then I go back to my last answer, which is that I fully believe the UK needs to remain nuclear. If the UK chooses to go non-nuclear, that will definitely impact NATO’s viability and that would be a pretty hard problem to begin to address. These are very important questions, and inside of NATO, there are multiple countries that have districts of their country that would like to be separate, and we’re watching carefully what’s going on in Spain and the possibility of a Russian hand involved in that. And that’s not the only place. Again, this is an important thing for nations to get right, and I have a great confidence in these nations.

I heard it said very well at Wales [NATO Summit 2014] that one: we have to stick together: and two, our strength is really not in our military – our strength is our shared democratic values. Our ability to hang together around these principles is very important. We have to let these things work out, but what we don’t want to do is compromise our own values; that is what the enemy wants.

SB: As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump was very clear on his ideas of NATO being obsolete. But it seems now that that rhetoric has disappeared and the US has maintained the status quo in respect to NATO. Do you think the US still has the full backing of all the other NATO members at this point, or do you think there’s lingering uncertainty about President Trump?

PB: I think there’s multiple feelings about the US inside of NATO. There are a lot of nations that see the US as their guarantor of peace, not NATO. There are nations that see NATO as the guarantor of their peace. And there are nations that also believe that a strong European body inside NATO is the guarantor of peace. And so I believe that nations are doing what nations ought to do, and that their first thought is their own security, and then a larger security. I don’t hold that against them.

I do believe that one of the keys to NATO working is a strong Euro-Atlantic bond. Canada and the United States have come to fight in Europe more than once, when they could have remained an island. And Europe has come to the United States’ defence after 9/11. That bond, while it can be open to discussion sometimes about its edges, is incredibly important.


“I do not have any doubt in my mind that the United States would meet its commitment to NATO if something happens. I do not have a single doubt.”

I do not have any doubt in my mind that the United States would meet its commitment to NATO if something happens. I do not have a single doubt. The one thing that I would say that came positively out of that [Trump] conversation is that it spurred some of the nations to really look at their military spending. We have had US President after US President – on both sides of the aisle; Republican and Democrat – say that Europe needs to step up. And I think that maybe this voice, because the world saw it connected to Joe and Sally Six-Pack in the heart of America, saying “you gotta step up”, maybe that was a good thing.

I said, more than once, that I was worried about the rhetoric. But I think that now, everything is exactly where it needs to be: all the voices saying the same thing, which is that we are completely committed to Article 5 defence. Not only our alliance commitments to NATO, but our bilateral commitments to these nations are unchanged, and I trust that. What I’m observing from the White House, and I’m observing out of Congress – that never changed – and what I see out of our State Department, is that our commitment to NATO is firm.


General Philip ‘Phil’ Breedlove served as US European Command Commander and as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe between May 2013 and May 2016, retiring in July 2016. He subsequently joined the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology – his alma mater – as a Distinguished Professor.

Scott A.W. Brown is a Post-Doctoral Fellow within the Center for European and Transatlantic Studies at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He obtained his PhD from the University of Glasgow (2014).  He is the author of Power, Perception and Foreign Policymaking: US and EU Responses to the Rise of China (Routledge, 2018).

Meghan Lowther provided research and transcription assistance in putting together this work. Any errors or inaccuracies are the responsibility of the author, Scott Brown.


Feature image: European Defence Agency.