FEW nation states ever have the opportunity of deciding anew the nature and extent of their engagement with the world.
Certainly, countries such as Norway, Spain, Australia and Japan are free to make significant changes to their current defence provisions and they are able to take key foreign policy decisions that may depart markedly from the norm.
However, there is no doubt that for these and other states, foreign policy and security arrangements are heavily embedded in historical convention, contemporary alliance structures and, very significantly, the sheer weight of political-military conservatism that places such limitations on change. Combined, these make a potent force that does much to restrain the potential for a state to take a dramatic new pathway in its defence and foreign policy.
A Yes vote in 2014 would give Scotland a unique chance to chart just such a new pathway for itself. In international political terms, it would allow Scotland to press “reset”.
It is an intriguing opportunity. For a great many Scots, it would also be a very welcome one.
As the Better Together campaign continues to try to synthesise a narrative of “Britishness” that appeals to Scots, the fact is that on a range of issues, there is a substantial gulf between Britishness and Scottishness. UK defence and foreign policy is one such issue.
Dominating everything is Downing Street’s dogged fidelity to the United States. Time after time across the past decade or so, Scots of all political persuasions have watched aghast as the UK government has clung to the coat-tails of a US foreign policy agenda that has seen – amongst other things – an illegal invasion of Iraq and a CIA-run international capture-and-torture-regime (popularly known as “extraordinary rendition”) in which “terrorist suspects” have been captured, detained and tortured.
Downing Street has been acquiescent in all of this: it even sent British detainees to the US military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay knowing that prisoners held within this facility were being routinely tortured.
Scotland, lest we forget, is also centrally implicated in these events because when it comes to international politics, “UK policy” is “Scottish policy”. This is what “Union” means for Scotland.
The various iniquities of British foreign policy extend beyond well the blurring confines of the so-called war on terror. Britain has continued to develop an unenviable international reputation for its weapons sales and has recently been censured by the Center for Global Development due to its “high levels of arms sales to poor and undemocratic governments”. Undaunted, Prime Minister David Cameron has continued to tour countries (last month Brazil; this month Saudi Arabia) accompanied by defence contractors with the aim of selling more British weapons.
The truth is that Downing Street’s approach to international politics rubs abrasively against what many Scots want or think is acceptable. And the more one dwells upon what Scotland has imposed upon it – and is denied – by “British defence and foreign policy”, the more attractive it is to think about truly meaningful change. For many Scots, the removal of British nuclear weapons from Scottish soil would be change enough.
But there are, of course, many other alluring possibilities. “Reset” might also entail simply reclaiming that which we have known as part of the UK. Scotland’s relations with the US would continue to flourish; Nato membership is a possibility depending on what government the Scottish people elect in 2016.
However, these relationships and commitments would be on Scotland’s terms and would reflect a distinctively Scottish understanding – much-informed, no doubt, by the experiences of UK defence and foreign policy – of how international politics should be conducted. Whether in or out of Nato, Scotland could add its voice to those of Norway, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands as they work to intensify nuclear disarmament efforts, both within Nato and beyond.
There is considerable scope for Scotland to project itself on to the world stage with a substance and gravitas that extends beyond great international festivals, kilted football fans and New York Tartan Week. This reset can only truly happen if Scotland is an independent state.
• Dr John MacDonald is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Dundee