Of course, equality before the law does not mean equality in fact. Vanuatu may enjoy the same rights appertaining to statehood as do the USA, China or Russia. Still, its ability to influence international relations is fairly minimal.
Scotland, with its population of around 5.4 million and its comparatively large territory is by no means a micro-state. Still, it would rank among the smaller states of the world. Edinburgh may feel empowered as an actor on the international stage, but would this freedom rather be an illusion?
The answer is: Not necessarily so. Smaller states can exercise disproportional influence relative to their actual size, at least in certain sectors. Switzerland, with a population 8.4 million, occupies a leading role in the international banking and financial sector, or in relation to international humanitarian affairs.
Scotland can draw on some economic stature due to its share of North Sea oil. However, this resource is dwindling in price and diminishing in quantity. Moreover, Scotland wants to exhibit its impressive achievements in moving towards a zero-carbon economy at the international climate change conference in Glasgow later this year, offering itself as a model.
Small states can punch beyond their weight in specialist areas of foreign policy. Norway, for instance, has carved out an important role for itself in supporting peace processes around the world—the Oslo Accords on Israel and Palestine furnish one example. Of course, given its own abundance of oil income, Norway has had the luxury of investing several decades of funds and expertise in this area.
The trick is to avoid trying to cover all issues and instead target diplomatic activities on specific problems. This can be reinforced by acting in coalition of like-minded states. A Pacific island state alone will not have a great deal of international influence. Yet it can become a notable player within a coalition of islands states campaigning against sea-level rise.
Using multinational forums, like the United Nations, a small state can exercise disproportionate influence through competent diplomacy. Malta, for instance, had a leading role in developing governance of the seas simply through the high standing of its diplomats.
Evidently Scotland would occupy a more pronounced role from the outset. It would arrive on the international scene endowed with a certain amount of soft power, based on its globally admired unique history and culture. As the capital of enlightenment philosophy, the Athens of the North boasts important universities, attracting many overseas students and launching ideas with global pulling power.
That said, Scotland could not provide significant funds in international development assistance. Still, it could carefully target the aid it can give and play a role in the debates about global terms of trade and equitable relationships between North and South. It would also be a credible player in global campaigns for human rights, good governance and justice.
If Scotland manages to re-join the EU upon independence it would be spared the task of negotiating trade deals around the world.
Presumably Scotland would be interested in close collaboration with the remainder of the UK in countering security threats on the common island. But how about NATO? If Scotland wishes to gain membership, what could it offer in terms of a contribution to its own defence, and that of the NATO area?
Then there are the UK military bases in Scotland, including the facilities for the strategic nuclear deterrent thirty minutes out of Glasgow. The SNP has pledged to remove nuclear weapons from Scotland after independence.
Downing Street claims that the facilities on the Clyde are essential for its submarine-based missile force, which is being rejuvenated at great expense. Moving the base to England is said to require an investment of tens of billions of pounds and would take a decade or more.
Of course, part of the reason to seek independence may be rooted in a sense that Holyrood’s voice is not heard in Downing Street and the Foreign and Commonwealth office. Hence, the UK’s traditional diplomatic strength is not seen as a tool for the implementing Scotland’s interests and values.
The UK is a middle power. It does punch significantly above its weight in the international arena. This is due to its permanent membership in the UN Security Council, its willingness and ability to contribute to muscular peace-making and peace-keeping in difficult places, its leadership within the Commonwealth, and its significant long-term investment in development in Africa and beyond.
Whitehall has lost its voice in Brussels and hence the ability to use the EU as a way to multiply its foreign affairs heft. London will now hope to capitalize on its special relationship with the US, piggy-backing on the incoming Biden administration as it re-engages with global issues.
After the shock of the dissolution of the union has worn off, independent Scotland too would be likely to enjoy privileged relations with the White House and Congress. Many members pride themselves on their Caledonian ancestry. But it is less clear how such sympathies would be translated into real gains for Scottish foreign policy.
In the alternative, there would be ways of increasing Scotland’s international standing short of independence. Scotland could obtain direct representation in some international bodies in its region, as is the case in Scandinavia and the Nordic Council.
A federal-type solution would allow Scotland to conclude its own international agreements in a number of areas. Holyrood might also have distinct representation in UK delegations to major bodies and events, such as climate change conferences. Scottish representation at critical points of UK foreign policy decision-making could also be enhanced through regular top-level consultation between the UK Prime Minster and the Scottish First Minister or their ministers covering all aspects of external affairs. This would need to be compared to the effectiveness of Holyrood’s input into the EU foreign policy machinery as one of 28 member states.
Marc Weller is professor of international law and international constitutional studies at the University of Cambridge and a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers