Britain's Great Unraveling

Why 2015 could be the end of the United Kingdom as we know it.

This week's D-Day commemorations recall a time when Britain was still widely viewed as a great power. Despite subsequent relative decline, Britain's sizeable political, military, and economic influence has been preserved, internationally, some 70 years after World War II ended.

Former Conservative Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd asserted in 1993 that Britain has been able to "punch above its weight." That statement is still true today -- but may now be under threat, with consequences that could undermine both the United Kingdom's political influence and economic prosperity.

Two risks jeopardize the domestic underpinnings of Britain's international success: its shaky commitment to the European Union, and Scotland's uncertain commitment to the United Kingdom.

Driven in part by the growth of Euroskepticism in Britain, the governing Conservative Party has promised that if it wins an outright majority in the May 2015 general election it will hold an "in or out" referendum on staying a part of the EU. As the recent European Parliament elections underlined, such a plebiscite could well see the United Kingdom vote to leave. Remarkably, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) -- a party built around a policy of British withdrawal from the EU -- last month became the first party other than the Conservatives or Labour to win a national election in over 100 years, only underlining the growth of anti-Brussels sentiment in Britain.

The second, more immediate, potential earthquake is the prospect that Britain itself will break up later this year if Scotland votes for independence in September. While polls indicate that more Scottish voters want to stay in the union than leave it, surveys generally show in recent months growing support for independence.

Should Scotland secede or U.K. Euroskeptics win the day in any eventual EU membership referendum, it would represent a body blow to Britain's international influence. Moreover, the unraveling might not even end there: The continued union between England, Northern Ireland, and Wales would potentially be in jeopardy too.

And the issues could feed into each other. Scots, in general, are more favorable toward continued membership in the EU than the English -- who account for a majority of Britain's population. Thus, with polls indicating the United Kingdom as a whole may be more or less equally divided on whether to leave the EU, if Scotland does vote for independence, and thus does not participate in a subsequent EU referendum in Britain, this could tip the electoral balance in a tight vote.

Exit from the EU would not only disadvantage the United Kingdom, but also the rest of Europe, which widely acknowledges the value of continued British membership. The United Kingdom is often a source of competing ideas in Brussels, and has played a major role in conceiving and pushing forward key initiatives such as the European Single Market.

It is also unlikely that some of the claims of Scottish nationalists about an independent country would, ultimately, be fully delivered for the Scottish people. This includes assertions about an automatic right to EU membership which would, in reality, require potentially complex and protracted negotiations.

All EU countries need to agree to the accession of a new state, and the Spanish government, worried about secessionist sentiment in Catalonia, has already voiced opposition to automatic Scottish membership. Even if the Scots were to accede after an extended period, the terms on which they'd do so could be significantly less favorable than those that Britain originally negotiated. For instance, an independent Scotland might not enjoy the significant EU budget contributions rebate that the United Kingdom has. It is also unclear whether Brussels would require a newly acceded Scotland to join the euro (a requirement that might meet with the objections of a Scottish government), as other recently joined member states have been required to do. 

The likely aftershocks of these potential earthquakes for Britain, while not all immediate, could be profound in the long run. On the European front, for instance, the U.K.'s influence and prosperity are significantly enhanced by EU membership. Imperfect and in need of reform as Brussels is, the British economy would undoubtedly suffer if the country leaves the European club.

Some British people might still like to see themselves as being at the center of the world, but the facts clearly show that's no longer the case. The United Kingdom now accounts for less than 1 percent of global population, and around 3 percent of world GDP. As former Foreign Secretary David Miliband rightly said, "Our role in Europe magnifies the power of our ideas, and strengthens our international clout in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow." For example, in trade negotiations, such as those with the United States now over the proposed U.S.-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), London's bargaining position is enhanced by being part of the EU -- the world's largest trading bloc -- which accounts for some 20 percent of global GDP, and approximately 500 million people.

The influence that EU membership confers on Britain also helps drive foreign direct investment (FDI). The United Kingdom is now the fourth-largest recipient of FDI in the world. Japanese-headquartered firms have been particularly vocal in threatening to reconsider their investments if Britain opts to leave the EU. This is because many of these companies see their U.K. operations as an effective way to access the whole of the European market.

The impact of Scottish independence would also undermine Britain's influence in multiple ways. For instance, a U.K. Parliamentary Committee rightly warned earlier this year that losing the Scottish tax base, especially at a time of fiscal austerity, could lead to further budgetary cuts to the armed forces. These budget cuts could even threaten the future of Trident, Britain's expensive sea-based nuclear weapons program, which is due for potential renewal in coming years. Another complication is that many of Britain's Trident submarines are based in Scotland. But Scottish nationalists nonetheless insist that an independent country would become a non-nuclear nation within five years. Relocating these bases would be an expensive, protracted process which the U.K. Ministry of Defence asserts would cost billions and take at least a decade.

Budgetary cuts forced by the loss of Scotland's tax base could also impact Britain's sizeable annual overseas aid budget, which promotes goodwill abroad. The United Kingdom is the world's second-largest provider of international aid after the United States, and the only G-7 state in 2013 to hit an internationally agreed target of spending 0.7 percent of GDP on overseas aid. The British government contributes to stabilization and humanitarian operations in many countries including, for instance, Syria, where it is ensuring over a million people get food, medical care, and shelter.

Scottish independence would also undermine Britain's voice in key international forums, from the United Nations, G-7/8, G-20, and NATO, in part because, as former Conservative Prime Minister John Major has argued, the union would be perceived to be harmed "if a chunk of it voluntarily chose to leave... In every international gathering that there is, the voice of Britain ... would be growing weaker because we would have had a political fracture of a most dramatic nature and that makes people wonder about the stability.... What would happen to Wales, what would happen to Northern Ireland?"

Perhaps most prominently, the breakup of the union could be seized upon by some nonpermanent members of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), and/or other U.N. members, to prompt a review of the U.K.'s seat on the council. To be sure, reform of the UNSC is overdue. However, Scottish independence could see this issue being decided with less favorable terms for Britain than might otherwise be the case.

Taken overall, the United Kingdom would be notably damaged and diminished by Scottish independence and leaving the EU. And the fact that Britain would no longer punch so strongly on the international stage would also adversely affect its ability to bolster international security and prosperity at a time when both remain fragile. Even the American president has weighed in, noting on June 5 that the United States has a "deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies that we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united, and effective partner."

This week's 70th anniversary of D-Day is a fitting time to remember the U.K.'s proud tradition as a long-standing promoter of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Continuing this long into the 21st century would be best secured through a continued union of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, buttressed by membership in a reformed EU.



Keith Alexander Needs a Hug

Why liberals should learn to stop worrying and love the NSA.

One year ago today, an article popped up on the website of the U.S. edition of the Guardian: "NSA Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily." It was a blockbuster story that would presage a year of drip-drip leaks about the inner workings of the National Security Agency. Almost immediately, a toxic political narrative was born (or, perhaps more accurately, pushed by Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald): The NSA was an agency out of control, the Constitution was being ripped to shreds, and America was on the path to becoming an Orwellian surveillance state.

Today this narrative remains dominant, even if it also remains an exaggeration. A strange pair of political bedfellows has bolstered it: libertarians and liberals. The former is not surprising. Fearing the concentration of government power is a basic ideological premise of libertarianism. The reaction of liberals was something else. While there has been a long-standing wariness on the left toward law enforcement and the national security state, writ large, liberals have traditionally been more trusting of government institutions. Yet many of the left's loudest voices, from the New York Times editorial page (which famously called for Snowden to receive clemency) to the Nation, from a host of liberal commentators to the ACLU, from civil liberties groups to Internet privacy organizations, have adopted this narrative.

But rather than fearing the NSA and its intelligence-gathering programs, liberals should be embracing it. For all its faults -- and the NSA, like any government institution, is far from perfect -- the kind of signals intelligence gathering (SIGINT) done by the NSA is one of the most effective and least kinetic national security tools that the U.S. government utilizes in the fight against terrorism. It is perhaps the best antidote to the many counterterrorism policies -- from military intervention to torture -- that liberals, often quite rightfully, despise.

One of the many ironies of the Snowden story is that the modern legal infrastructure that regulates the actions of the NSA is a significant liberal accomplishment. The FISA Act of 1978 -- which in the wake of the Church Committee sought to regulate domestic surveillance -- was an idea pushed and promoted by liberals.

What we've learned over the past year is, in key respects, a validation of those efforts to place greater restrictions on how law enforcement agencies utilize electronic surveillance. By and large, the system, as imperfect as it may be, has worked. Contrary to popular opinion, the NSA is not listening to your phone calls, not reading your emails, and not, as an act of policy, violating your privacy. Indeed, there is really no evidence to suggest that the U.S. government is systematically violating the privacy rights of Americans. If, as Greenwald has warned, "you must refrain from provoking the authority that wields surveillance powers if you wish to be deemed free of wrongdoing," perhaps he could clue us in on all those secret prisons housing those who loudly proclaim the government is spying on them.

That doesn't mean liberals shouldn't be gravely concerned about the potential for abuse by the NSA, or that a secret court is in the business of making secret law. It also doesn't mean that legal opinions on the use of metadata shouldn't be updated or that the benefits of NSA's domestic data gathering are worth the costs (they likely aren't). Just because what the NSA is doing what is legal and blessed by the FISA Court doesn't mean it is right.

But, at the same time, we should be honest about what the NSA is doing. The oft-heard charge that the NSA is breaking the law -- or, as Snowden put it last week, violating the Constitution on a "massive scale" -- is simply not true.

Such assertions further erode confidence in public institutions and bolster the conservative/libertarian argument that a federal government, with access to the private information of Americans, puts the nation on a slow road to tyranny. It was particularly striking that in Michael Kinsley's recent controversial review of Glenn Greenwald's new book, almost no attention was paid to his casual accusation that the Snowden leaks exposed "lawbreaking." It is now just part of the narrative.

The politics of the NSA leak story are, however, only part of the issue. There is also a critical policy element. The NSA is an inordinately effective counterterrorism weapon. First, it allows the government to track terrorists, listen to their phone calls, read their emails, actively disrupt how they communicate with each other, and break up their plots.

Second, it might be the most efficient deterrent to future terrorist attacks. By its very ubiquity, the NSA creates enormous hoops that terrorist groups must jump through before they can do actual harm to Americans.

America is never going to eliminate every terrorist, nor should it try. But if the United States can make it harder for them to plan attacks -- and minimize their ambitions -- that's hugely beneficial.

From that perspective, the very fact that the United States conducts aggressive foreign intelligence gathering is crucial. Indeed, one of the advantages of the Snowden leak was that it was a reminder to terrorist groups of just how sophisticated and advanced the NSA's capabilities are. The flip side, of course, is that knowing how the NSA operates makes it easier for terrorists to evade the agency's surveillance dragnet, which is what makes so deceptively wrong the oft-heard notion from Snowden fans that "the terrorists know we're listening."

While it might seem counterintuitive, such eavesdropping creates a smaller U.S. footprint overseas and puts fewer lives at risk (more analysts at Fort Meade are most certainly better than troops on the streets of Baghdad) and is more defensible (both legally and morally) than many of the counterterrorism tactics utilized since September 11.  

If liberals (correctly) don't like invading foreign countries, don't support indefinite detention, abhor torture, and disagree with the flagrant use of drones, then it begs the question: What steps are they willing to take to fight terrorism? Unless one believes that the threat from terrorism is simply nonexistent, what's the affirmative liberal counterterrorism strategy? The fact is, the more America adopts a law enforcement approach to terrorism (a familiar liberal demand) the more it must rely on SIGINT.

To be sure, the benefits of SIGINT are more than just fighting terrorism -- SIGINT is elemental to a liberal internationalist foreign policy. It allows U.S. policymakers and diplomats to be that much better informed about the world and ensure adherence to international rules and norms. Understanding the leadership intentions of Iranian diplomats in the run-up to nuclear talks or Russian leaders as they plot their next moves against Ukraine or whether Chinese provocations in the South China Sea are bluster or evidence of a broader military effort are critical nuggets of information. It's also a pretty good way to avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that have led to conflicts in the past.

Of course, liberals should not be indifferent to how the NSA does its job. Over the past year we've learned of many reasonable foreign intelligence-gathering activities, from spying on terrorist groups to keeping tabs on Pakistan's nuclear program. But we've also learned that the NSA in tapping the phones of friendly foreign leaders, weakening encryption standards, and engaging in bulk metadata collection -- pushing the envelope of what is defensible. Better political judgment and a more thorough weighing of costs versus benefits appear to be much-needed reforms in Fort Meade -- and liberals should be the loudest voices making that call. At the same time, they can make the push for even greater privacy protections -- both at home and abroad.

But liberals who have so often been right about the excesses and mistakes in the war on terror need to also uphold and defend the intrinsic value of foreign intelligence gathering. It would be a mistake for them to discard the baby with the bathwater or to sit mum as others with less altruistic views of the federal government are allowed to dominate the public debate. As odd as it may sound, liberals need to learn to stop worrying and love the surveillance state.