When you wake up on the morning of 5 November, you can reasonably expect fireworks during the evening. This year, they may arrive somewhat earlier, if it turns out that the United States has just elected Donald Trump for a second spell as president. Add to the mix that the UK may also be in the final throes of an election campaign, and we may be facing one of those moments which will have a fundamental effect on our future.
Let us think first about the prospect of a further Trump presidency. However dishonest, the trail of business fraud which is currently going through the courts does not directly affect UK security, although it says much about Trump’s character. Similarly, a man who has been found guilty by a jury of sexual abuse – yet still manages to retain the unswerving loyalty of fundamentalist Christian voters – may be repugnant but is not evidently a threat to international peace and stability. Threatening to withdraw from NATO however, leaving classified intelligence data lying around Mar-a-Lago for all to see, and getting along fine with Vladimir Putin, may give rather more serious cause for concern.
Taking the last point first, a working relationship with foreign and hostile peers should be an essential requirement for any world leader. The key element is to maintain sufficient distance to retain objectivity. Looking gullible does not inspire confidence. Neither does the suggestion that Putin has ‘kompromat’ on him. The idea that the next US ‘special relationship’ might be with Russia is a scary one.
Leaving intelligence data unsecured must have immediate consequences. Will allies feel able to share information if there is a serious risk that it will leak? If not only data, but also sources may be compromised, why would any of the allied intelligence agencies feel comfortable with passing information to the USA? It is not as though it can be sanitised before it gets to the President, because his nominees will have been placed in the system to a much more junior level than is the case in most other western systems. There will need to be a very serious re-evaluation of release to the USA and that will self-evidently have consequences on information that is shared in return. That will hurt.
Finally, there is the threat to leave NATO. We have lived in a Europe where, despite our own defence expenditure, the final guarantee of our security has been the US membership of NATO. This not only takes the form of boots on the ground, but, ultimately, in nuclear deterrence. It goes further, in that we may have our own nuclear deterrent, but it is dependent on the USA. And key weapon systems, like the F35 Lightning aircraft, depend on American technology and support. The whole European defence structure is predicated on US involvement, to the point where NATO has been described as having an Anglo Saxon ‘operating system’, based on US military practice.
UK policy has always had freedom of action as one of its considerations for equipment procurement (as has France to an even greater extent) but, in the last resort, this has always been tradeable for cost. We have grown used to an interdependence with a trusted ally, who may now be choosing to move European defence down the list of priorities, and we may have to re-evaluate in a hurry. There is a war in Ukraine on our doorstep and some of our European allies feel extremely vulnerable. Ask the Baltic republics, with their Russian minorities, who Putin may feel the need to ‘protect’. Or look at the Polish/Lithuanian border around the Suwalki gap, where Russia might like to create a land bridge to the Kaliningrad oblast.
So how will this affect our own election? The real danger is that the penny will only drop when the likely US election result is impossible to ignore.
As in all threats, there is an opportunity. Defence and security have largely remained uncontaminated by the poison stirred up by Brexit. Indeed, the UK has been quick and robust in its support of Ukraine – surprisingly so, given the quantities of oligarchs’ money that sloshes around the cities of London and Westminster. UK politicians have always prided themselves on a defence establishment that ‘punches above its weight’, even if the funding has not always matched the ambition and the reality is looking a bit anorexic. There is a long tradition of working with European allies. For many years we had soldiers stationed in the British Army of the Rhine and airmen in RAF Germany. Defence industries are already integrated to a significant degree. Cooperative development of new equipment has been part of the European story since the 1960s. Confronting the Russian threat as part of a European response to fill the gap left by an isolationist United States should come instinctively. Indeed, it should be a matter of self-preservation.
Russian aggression and American isolation create an urgent need for the UK to re-engage with mainland Europe, and it is a way to cooperate that is not tainted by the bitter debates over Brexit. Which party will be nimble enough to recognise security cooperation as a means to put us back in the mainstream of European development, and will this happen soon enough to play out in the coming election? Will the Conservatives follow the Rees-Mogg/Johnson lead and support Trump, in the perverse hope that an isolationist United States will somehow still look after the UK – a sort of 51st state status? Or will the robust support for Ukraine provide the pivot point that enables renewed cooperation with Europe? Will Labour see the opportunity to develop the European relationship, starting from the needs of security?
The situation will be critical and, ironically, we might remember the words of an American, Benjamin Franklin, on the signing the Declaration of Independence: “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”