Opinion: Brexit’s opportunities for transatlantic cooperation

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British Prime Minister Theresa May. | Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images

“Spooked by Brexit, Mr. Bond?”

That is the caption under a photograph of actor Daniel Craig, our current James Bond, pistol in hand, looking concerned. The picture appears in a May issue of “The Economist,” published in London, accompanying an article on defense and security implications of the narrow but clear decision by British voters to depart the European Union.


As usual, Bond is on to something. Uncertainty is right regarding such a momentous political as well as economic move. Moreover, the defense and military security dimensions of the EU are generally overlooked.  After all, that coalition of nations is focused primarily on business, commerce and finance.

While the great bulk of media and political commentary about Brexit – the shorthand label for Britain leaving the EU – focuses on economic anxieties, there are significant defense and security implications as well. Predictions of dire results from the British vote to leave the EU clearly were overstated, at least regarding short-term impact on global financial markets. Beyond business, the EU does facilitate defense collaboration. The organization has undertaken limited military missions, ranging as far beyond Europe as Indonesia.

“The Economist” article contains comments by British officials. Theresa May, at the time Home Secretary and now Prime Minister, noted that the European Arrest Warrant and access to intelligence data are among EU membership benefits.

She and others quoted expressing concern were reacting to a controversial statement by Richard Dearlove, the retired head of MI6, the overseas intelligence agency. He observed that “the truth about Brexit from a national security perspective is that the cost to Britain would be low.” NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) provides a durable continuing structure for defense cooperation, including in the field of intelligence. Additionally, there is the more informal but important “Five Eyes” intelligence network, which includes Australia, Canada and New Zealand along with the United Kingdom and the United States

In reality, departure of Britain from formal EU membership provides an opportunity to re-energize NATO and transatlantic cooperation more generally. After World War II, Britain played an important role in effecting military as well as economic partnership among European powers, and extending the military dimension to Canada and the United States. Former World Bank head Robert Zoellick proposes including Britain in NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The British approach to foreign policy is characterized by evolution and incrementalism, while Americans are given to dramatic policy shifts and reversals of strategic paths. During the Cold War, American foreign policy planners and decision-makers oscillated for many years between alarm about Soviet bloc military power and a desire drastically to reshape the international order. By contrast, in defense and strategic policies, as in diplomacy generally, the British try to maintain the traditional approach of working within and adjusting to the global status quo at the margins.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”

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