Doubts in DC: Scottish independence could threaten US-UK strategic relationship

Doubts in DC: Scottish independence could threaten US-UK strategic relationship
Members from both sides of the US political spectrum say a Yes vote in Scotland’s independence referendum may compromise the UK-US strategic relationship. A weakening of Washington’s top military ally and the fate of the UK’s nuclear arsenal are key.

Representative Bradley Sherman [D-CA], who has vocally opposed the prospect of Scotland breaking away from the UK, said America’s foreign policy establishment is united in its hope Scotland will remain a part of Britain.

"You will not find anyone involved in American foreign policy – from the president on down – who does not think that this division will weaken the alliance that we have," Sherman told the Telegraph on Thursday.

The US State Department has voiced its support of the union, and many Democrats and Republicans have expressed hope a ‘no’ vote reigns supreme on September 18.

On the question of Scottish self-determination, President Barack Obama said at a G7 summit in June the US has “a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies that we will ever have, the United Kingdom, remains strong, robust, united, and an effective partner.” His stance on the issue remains unchanged, according to the deputy spokesperson for the US State Department Marie Harf.

On Tuesday, Harf referenced Scotland’s referendum as “an internal UK matter,” and was unwilling to offer any words of support for or against Scottish independence. But in a public press briefing on Wednesday, the deputy spokesperson for the US department took a firmer stance, and endorsed Obama’s position on Scotland. Harf added, however, that the issue of self-determination was a question for the Scots, and “ultimately these decisions need to be made by the people of Scotland.”

US Democrat, Bradley Sherman, (Image from bradsherman.house.gov)

Scotland and America's national interest

In August, a Congressional Resolution authored by Bradley Sherman entitled ‘United, Secure, and Prosperous’, was introduced with wide-scale Republican and Democratic support. Echoing President Obama’s stance on Scottish independence, it stated that the House of Representatives, “respects the right of the Scottish people to make their decision regarding their status in the September 18th referendum” and “expresses support for united, secure, and prosperous United Kingdom.”

Reflecting on the resolution, Sherman said “it’s clear from this side of the Atlantic that a United Kingdom, including Scotland, would be the strongest possible American ally.”

Congressman Sherman, who acts as a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Chief Democrat on its Subcommittee on Trade added, “America’s multi-faceted alliance with the United Kingdom spans two centuries. Together we have worked to prevent conflict and respond to disasters around the world. America needs a strong ally which maintains its military, intelligence, and cyber defense capacities.”

On Wednesday Sherman reiterated this position, insisting "a united United Kingdom is a stronger and more ready ally of the US." He also expressed concern a division of Britain’s armed forces would “clearly diminish” their strength and capacity to fight in tandem with the US globally.

The chair of the Senate's Europe subcommittee, Chris Murphy [D-CT], believes the US-UK alliance would be stronger if Scotland remains a part of Britain.

"Our relationship with Great Britain is stronger if Great Britain is stronger," he told the Telegraph. "I don't think separation helps the relationship, but it's ultimately up to Scottish voters to decide."

Ron Johnson [R-WI] also opposes Scottish independence, and has expressed hope Britain remains united. But many members of Congress have reportedly remained neutral on the issue, insisting they wish to stay focused on US domestic concerns and the question of how jihadist militants should be confronted in Iraq and Syria.

"Great Britain is going to have to handle its own politics," the Democrat leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, told the Telegraph. "I have enough to deal with over here."

Some sympathize with the pro-independence nationalist argument, noting that the US also sought independence from Britain. Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, emphasises "if people in Scotland do not feel that their future is with the UK, I think it's their right to make a decision."

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who has campaigned tirelessly for a ‘yes’ vote in next week’s referendum, said on Thursday Scotland’s independence debate has been a "process of national empowerment." Speaking at a press conference for global media, he emphasized the people of Scotland were "rediscovering self-confidence" and finding their voice as the countdown to the referendum continues.

Strategic silence?

It has been reported that, until recently, Scotland’s independence debate had not roused much concern in Washington. But following a weekend poll that revealed the ‘yes’ campaign was leading 51 percent to 49 percent, the fate of Scotland has begun to attract more attention in DC. And with a mere seven days left until Scots cast their votes, the prospect of an independent Scotland is making waves on Capitol Hill.

Frances Burwell, director of transatlantic relations at the Atlantic Council think tank, claims the recent narrowing of referendum polls in Scotland has shocked many in Washington who find it “incomprehensible” that Scotland may break away from the United Kingdom.

Whether the Obama administration has a contingency plan in place should Scotland go it alone is unclear. But Ian Wallace, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, claims the unwillingness of American institutions to comment on the debate is a strategic maneuver. “[There is] an awareness that anything that might be seen as US interference into a Scottish decision would probably be counter-productive. There’s a desire to keep from doing anything that would undermine the case for keeping Britain together,” he said.

If Scotland secures its independence on September 18, the move will have profound policy implications for the America. The fate of 58 Trident II D5 missiles Britain leases from the US, which have functioned as the UK’s most prolific deterrent against a potential nuclear attack since the close of the Cold War are key. The fate of four Vanguard-class submarines, which are used to carry these missiles, is also at stake. Other US concerns focus on a potential shift in the balance of power of NATO, Britain’s relationship with the European Union, and the impact a weakened Britain would have on America’s security and economic interests.