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The geopolitics of the Atlantic Alliance

Over recent months, not least in light of the Russian annexation of Crimea in Ukraine, many analysts have refocused on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), once condemned as a dying institution due to the intensification of European integration – and particularly the rise of the European Union’s (EU) Common Security and Defence Policy. Other experts have become enthused by the potential of the United States (US) to ‘pivot’ back to Europe, even though the rise of China’s military strength is far more of a strategic concern to Washington than Moscow’s pitiful tantrums. Consequently, this proves a perfect moment to review the roles of NATO, the EU and the wider Euro-Atlantic community of which they both form part.

The vision behind NATO was dreamt up by the geostrategist, Sir Halford Mackinder, in a 1943 article in Foreign Affairs entitled ‘The Round World and the Winning of the Peace’. In this article, Mackinder described the need for a ‘Midland Ocean’ alliance after the Second World War to keep the peace in Europe, firstly by repressing Germany, and secondly by deterring Russia. He envisioned the US, Canada, United Kingdom (UK) and France working closely together as the four cornerstones within this alliance:

Without labouring the details of that concept, let me picture it again in its three elements – a bridgehead in France, a moated aerodrome in Britain, and a reserve of trained manpower, agriculture and industries in the eastern United States and Canada. So far as war-fighting potential goes, both the United States and Canada are Atlantic countries, and since instant land warfare is in view, both the bridgehead and the moated aerodrome are essential to amphibious power.

This geopolitical grouping began to gain traction in the later 1940s. The first piece was slotted in place in 1947 with the signing of the Treaty of Dunkirk, effectively a British security guarantee to protect France should the country suffer another attack from the east. One year later, in 1948, the next piece was slotted into place: London signed a defence pact with the Low Countries, called the Treaty of Brussels, bringing to fruition the Western Union Defence Organisation, placing Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg under British protection. After a series of consultations between the Americans, British and Canadians in 1949, these two treaties eventually morphed into NATO – the real ‘Midland Ocean’ – drawing the two sides of the North Atlantic together in a mutual defence agreement, nominally under UK-US leadership. In addition, the Western European Union, a now-defunct grouping that was enveloped by the EU under the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, was established in 1954, after the failure of the European Defence Community, to try and bind West Europeans more closely together within the Atlantic Alliance.

But NATO is only part of the story; incidentally, so is the EU – a project kick-started with the Schuman Declaration of 1950 to reconcile West Germany and France after the horrors of occupation and war. What is important is that all of these institutions are, in one way or another, part of a wider geopolitical constellation enabled and underpinned by the military, industrial and financial power of the UK and US. After all, the Euro-Atlantic structures are capped by a range of mutual UK-US intelligence sharing treaties, including the BRUSA Agreement and the UKUSA Agreement, both of which predate NATO. The former was inaugurated in 1943 during the height of the Second World War, while the latter was founded in 1946. These agreements facilitated the creation of the so-called ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence network, recently brought to prominence by the leaks of the notorious Edward Snowden. The ‘Five Eyes’ includes the UK and US, along with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Each of the five English-speaking countries takes responsibility for monitoring signals intelligence in different parts of the world, with the UK-based Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the US-based National Security Agency (NSA) operating as the hubs for the exchange and processing of knowledge and information. Other trusted nations, like Belgium, France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway, also gain access to this network on an ad-hoc basis.

But UK-US cooperation goes further than intelligence sharing. Although both allies had already signed up to the North Atlantic Treaty – and thus NATO’s Article Five – there was nevertheless concern that, should push come to shove (for example, in the event of a general European war), one side of the Atlantic would not help the other. While the British were somewhat worried about the US commitment, some mainland European allies questioned – in the event of nuclear escalation with the Russians – whether Washington really would risk the sacrifice New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles for Amsterdam, Oslo or Paris. The US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement, signed in 1958, was one step in solving that problem. Although it did not contain any formal declaration of solidarity, Washington and London nevertheless agreed to the first step of a mutual defence pact that remains, paradoxically, even deeper than that provided by NATO. The reason for this is because the treaty began the process of binding together the UK’s strategic nuclear forces with those of the US.

Of course, it is well-known that the British, Canadians and Americans came to work closely with one another during the Second World War to generate a viable atomic bomb, first under the aegis of the British-led ‘Tube Alloys’ programme and later in the much larger American-led ‘Manhattan Project’. This resulted in the ‘Gadget’, which was detonated over the deserts of New Mexico with a mighty flash in 1945, ushering in the ‘Atomic Age’ – possibly the defining moment of the twentieth century (and even, all time). After the war, however, and despite initially agreeing with the UK to continue nuclear cooperation, the US sought a nuclear monopoly, shutting London (and Ottawa) out of bilateral nuclear development through the McMahon Act of 1946. The British were furious, and set about pursuing a new atomic weapons project of their own, using the knowledge gleaned by their scientists working on the Manhattan Project during the war. The UK succeeded in developing its own ‘Gadget’ in 1952, unleashing it off the Australian coast, thus becoming the world’s third nuclear power (Russia exploded its first device in 1949). This was followed five years later by the successful test of a British hydrogen bomb.

In developing a full-scale nuclear capability, London’s real objective was not only the acquisition of the means to inflict massive and unacceptable damage on any enemy. Additionally, the British were also seeking a geopolitical outcome: the UK understood that Europe was becoming an increasingly contested space in a geopolitical context, not least as the Cold War took hold and intensified. London realised that Russia’s growing power, augmented by its many satellite states, annexed during the Second World War, could only be ‘balanced’ by drawing together the strength of the democracies on either side of the North Atlantic into one cohesive bloc. Moreover, the UK understood that by the late 1950s, better means of delivery were needed for its own nuclear weapons: the Vulcans, Victors and Valiants – the Royal AirForce’s strategic bombers – were already starting to become obsolete. Russia was starting to develop powerful new ballistic missiles with intercontinental reach; and for Britain to develop an effective response by itself would be extremely costly. London looked to Washington for help.

But this would require even deeper UK-US nuclear collaboration. At first, however, the US sensed an opportunity to regain its nuclear monopoly, at least within the West. The US Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, wanted to render the UK dependent on his country’s own capabilities: Washington therefore tried to force London into accepting a dual-use policy, i.e. that the US would retain a veto over Britain’s capacity for deployment. The British, however, realised that this would diminish their influence, both in Washington, but particularly in relation to their European allies, meaning they wanted to hold onto their own nuclear autonomy. The opportunity for a breakthrough came with the Nassau Agreement in 1962, effectively the second step in UK-US mutual defence. After tough negotiations, and after a quiet stroll between the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, and American President, John F. Kennedy, a deal was struck whereby the US would lease the UK its own delivery system – Polaris missiles – which the British would cap with their own thermonuclear warheads. These would then be carried by a new generation of Royal Navy nuclear submarines, powered by reactors modelled on American designs.

Apart from the enormous cost savings for the British, the ability to fire Polaris missiles was critical. Although any enemy with sufficiently sophisticated air surveillance systems would still be able to detect the speed and trajectory of any missiles in the event of a nuclear exchange (meaning it might realise who was firing them), it would not be able to readily determine whether the missiles were British or American in origin. That is to say, if the UK was attacked by Russia and London initiated a nuclear response, Moscow would not know whether it was being hit by the UK or the US (or both). This forced the Russians – as well as others – to factor uncertainty into their own nuclear warfighting and deterrence doctrines, making the cost of miscalculation ever greater, and the British-American ability to deter thus even stronger. In effect, it ensured that the Atlantic Alliance gained a material as well as an ideological tether, to keep the two sides together, even in the event of a European conflict in which the North American side did not really want to become involved.

Today, while Polaris has been replaced by the even-more lethal Trident, the UK-US backed geopolitical constellation known as the Atlantic Alliance is very much still alive. Of course, many other European countries continue to believe that their political and economic links with Washington will ensure the Americans shall come to their aid in the event of any future hostilities, and they may be right. The US knows that European security is vital, but only London has the capability to act as the final insurance policy for other Europeans. In short, it – and only it – retains the physical capacity to ultimately oblige the US to become involved in any general European conflict. And because of Britain’s close geographic proximity to mainland Europe and the fact that British geostrategy is decidedly liberal – in other words, to prevent the continent falling under a universal tyrant – the UK’s intervention is practically guarenteed should a surrounding great power make a bid for European hegemony.

So, due to the de-facto binding together of the British and American intelligence-gathering capabilities and nuclear deterrents, the enormous material resources of the US (and Canada) will likely always be at the disposal of the UK. Conversely, as the US continues to ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to the Indo-Pacific, for similar reasons – albeit reversed – Washington will automatically acquire the means to compel London, and by extension, other European capitals, into any conflict it may get drawn into in the Indo-Pacific. Thus, so long as the UK and US continue to cooperate with one another with intelligence gathering and sharing and nuclear deterrence, the Atlantic Alliance will retain its strategic relevance, irrespective of its geostrategic focus. If other European countries are serious about supporting the Atlantic Alliance, they would do well to increase their military spending. This will help London and Washington should the international situation turn more volatile in the twenty-first century, providing them with the means to continue to assert the Pax Atlantica and thus maintain a durable peace.

Vol. 6, No. 44 (2014)


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