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Once a political improbability, the voices of independence seem to grow stronger and stronger in Scotland. As the Scots prepare to go to the polls Sept. 18, questions about Scottish independence and U.S. national security remain unresolved. While the vote will ultimately be a display of Scottish self-determination, an independent Scotland could present challenges to what has been one of the longest and most productive security partnerships in history.

The special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom — not withstanding a certain White House cake on Twitter a few weeks ago — has been the bedrock of transatlantic security for most of the 20th century through World War II and the Cold War, as well as the shifting sands of the post-Cold War and post-9/11 eras.

Of all the factors now being discussed by leaders in London and Edinburgh, it is the British armed forces and security services that benefit the most from the geographical and financial advantages of the union, as well as the talented personnel from throughout the British Isles.  

The United Kingdom is a steadfast partner in the NATO alliance. Even with significant budgetary pressure, Britain is one of the few countries that still reaches the recommended 2 percent of GDP threshold for military spending, and, with France, it remains one of the few nations able to join the United States in conducting significant expeditionary operations. As members of the “Five Eyes,” the United States and United Kingdom — alongside Australia, Canada, and New Zealand — monitor a chaotic world. American and British law enforcement work hand-in-hand to confront terrorism and crime. 

Should Scotland break away from the United Kingdom, could the United States maintain this close of a security relationship with an independent Scotland? What would be the potential vulnerabilities opened by an independent Scotland? And would the remaining United Kingdom be able to serve in such close partnership? As polls shift in Scotland toward independence, these are questions that American security planners need to consider in greater detail.

The political leaders of the Scottish independence movement, the Scottish National Party (SNP), have a checkered history in terms of NATO participation. It wasn’t until 2012 that the SNP finally voted to ditch the anti-NATO element of its platform, and there is still significant opposition to NATO among the SNP grassroots. Should an independent Scotland seek NATO membership, it would have to reconcile its demands for nuclear disarmament with NATO agreements to deploy nuclear weapons.

One must ask whether an independent Scotland would be a security contributor or a free rider within the alliance structure. In facing a resurgent Russia, Scotland is geographically vital for intercepting Russian aircraft, ships, and submarines entering the North Atlantic. Even with conservative estimates of Scottish defense spending, it is likely that their defense capacity would be similar to smaller Nordic countries. Already, we have seen how Russian aircraft repeatedly challenge the airspace of the countries of the Baltics and Scandinavia countries — and the United Kingdom itself — would Scotland require an extension of already stretched NATO resources for its air policing as well?

In facing issues of terrorism, cybersecurity, and organized crime, the United States would have to build partnerships with new Scottish intelligence and law enforcement bodies, as Scotland would no longer participate in MI5, MI6, and GCHQ. Given the challenges of setting up these new bodies and building their capabilities, could Scotland potentially become a conduit for these nefarious activities? Would the United States see increased cybercrime and cyber espionage routed through Scottish networks? Would travel between Scotland and the United States continue under existing visa waiver policies?

Newly independent Scotland would have to build new security, intelligence, and law enforcement partnerships with the United States. There is no doubt that the United States and an independent Scotland could work together closely on these issues. Scotland and the United States share — and will continue to share — the same fundamental values. Still there are understandable concerns about the resources and capabilities of a United Kingdom that remains united compared to an independent Scotland and what remains of the United Kingdom. Ultimately, this would reshape U.S. national security and the transatlantic partnership.

Finally, as Scotland decides, it is worth remembering, when British surgeons worked to save American soldiers and marines in Afghanistan, some of the transfused blood came from the United Kingdom. For the young men and women on that operating table, it didn’t matter whether the blood came from Coventry, Cardiff, or Carnoustie.