The Duck of Minerva

The Scottish Threat Environment: Insecurity, Fears and Independence

23 December 2013

This article is cross posted from the Scottish Global Forum.  In this form it is slightly modified and hyperlinked.

The Nature of Threats to Scotland

In March of 2015, a cry goes out in the town centre, everyone reacts quickly.  Valuables are hidden underground; women and children are stored in hideaways to be kept safe until the danger is over.  The sacred and expensive items in the church are removed and the priests flee – they are often the first targeted.  The town moves to the defenses, but there is little that they can do to counter the oncoming scourge.  The Vikings are off the coast of Scotland, again.  Scrooge_mc_Duck_full_color_by_MacOneill

The scenario described above is obviously an absurd fiction; however, there is little disconnect between this scenario and the context of the current debate surrounding the security of an independent Scotland.  I have followed the debate on Scottish independence with great interest and have done so through the eyes of a ‘new immigrant’ to Scotland, one who studies war and conflict as a profession.  One of the most troubling aspects of this debate is the continued reference to ‘external threat’ to Scotland.  The narrative is framed in a way which suggests that Scotland cannot become independent because it cannot afford to secure its own international environment and borders.  It is almost if the Vikings remain a rational fear in 2013.

There are many reasons to debate the efficacy of Scottish independence, but the limitations imposed by repressive security threats should not be one of them.  In fact, I would question whether there are any major realistic threats to Scottish security.  The deeper question I have is why these suggested security concerns are still taken seriously in modern international affairs?  The perception of threat is endemic; all states appear to feel fearful and threatened, but why is this?  Within the Scottish context, we might ask:  what kinds of threats would Scotland really have to face if it were independent?  And would defending against those threats really require a vast defense apparatus?

The modern reality is that military threats are often of the making of the state.  They are borne of choices that states often willingly enter into; this is particularly so for Western states.  If an independent Scotland wanted to have a first-rate military, it could do so by choice in order to participate in international peacekeeping and conflict stabilization exercises (or offensive adventures if it so chose).  However, it should not seek develop a military force to protect itself from some modern incarnation of the Viking threat.  There are no Vikings left, and no coherent threats that pose a real, existential threat to Scottish life.

In this article, we will evaluate the possible contemporary threats that Scotland faces, both from states and from domains such as cyber security and terrorism.  We conclude that only by deconstructing the reality of threats can we have a truly rational debate about Scottish security priorities.

State Based Threats

It is unrealistic to consider states such as Ireland, the Nordic countries, or other European states as representing any kind of threat to the security of Scotland.  For one state to represent a security threat to another state, there needs to be an interest at stake and there also needs to be disagreement between the two sides.  All conflicts are founded on this dynamic (Maness and Valeriano 2013).  This is why many scholars were waiting in vain for Europe to balance the United States (US) after the Cold War (Waltz 2000).  Yet there has been no reason for the Europeans to strive to balance against the US since there has been no direct conflict of interest at stake between the two sides.  The same can basically be said of the relationship between China and the US.  What question or issue divides those two countries directly?  Certainly there are direct issues of contention between Japan and China or South Korea and China, but direct security threats between the US and China are ambiguous.  Third parties can drag states into conflict, but this process will be examined a bit later.

Are there viable security threats to Scotland?  If so, where exactly would they come from?  We conclude that in fact there is no viable state threat to Scotland’s existence.  International relations theory may provide justification for the possibility that conflict could come from Scotland’s south, by virtue of the UK Government in London somehow resisting Scottish independence.  However, citing this as a possibility ignores the reality of modern state secession (Beissinger 1998) and it certainly ignores the dynamic that exists between Edinburgh and London.  If Scotland is to become independent, it would have to do so with the willing participation of London and this participation has indeed been formally secured through the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012.  Any future conflict between an independent Scotland and the remainder of the UK (rUK) may conceivably come through unsettled territorial boundaries, yet modern democracies rarely divorce without settling their boundaries first (Gibler 2012).  This would certainly be so in Scotland’s case.  We can therefore write this ‘threat’ off as being as unrealistic as an oncoming Viking horde.

There is the chance that conflict could arise in the future from issues relating to the North Sea.  In the rush to delineate maritime boundaries after further global warming, this area could become prone to tensions due to its various prized resources (Klein 2005).  This is a remote possibility but if it were to emerge, it would most likely do so through some form of confrontation with Russia which still perceives threats from the West (Maness and Valeriano 2013) and which will likely continue to try to dominate shipping traffic through the Northern Sea Route.  Yet, the reality is that if tensions were to arise in this manner, the US, Canada, and the UK would not stand idly by and leave Scotland on its own.

This would be particularly true of rUK.  The North Sea oil fields have been explored and developed by the UK and in the event of Scotland’s independence both Scotland and rUK would continue to have a shared standing interest in these areas (Carson 1984).  The rUK would therefore support Scotland ahead of any potential confrontation over this region because divorce does not mean the relationship is severed if a common interest remains.  The same can be said of the United States, which would not abandon an independent Scotland in trouble.  There are more Scots in the US than in Scotland (Wheeler 2012).  An independent Scotland would not be without friends in the international system. 

Situational Threats

Other elements of the anti-independence narrative insist that a nuclear deterrent is necessary for the protection of Scotland, therefore Scotland should continue as part of UK, or at least continue to host the UK’s nuclear-armed Trident submarines (Glanvill 2012).  The problem with this line of reasoning is the assumption that ‘nuclear deterrence’ is actually effective in protecting states against conflict.  The history of the last 60 years surely demonstrates that it is not (Green 1966, Russett 1983, Powell 1990).

While some argue that nuclear weapons have made war less likely, it is unclear that the relative absence of war is due to the existence of nuclear weapons (Vasquez 1996).  What is clear is that whilst a nuclear deterrent can be seen as a form of protection, it can also be seen – in various ways – as a source of danger (for recent evidence of this, see Japan and the Fukushima nuclear plant).  Just one mistake involving nuclear weapons could be catastrophic.  Maintaining nuclear weapons could also see an independent Scotland becoming a target, either by those who seek such weapons or who want to make a statement by targeting them.  We must recognize that nuclear weapons are no longer viable instruments for modern developed states.  They now represent something to be attained by those states and groups which, for various reasons, are seeking status.  It is in the latter situation that the dangers lie.

In Scotland’s case, there are few ‘threats’ left worthy of discussion.  Certainly, we can contemplate the oft-cited ‘cyber threat’ (Geers 2009, Choo 2011) but in fact we find it laughable to think that this may have any great significance to Scotland.  This is because cyber conflict is not somehow divorced from international relations (Valeriano and Maness 2014).  It has to be recognized that states which engage in cyber conflict typically do so within the context of existing conflicted relations or shared animosity (think Estonia and Russia, Georgia and Russia, the US and Iran).  Since it is extremely difficult to think of an independent Scotland developing such relations with other states, we must conclude that there is little likelihood of its becoming involved in interstate cyber conflict (Maness and Valeriano 2012).

Cyber security is undoubtedly a concern from the ‘crime’ perspective, but even this threat is overstated.  Large sums of money are typically cited as a way of trying to demonstrate how dangerous and pervasive cyber conflict is (Clarke and Knake 2010).  Yet when the sums are placed into context, cyber threats can in fact be seen to be nearly insignificant.  Losses in the cyber realm in the US, for example, account for only about .0015 percent of the total US GDP.  This hardly represents a critical threat to national security.

Recently, in the Keynote speech at the Global Security, National Defense, and the Future of Scotland conference at the University of Glasgow, Sir David Omand noted that the cyber threat in the Scottish context was a reality because “Scotland would be the backdoor to England.”  This statement makes no sense.  By a similar logic, Mexico and Canada are the ‘backdoor’ to the US and North Korea is the ‘backdoor’ to China.  Statements such as these either ignore the realities of cyber security, or they are cited as a way of inflating fear.  The sense of threat is also consistently being inflated by cyber security professionals who are looking to generate contracts and business (Valeriano and Maness 2013).  In short, we think it important to note that the fears generated in this realm are hugely disproportionate to the actual threat; concerns over ‘cyber threats’ should not be considered a barrier to Scottish independence.

The ‘terrorist threat’ remains to be discussed.  This is seen by some to be a real concern, especially given the attack at Glasgow International Airport in 2007 where an attempted bombing was foiled by a baggage handler (Gardham 2008).  However this was an isolated attack, meek in both organization and sophistication.  This incident should not be viewed as something which demonstrates Scotland’s status as a major target for terrorism, or that there is any special capacity for extremism in Scotland.

In looking to any future threats, an independent Scotland might in fact eliminate itself as a terrorist target since it would be removing itself from adventures that the UK has undertaken in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.  An independent Scotland might even be viewed as a strong symbol of devolution and breakaway from Western imperialism by some, including by standing terrorist organizations located in Spain, France, Columbia, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.  It makes little sense to think that this symbol might then become a target of terrorism. 

Prediction and Complications

The issue of NATO may complicate an independent Scotland’s security relations.  The current Scottish Government appears to be going out of its way to ensure that an independent Scotland would join NATO, and it has reiterated this commitment in its recently-published independence White Paper.  Yet it could be argued that NATO membership could draw Scotland into many of the conflicts and debates it seeks to avoid by becoming independent.  It could be drawn again into the controversy surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan.  It would be beholden to support Article 5 and to respond to any attack on allies as diverse as the United States and Turkey.  NATO certainly makes Scotland ‘more powerful with friends’ but also less secure since it could conceivably be drawn into warfighting and anti-terrorism activities.  Research tells us that involvement in alliances make states more likely to fight wars and also to become the target of conflict (Gibler 1999).  Why then is NATO membership one of the pillars of Scottish independence?

At the recent Future of Scotland conference, Lt. General Sir Alistair Irwin noted that prediction is impossible in conflict.  This statement flies in the face of the proliferating studies doing just that (Senese and Vasquez 2008).  We do understand what the common causes of war are.  Territorial disputes are the top of the list, as are regime leadership concerns (i.e. Saddam Hussein), and vast differences in norms between states (Vasquez 2000, 2012).  We face none of these issues in Scotland.  Economic competition and resource conflicts, environmental conflicts, delineation of maritime boundaries, and religion are often branded as common causes of war, yet there is no evidence for these factors being consistently critical in this sense.  Certainly, these factors are highly unlikely to cause conflict for an independent Scotland.

The field of international relations has produced a vast amount of scholarship that is relevant to the issue of threat – and threat perception – in an independent Scotland.  These works are informative and they really should be consulted, yet opinions are thrown about in Scotland’s debate with little connection to the relevant scholarship.  We know well the correlates of conflict and war – to express opposition to independence based on erroneous conjecture on this subject is irresponsible and does little to encourage meaningful debate.


Addiction to Fear

Humanity has an addiction, not to conflict but to fear, and this fear orientates policy desires.  However these fears may be unrealistic, not tethered to reality, and they may also be deliberately invoked in order to influence peoples’ opinion in one particular direction.  There are many reasons to debate the merits of Scottish independence, but citing the threats that Scotland may face from rUK, Europe, Cyber Security, and Terrorism is unrealistic and unhelpful.  We have to move beyond these frames if a sensible debate is to take hold.

Often the debate about Scottish independence trends towards the international relations framework of critical security studies.  The goal should be emancipation.  Scotland could literally be emancipated from the UK but if this is the choice that Scotland makes, this choice should also emancipate it from the traditional security concerns that colored its existence as a part of the UK.  As Hew Strachan (at the Future of Scotland conference) notes, “Scotland may be more secure but paradoxically weaker” with independence. With the future comes choice; an independent Scotland could make international relations choices of its own making and it would not have to be tethered to traditional security fears and power politics.  Scotland will be militarily weaker if it leaves the UK, yet it will also be more secure since it will not play the power politics games that other countries will continue to engage in.

The ultimate question is whether or not the choice of independence is right for Scotland.  Is its voice better heard through union with the United Kingdom?  Or would it be better to be independent, to shout from a hill as a distinct entity?  It is through this lens that we can truly evaluate the merits of Scottish independence from the perspective of the International Relations field.  Looking through the dubious lens of threat perceptions and insecurities only detracts from the realities of Scotland’s situation.  We welcome the debate on independence and Scottish security, but only if it is tethered to known realities and not to mythical fears.


Dr Brandon Valeriano is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Global Security at the University of Glasgow.  He is a Fellow of the Scottish Global Forum.

Dr Ryan Maness lectures in International Relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 


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