By Beatrice Heuser, Professor of International Relations, University of Glasgow

IF Brexit happens, it is none too soon to reflect on Britain’s future role in European and world security. Britain will still be an offshore island of Europe. Yet technology has changed what that means in terms of security. Already in late 1906, the press magnate Lord Northcliffe was proclaiming that “England is no longer an island”. The “aerial chariots of a foe” could now descend “on British soil if war comes”.

At the same time, the role Britain played in European security changed fundamentally from the First World War onwards. For centuries, England – and later Britain – sought to counter-balance through endless wars who it was that dominated, or looked likely to dominate, the European continent. Then, briefly in the late 19th century, when Britain had acquired its colonial empire, Britain turned its back on European security and European wars by withdrawing into “splendid isolation” while its colonial wars continued. By contrast, Britain’s interest in who dominated the opposite coast remained strong, especially in Belgium, the neutrality of which was guaranteed by London. When Belgian neutrality was crushed under the jackboots of an invading German army in 1914, a new era began. Britain became a world policeman, alongside France. Both were members of the League of Nations’ Council in the inter-war period, and as such, both declared war on expansionist Nazi Germany in 1939. This was both balance-of-power politics and policing. After the Second World War, Britain remained true to this new role of world policeman: it became a permanent member of the new United Nations’ Security Council. When the latter was paralysed by the ideological disagreements between the USSR and the three Western liberal members, Britain took the lead in building a new security architecture. In Europe, this took the form, initially, of the Western (European) Union of 1948 (WEU), the forerunner of Nato, founded in 1949 in response to a joint British-French initiative.

Britain was at the intersection of several circles: the UN Security Council; the Commonwealth; the “special relationship” with the US, based on joint nuclear procurement and targeting and intelligence; and the WEU, which was in 2011 itself subsumed into the EU’s Lisbon Treaty; and Nato. As the only member of all of these, Britain had great influence. It could act as transatlantic bridge between EU and America, and garner support for EU and Nato positions among Commonwealth countries. Even when, with decolonisation, Britain went from world power to second-tier power, it could thus remain, one of the world’s leading security providers.

What role should Britain play in European and world security post-Brexit?

Back to balance-of-power wars would be absurd. Britain can no longer be a bridge over the Atlantic without EU membership. Nato may be on the wane: President Trump has said repeatedly, both in public and in private, that he wants to pull America out of it. In the UN’s Security Council, Britain will have the least legitimacy of the Permanent Five members: hitherto, France and Britain could argue that it was better for Europe to have their two seats than for the EU to have only one. In future, what claim does Britain have when states with many times more inhabitants than the United Kingdom, one, India, a nuclear power, are not among the Permanent Five? To be “world policeman when it won’t help keep order in his own region? Let us hope Britain’s neighbours can assure their own security without Britain’s lead. It worked so well in the past, or did it?