One night in 1991 as the Soviet Union crumbled, someone snuck into the United Nations Security Council chamber and changed the USSR’s nameplate, replacing it with the legend “Russian Federation”. No discussion was held as to whether it was right for Russia to inherit the Soviet Union’s permanent seat – why not Ukraine or, indeed, no-one? It just happened. One day it was the Soviet Union, the next it was Russia.
If Scotland votes to become an independent nation later this month nobody from the UK’s UN delegation will have to change their nameplate. The UK may be a little smaller but it will still take its place at the top table.
An independent Scotland will have to satisfy itself with membership of the now 194-nation General Assembly. Eventually it may become a member of the EU – though Spain with its Catalonian issue is unlikely to be supportive – while Nato and the World Trade Organisation will open their doors too.
But what sort of role will Scotland play on the world stage? It’s a question that has been asked all too rarely during the two-year independence campaign. The only international part of the debate to take off has been over EU membership – but even here it’s about process rather than principle. Will Scotland be able to join? What sort of EU member would Scotland be? Would it support a banking union? Would it back Turkey’s membership? No-one really knows.
Throughout the campaign the Scottish National Party has pitched the debate as Scottish social democracy versus English conservatism, with both a big and small C. An independent Scotland will offer free childcare, more social justice and an array of moon-on-the-stick not-sure-how-we’ll-pay-for-it policies that those Tories in Westminster won’t allow. Translate that soft-left-liberal attitude into foreign policy and one can imagine an emphasis on humanitarian aid, perhaps a battalion or two in an uncontroversial peacekeeping mission and strong words on human rights.
During Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, the SNP’s Alex Salmond was one of the more outspoken frontline politicians in the UK, calling on David Cameron to take a stronger line.
The pay-off, of course, is that fewer people will be listening to a politician who represents just five million. Scotland’s views will be taken as seriously as Belgium’s.
Aside from making some Scots feel better about their government’s morals it would make no difference to events in the Middle East. Scotland will have a more strident yet far smaller voice. For some, of course, this will be a good thing – there are many, particularly on the left, who feel that principled opposition is better than compromised influence.
Salmond once spoke of his hopes that Scotland would join the “arc of prosperity” which spread from Iceland to Ireland. That looks foolish now but were he to extend that arc a little further to the east he would find a small, social-democratic, oil-producing nation that it might be worth emulating: Norway.
It has leveraged its soft power in a way that an independent Scotland would be wise to study closely. Its foreign office has a peace and reconciliation unit involved in around 20 negotiations around the world, from mediating the peace talks in Havana between the Colombian government and Farc rebels to attempts to bring two warring factions together in South Sudan. Its military plays an outsized role in peacekeeping, heading the UN mission in Cyprus, while a former prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, is about to take over as secretary general of Nato. Becoming the new Norway isn’t straightforward though – if it were, all small nations would similarly punch above their weight.
In recent weeks the opinion polls have narrowed and the “No” campaign’s healthy lead – once a comfortable 20 points – has all but disappeared. One poll yesterday for the first time showed a tiny majority in favour of independence. Scots may have a decent idea of what their country will look like from the inside. From the outside, though, it’s still less than clear.
Steve Bloomfield is foreign editor for Monocle.