Back in the Game? Britain’s Bid for NATO Leadership and the post-Brexit Trauma.


Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s possible elevation to Secretary General of NATO makes sense. From his perspective, at least, and perhaps those of his colleagues.

Indeed, Cameron’s low profile since his resignation makes him a convenient candidate. He’d be out of the picture when it comes to domestic politics, being absolutely no bother to Prime Minister Theresa May and highly unlikely to upset the new status quo inside the Conservative party after the débâcle of Brexit. He’ll be out of the way, out of sight and (hopefully for all) out of mind.

Yet there are other reasons as to why the Brits could plausibly push to have Cameron selected for the role. It’s no secret that the UK has lost face in Europe. Anyone witnessing Nigel Farage’s embarrassing post-Brexit speech to the European Parliament cannot have missed the fact that the man is neither liked nor respected. Neither is the political current he represents. Neither, as far as Europe is concerned, is British nationalism.

Negotiations as to actually triggering the much maligned Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (and thus completing the Brexit shambles via a final exit from the EU) have hardly gone well. European leaders have at times shown signs of losing patience with Britain altogether, with the new Prime Minister walking a fine line between placating a eurosceptic public at home and an increasingly frustrated Brussels. Coupled with ongoing economic maladies, Theresa May certainly seems to have her work cut out for her.

David Cameron as NATO Secretary General may thus go some way to restoring a sense of respectability (in the eyes of elites, anyway) otherwise dented by the events of last summer. Far from being seen as an unreliable partner looking to jump ship, Cameron’s position may symbolically recast Britain’s image in the eyes of the rest of Europe. Despite being associated with a political gamble of his own ill-advised choosing, the former PM may potentially claw back much needed prestige by taking on a position within an organisation still valued by politicians across the continent.

A few facts need to be well remembered, however. The primary power behind NATO, from its inception to the present day, is the United States. Those who remain close to what remains the world’s sole superpower evidently retain a sense of political clout that would be otherwise absent. Britain, presently and historically, treasures a much vaunted “special relationship” with the US, even when it has led to actions, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, entirely lacking in political and moral credibility. Cameron certainly knows this himself, having joined the US in NATO ochestrated operations in the bombardment of Libya in 2011.

Yet Brexit took its toll here, also. Then President Obama made an assortment of unwelcome remarks regarding British standing in the run-up to the Brexit drama, heavily implying that Washington’s favour remained with the EU rather than an increasingly unpredictable Britain. To have told the British that they would be at the “back of the queue” in future trade relations implied the emergence of a potential fracture in the aforementioned “special relationship” of UK/US relations, something that wasn’t easy on the ears of a British government already caught amid stormy political waters.

London may thus be eager to again prove its worth to the US behemoth, especially given the emergence of an upcoming President hardly famous for either political erudition or general diplomacy. A former British Prime Minister at the helm of NATO may thus go some way toward strengthening historically durable ties between the two nations. Other states will not fail to take notice of such a development and, plausibly, continue to view the UK as a serious player in global politics.

That’s assuming, however, that President Trump is able to comprehend the situation for what it is. Whilst apparently being so “smart” he doesn’t need daily briefings, Trump has proven himself something of a wild card when it comes to foreign relations. Whether we’re talking about his blunder over Taiwan to putting his social media skills to work in order to threaten the world with a renewed nuclear arms race, America’s new President is hardly inspiring us with confidence.

What’s more, he’s proven himself quite sceptical of NATO as an institution, bizarrely believing that an unravelling of the alliance would be of little consequence to US interests in general. It’s hard to decipher what exactly the President means here. At the risk of sounding blunt, it’s possible that Trump doesn’t fully understand what NATO actually is, nor the political and historical context in which it was founded. If so, Britain’s potentially renewed prominence in such an organisation may prove illusory in the long-term, with the alliance likely to prove increasingly hollow without the full backing of its super-power founder.

That assumes, of course, that the Trump Presidency will ultimate decide NATO is not a suitable platform for pursuing US interests in Europe. This seems highly unlikely, given the situation in the east, most emphatically the detritus left from the overthrow of Ukrainian President Yanukovych in 2014. Indeed, European allies show little indication of disillusionment with the alliance, seeming to view it as integral to their collective security interests in the face of a resurgent Russia. For Trump to turn his back entirely on such concerns would be a remarkably peculiar decision, one which, even if he does personally view it as viable, would mar US/European relations for some considerable time.

In any case, David Cameron himself is no doubt happy. From having gone from the pinnacle of political power to an embarrassing defeat in a contest he initially welcomed, the former PM is likely looking forward to potentially once again enjoying a semblance of prestige. What this will add up to in an increasingly uncertain political climate, in Britain and indeed across Europe, remains to be seen.

Daniel Read is a UK-based journalist specialising in human rights and international affairs. He originally studied journalism at Kingston University, London, prior to obtaining post-graduate degrees in both human rights and global politics. He blogs at and tweets at @DanielTRead.

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