Juliet Kaarbo: How global Scotland could punch above its weight

Today there are more than 300 international (or intergovernmental) organisations (IOs), including the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU), in which national governments are the members. 

IOs have become a significant part of the global political landscape and their numbers have grown, particularly after World War II, again in the 1970s, and following the Cold War.

An independent Scotland would want to join as many as possible.  IO membership is, for modern states, a very important part of their foreign policy toolkit – how they relate to other actors on the world’s stage and how they represent their own peoples, interests, and identities.  For most states, joining IOs brings many more benefits than costs.  For small and new states, as an independent Scotland would be, IO membership is especially important. 

While there is much debate around an independent Scotland’s membership in the EU (would it be accepted by EU member states, how long would this take?), there would be few barriers to Scotland’s membership in many other international organisations.  This is because IOs can better meet their goals of international cooperation with the support of more states, or of all states in the case of universal or near universal membership (such as the UN); so they typically welcome newcomers. 

An independent Scotland would also already accept the principles and obligations of many IOs as these institutions are typically built on liberal ideals of cooperation and Scotland, as part of the UK, has been supporting them for many years. 

There are some IOs Scotland could not join because it lacks the defining characteristic for membership – it is not, for example, an African state so it could not join the African Union; it would not have the economic size to join the Group of 20.  But setting aside these types of (mainly regional-based) IOs, an independent Scotland would still be left with many IOs to choose from.

The most obvious candidates are the big, global organisations, such as the UN and the World Trade Organization (WTO).  The UN was designed to provide member-states with collective security (with an attack on one meaning an attack on all).

While the UN has not stopped war through this collective deterrence, it has offered a forum for negotiation, a place for coordinating sanctions against aggressors, and mechanisms for peacekeeping and other forms of conflict resolution. 

While the UK government would retain the permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Scotland would rotate into a Security Council seat, as all UN states do.  Membership in the UN also means access to the vast network of UN agencies, such as the International Labour Organization, the UN Human Rights Council, and the World Health Organization. 

Membership in the WTO, another global IO, provides states economic trade arrangements to reduce or eliminate tariffs, quotas, and other restrictions to free trade and facilitates dispute resolution to enforce agreements.  Most states are members of the WTO.

Countries join these IOs because they see more benefits than costs, and an independent Scotland would have the same calculation.  IOs are institutionalised environments for multilateral cooperation on international issues – issues that cross borders and require collaboration to address. 

IOs help overcome collective action problems by incentivising and normalising cooperation and sanctioning and shaming non-cooperation. 

They are a place for diplomacy and dialogue.  They enshrine norms and ideals, such as non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, commitments to address climate change, and gender equality.

And they, overall, respect state sovereignty – states agree to the resolutions and treaties; most resolutions that are controversial are non-binding, which is a weakness of IOs.  Despite this and other limitations and critiques of IOs, most states in the 20th and 21st centuries have concluded that the international system and their countries are better off in a world with IOs.  For these reasons, Scotland would seek IO memberships.

Small and new states, as an independent Scotland would be, are particularly attracted to joining IOs, for several reasons. 

Small states, with modest diplomatic corps and few embassies around the world, can use IO meetings and agencies to gather information, build trust with others, and form coalitions with like-minded countries. 

They can thus reap the benefits of multilateral cooperation with less expenditure and capacity than it would take to maintain bilateral relationships outside of IOs.  From small states’ perspectives, IOs also have the potential to curb big powers by establishing norms, rules, and procedures that protect small states’ sovereignty. 

Some IOs follow the one-state-one-vote principle, equalising states, at least in voting, regardless of their size and power.  IOs can also allow states to play bigger roles, to ‘punch above their weight’.  IO headquarters are often hosted in small states, and the leaders of IOs (particularly the UN Secretary-General) commonly come from small state members.

Beyond the obvious global IOs, an independent Scotland may also seek membership in more ‘specialised’ organisations. These could further particular Scottish interests and self-conceptions, connecting to the foreign policy priorities that an independent Scotland may pursue. 

These include membership in the Commonwealth of Nations, the International Renewable Energy Agency, the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and some type of affiliation with the Arctic Council and the Nordic Council.

Joining IOs brings states more than material benefits. States also join IOs to demonstrate their identity as globally minded and outward facing.

For Scotland, this should not be a major issue – it is, after all, a liberal democracy that already supports international treaties and international organisations as part of the UK. 

But for some in the international system, Scottish independence might be seen as a sign of an inward-looking trend of ‘tribalism’, a further fragmentation of the world, a continuation of Brexit-like autonomy-seeking, and even a threat to a cooperative and stable international order. 

Joining and being an active member of IOs would likely be a strategy for an independent Scotland to demonstrate the ‘good global citizen’ role that the Scottish Government aspires to play.  This is just one more reason for IO membership being a key part of an independent Scotland’s foreign affairs.

Juliet Kaarbo is Professor of Foreign Policy at the University of Edinburgh and Founding Co-Director of the Scottish Council on Global Affairs


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