Britain’s membership of NATO does not automatically oblige us to participate in a conflict between Trump’s America and Kim’s North Korea, even if the latter attacks US military bases in the Pacific. Although Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that an attack on one NATO member is an act of aggression against the entire military alliance, the application of this provision is limited only to attacks on member states’ territories in North America, Europe and the Atlantic.
Consequently, if Kim’s warheads strike US military bases in the Pacific, the US could ask for Britain’s assistance, but cannot formally compel the UK and other NATO allies to join the military efforts against North Korea.
There is a precedent of course. When asked to support the war in Vietnam, the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused, saying he had doubts about the legitimacy of the war because the North Vietnamese had not posed any threat to the USA and under the terms of the United Nations Charter the North Vietnamese had a right to self determination, even if that meant a communist regime taking power, an outcome that was anathema to Washington.
Britain itself suffered from the limited scope of Article 5 in the early 1980s, when the caveat prevented then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from invoking NATO’s collective self-defense provision over the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands.
Article 5 has only been invoked on one occasion: after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on 9/11, 2001.
The US, however, may exercise informal pressure to ensure Britain’s support in the military confrontation with Kim’s regime.
The UK’s impending withdrawal from the EU will, according to some foreign policy pundits, make Britan more dependent for on its transatlantic partner, as evidenced by British PM Theresa May’s plans for an extensive trade treaty with the US, which may mitigate the negative economic effects of Brexit. However, once unconstrained by suffocating EU bureaucracy, Britain will be free to negotiate trade deals with anybody and many nations including China and India are eager to trade with us. Bullying on trade might not give Washington as much leverage as they would like.
Consequently, Britain may be unwilling to permanently damage the so-called “special relationship” with the US by failing to back up its key ally in the war against North Korea, especially if the latter acts as an aggressor. We can only hope that as previously reported, the intervention of Russia and China may once again avert an escalation of the crisis into full scale conflict.