A Washington Perspective: The Fraying Bonds of the Special Relationship
March 30, 2010
There are two main strands to the special relationship between the United States and Britain, both of which are vulnerable to erosion in the coming years, although at differing speeds. One is the deep civilizational bond between the two leading "Anglo-Saxon" powers; the other the intense politico-military and intelligence co-operation between the two governments since World War II. Combined, these two strands have woven bonds of kinship and common interest that differentiate US-UK relations from those between the United States and its other leading allies. The first strand is a compound mixture of historical, cultural, linguistic and political ties that is relatively unaffected by ups and downs in inter-governmental relations. The second strand, however, is much more prone to the ebb and flow of foreign and security policies and changes in personal chemistry between the two countries' leaders. Clearly, the multi-layered relationship has been of enormous benefit to the two countries over the past century.
While the relationship is obviously unbalanced in power terms, UK support has helped to allay charges of US "unilateralism"; Britain has provided significant military, intelligence and diplomatic backing to Washington; and the two have worked together to promote a liberal, free-trading global economic system. Although the special relationship fell into some disrepute in Britain during the Administration of President George W. Bush, especially over Iraq, most postwar British governments have considered close links with America to be a vital national interest.
Now, however, as both countries undertake reassessments of their future strategic roles, there is considerable danger that the politico-military and intelligence elements of the relationship will be weakened—both by an American shift in priorities away from Europe and by a continuing decline in Britain's defense capabilities. The civilizational bond will endure longer, but it will also gradually diminish as memories of World War II fade and anglophile Americans of European origin become less dominant in US society. President Barack Obama, who has little personal or cultural affinity with Europe, is the most prominent example of this inexorable trend. Although we believe that the US-UK relationship will in many ways remain "special" for years to come, it is likely to become progressively less important to America.
HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL CONTEXT
The phrase "special relationship", although commonplace in British political and media circles, is seldom used by Americans outside a small core policy group in Washington, DC. But that does not mean that the broad historical and cultural relationship between the two countries, which began in Jamestown, VA, in 1607, is not special. On the contrary, Britain's role as the "mother country" has been and will continue to be unique. Caucasian and many other Americans as a whole continue to be remarkably Anglophile, with the exception of big-city Irish-Americans in the North East. (As a general rule, however, Republicans tend to be more anglophile than Democrats, and those with military connections more so than civilians.) Throughout most of the postwar period, Britain has seen closeness to America, which supplies essential elements of its strategic nuclear deterrent, as a key global priority.
The two countries continue to have remarkably similar ideas about what is right and wrong around the world and to co-operate closely as permanent members of the UN Security Council and in other diplomatic and economic forums. British diplomats and officials have exceptional access to the policy-making machine in Washington, and the United States works particularly closely on intelligence with the UK (as well as with Canada and Australia). Britain has won enormous popularity among ordinary Americans as the main ally to provide troops to fight alongside US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, playing a loyal supportive role that many Americans have now come to expect. On the economic front, the two countries have adopted a similar approach to the global financial crisis, in contrast to the different attitudes and policies of most continental Europeans. New York and London are now so closely intertwined, both culturally and financially, that they are sometimes referred to as a single entity, "NyLon," although this economic and financial solidarity must not be taken for granted.
The two countries continue to have fundamental common interests in global political and economic stability, supported by open markets and free trade, the rule of law, respect for human rights and the expansion of democracy. Although Britain has been drawn increasingly into foreign policy consultations with its EU partners, it still regards the United States as its principal like-minded ally. And conversely, the United States occasionally sees the UK as a first line of defense against some of the less desirable ideas that emanate from Brussels. Nevertheless, this close and usually comfortable relationship is likely to come under increasing tension as a result of short-term, medium-term and longer-term pressures.
The two pillars upon which any strategic bilateral relationship are built are mutual trust and communication. Both pillars have come under strain over the past four months. There seemed to be a lamentable lack of communication between Washington and London when the United States placed four Guantánamo detainees in Bermuda without consulting Britain, which is responsible for the island's foreign and security policies. American trust has been challenged by Scotland's recent return of the "Lockerbie bomber" to Libya, although senior US officials have assured their UK counterparts that the Lockerbie incident in no way endangers intelligence and security co-operation. These short-term irritants have been exacerbated by resentment in Britain that the United States has more power to extradite British citizens to the United States than vice versa.
British hard feelings feed on a strong undercurrent of anti-Americanism in some UK circles, particularly among the leftish intelligentsia and the professional classes, that has been only partially allayed by the election of President Barack Obama. It is important to note that British grievances are often stronger at the popular than the governmental level. Such irritation nevertheless underlines the importance of maintaining the two pillars of the special relationship—mutual trust and communication. Without trust, all the other complex ingredients of the relationship would amount to very little.
America's sense of British loyalty could be harmed, for instance, if the UK were to reduce its military presence significantly in Afghanistan as a result of increasing opposition at home, while the United States soldiered on. But trust is already being dented by a popular British sentiment that the UK does not get much from the United States in exchange for its military support. Many believe that Britain will have to fight even harder to get attention from the Obama Administration (President Obama, for example, has not scheduled a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the margins of the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh), just like every other country without a recognized special status. There is clear evidence that Europe (and thus Britain) is much less important to the Obama Administration than it was to previous US Administrations, and the Obama Administration appears to be more interested in what it can get out of the special relationship than in the relationship itself.
Economic solidarity may also be diminished as both the United States and the UK struggle to find their footing in the global financial arena following the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression. Although the two countries have a common interest in defending and enhancing the leading roles of the "Anglo-Saxon" financial centers in New York and London in such multilateral structures as the G8 and G20, prospects for a joint approach would be weakened if Britain were to move too far toward tight, new Continental-style regulations demanded by its EU partners.
By far the biggest medium-term risk to the relationship is posed by the possibility that the next British government (whether Labour or Conservative) will cut defense spending in ways that make it impossible for Britain to maintain its military commitments effectively and oblige it to reduce its capacity for overseas intervention. The ability to fight alongside US forces is possibly the most important practical and tangible asset—along with US bases in the UK—that Britain brings to today's special relationship. The support of British troops not only aids the United States militarily, but also provides welcome international legitimacy for Washington's policy decisions and helps to counter foreign and domestic perceptions that the United States is acting "unilaterally".
Already, however, this co-operation has been endangered by what Americans (and many British officers) see as the British Army's poor performance in Basra, in Iraq, and by the Army's lack of appropriate counter-insurgency equipment to fight in Afghanistan—due to the Brown government's decision not to provide additional resources. As both major British political parties concede that big spending cuts will be necessary after the coming election to rein in soaring deficits, further downward pressure is likely on defense spending. Significant defense cuts could lead to a decline in Britain's international role and influence—and thus its ultimate utility to the United States. Brown's recent announcement that the UK will consider reducing the Trident missile submarines that comprise its nuclear deterrent from four to three is a sign of these growing financial strains. As long, however, as the Trident and a successor system continue to provide an effective deterrent, this should not do too much damage to the special relationship.
Another cause for concern in Washington would be cuts to Britain's "Rolls Royce" diplomatic service, still the envy of most other countries, which allows the UK to exercise disproportionate influence in world affairs. Cutbacks would be especially damaging if combined with simultaneous defense cuts, and would reduce Britain's weight in Washington more than in any other capital, not because of reduced effectiveness at the British Embassy but because of a wider scaling back of Britain's global clout.
As for the British public, stronger anti-Americanism could revive if the perception gained ground that Obama was continuing the trend of demanding sacrifices from Britain without giving much in return. British anti-Americanism is a recurrent threat to the fabric of the special relationship—especially when Americans get wind of it.
If Britain's world influence declines, and America continues to shift its priorities away from Europe to other more pressing geopolitical challenges, the special relationship faces a gloomy future. Britain's usefulness to Washington could increase if the European Union were to develop a more active global role. If the EU, for example, were to exert as strong an influence in international affairs as it does in world trade negotiations, Britain would be important to Washington as a potential force for steering the EU in policy directions that pleased the United States. The EU's external influence, however, is directly related to the extent to which its members agree on common policies, and US policy-makers currently see little chance of big steps toward closer integration in an EU of 27 nations. Moreover, few officials in today's Washington have a strong understanding of the institutional intricacies of the Lisbon Treaty and do not hold out much confidence in the EU's future as a strategic global power even if the Treaty enters into force.
Washington's diplomatic efforts are therefore likely to remain focused more on national capitals than on the EU institutions for the foreseeable future, with reduced expectations that Britain will be needed to "deliver" the EU on major issues of importance to the United States. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair's vision of Britain as a "bridge" between the United States and Europe was never a viable proposition, not least because Britain's European partners did not feel any need for help in communicating across the Atlantic or for British translation services. On the other hand, a move by Britain to distance itself from central EU decision-making under a future Conservative government would also reduce the UK's usefulness to Washington.
At the time of his celebrated "Year of Europe" in 1973, Henry Kissinger said that the United States was a strategic global power, whereas Europe was a regional economic power. Despite the huge steps taken to closer European integration since then, that analysis has not greatly altered in Washington 36 years later.
Meanwhile, demographic changes on both sides of the Atlantic in the years ahead are likely to work against traditional transatlantic ties. The United States, with its growing and increasingly diverse population, will assume a greater share of the West's inhabitants, and thus greater political weight in the Atlantic Alliance, as the populations of most European countries age and decline. As the proportion of Caucasians shrinks in the United States, the percentage of Americans with a natural feel for Europe as a whole and for the "mother country" in particular can only diminish, progressively undermining the civilizational foundations of the special relationship and British influence in America.
In order to staunch the loss of vibrancy that currently characterizes the special relationship, we offer the following recommendations:
- — Despite the budgetary squeeze, Britain should at least maintain its current military spending at about 2.2% of GDP, and preferably increase it.
- — Britain should step up its co-ordination with Washington on the nature and future direction of its defense spending to keep its forces interoperable with those of the United States and to reduce the growing capabilities gap between the United States and the UK.
- — UK political leaders should do more to explain the advantages of the special relationship to the British public and counter underlying anti-Americanism.
- — Contacts between US and UK armed forces should be further intensified at all levels.
- — British leaders should make greater efforts to avoid offering the media gratuitous opportunities to report "the end of the special relationship."
- — US leaders should make greater efforts to avoid conduct that can be interpreted as "snubs" to Britain by the UK media.
- — UK leaders should avoid giving the impression that they are trying to ingratiate themselves with US leaders, and never appear to be "whining" about their treatment by Washington.
- — The complex history of the US-UK relationship should be better taught in British (and American) schools.
- — More exchange programs should be instituted for visits by Americans to Britain and Britons to America.
- — British families should be encouraged to extend their contacts, and friendships, with US armed services personnel and their families at bases in the UK.
- — Consideration should be given to the formation of a serious "British lobby" in Washington.