hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 12 May 2014

Machopolitik: Why America Still Needs a Strategic Britain

Alphen, Netherlands. 12 May.  Seventy years ago to the day on 6 June 61,715 British troops landed on the Normandy beaches alongside 57,500 Americans and some 21,500 Canadians. The liberation of Western Europe from Nazism had begun.  On 9 May, as President Putin enjoyed his ‘Triumph’ in annexed Crimea and on what the Russians call Victory Day the 1990 commissioned Ukrainian-built aircraft carrier Kuznetsov together with six escorts sailed provocatively through the English Channel and into the North Sea on her way back from a port visit to Syria.  Whilst this is not the first time the Russians have sailed through the Channel the Russian mission and the timing against the backdrop of the current crisis was clearly designed to send a message about Russia’s new Machopolitik and Moscow’s determination to project twenty-first century military power and influence.  And yet far from trying to rebuild the strategic military relationship with Britain after years of British sacrifice in support of US policy the Obama administration is doing all it can to end the strategic partnership with Britain.  In the new age of Machopolitik it could prove to be a profound strategic mistake.  Why?

The tragedy of Obama’s foreign policy is the extent to which it has been captured by EU sympathisers who see Germany as the only state that matters in Europe.  Quite a few of the people around the White House and in the State Department (who I have known for many years) have long been firm advocates of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).  This is driven by the misplaced belief that an EU policy would not only lead to the creation of a European strategic culture but also solve the age-old Kissinger riddle; which European to call during a crisis. For these people Britain is just so pass√© a view the EU is quietly trying to foster in Washington.  What they fail to understand is that for the EU to be an effective security actor at the grand strategic level there would need to be a European Government.  Anything less than a European Government simply renders the EU less than the sum of its national parts.

The Obama administration has always reflected an American ambivalence about Britain.  Indeed, it is an ambivalence that was exploited by EU Commission President Barroso in a recent speech in Washington on receiving an award from the Atlantic Council.  In a deliberate snub to Britain Barroso implied that the only transatlantic relationship that mattered was that between the EU and the US and it was notable that Chancellor Merkel joined the gala dinner by video-link to congratulate Barroso.   The Atlantic Council is always sensitive to the prevailing power in Washington and the implicit message was all too clear; the ‘Special Relationship’ with Britain is dead.

Sadly, what the Administration fails to realise is that by ‘strengthening’ the EU at Britain’s expense Washington is also killing NATO.  Moreover, by adopting such a position the Administration is abandoning sound strategy for political and ideological posturing.  This misplaced emphasis on German leadership in Europe simply fails to understand the nature of modern Germany and its strategic orientation. Do not get me wrong, Germany has made an amazing non-military contribution to post-Cold War European stability but Berlin will never be a reliable American partner.  Indeed, the current crisis has revealed all too clearly the deep ambivalence in the German elite about Berlin’s relationships with both Moscow and Washington.  And, whilst Berlin is at least talking about Germany once again becoming a ‘normal power’ replete with capable military forces the Germans are a very long way from being America’s indispensable strategic partner.  

Equally, London must also take responsibility for Britain’s loss of influence in Washington.  At a recent event in Washington the British Ambassador had to remind his American audience that Britain for the moment at least is still actually an independent country.  And yes some of the overly rapid and at times ill-thought through defence cuts in the 2010 British Strategic Defence and Security Review were rightly condemned by the US.  A mistake that could be compounded by the 2015 ‘Silent’ Defence and Security Review as London again confuses politics with strategy by killing public debate on Britain’s big strategic defence choices.  Sadly, one of the reasons for London killing public debate is that the now age-old argument that Britain needs strong armed forces to be a trusted ally of the United States is being systematically undermined by the very people who need a strategic Britain – the Americans.

Equally, the presence of the Kuznetsov also reveals some other strategic realities to which the ideologues of the Obama administration need to awaken.  First, Britain will be Europe’s strongest economy alongside Germany and one of the world’s top ten for years to come.  Indeed, with the euro-free British economy now growing at over 3% per annum London is next month going to wipe out all the losses suffered as a result of the American-inspired 2008 sub-prime loans banking crisis.  Second, Britain will also strengthen its position as Europe’s strongest military power over the next decade and remain one of the world’s top five.

Furthermore, for all its failings SDSR 2010 also got some things spot on in the search for a balance between military capability and affordability even if the tortuous way Britain got there can only be described as well, er, British.  Implicit in the new Royal Navy is a switch from the twentieth century land-centric forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to a new type of twenty-first century deeply joint core force able to operate successfully at the high end of missions across six global domains – air, sea, land, cyber, space and knowledge.  And, if successful Britain's novel new concept for reserves could see the British create a high-end professional force embedded in British society able to reach across and beyond government to civilian partners.

9 May also demonstrated Britain's re-emerging strategic capability.  Sailing alongside the ageing Russian aircraft-carrier was the 2012 commissioned HMS Dragon one of a series of new Type 45 destroyers with capabilities that impress even the United States Navy.  Indeed, with the first of two fleet aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth about to be launched in the summer and new Astute-class nuclear attack submarines now joining the fleet by 2025 the British will be America’s strongest military ally anywhere combining unrivalled experience with real capability and knowledge.

Contrast that with continental Europe.  The current geopolitical crisis with Russia is once again revealing the deepest of splits within Europe together with a profound lack of political realism across much of Europe. The enduring lack of any meaningful shared strategic culture has helped to devastate defence spending across the EU.  This is profoundly damaging the ability of Europeans to shape their own region let alone anywhere beyond it.  Worse, the implication that President Obama believes he can build a new soft power West with the EU and Germany by downplaying the importance of Britain is reinforcing Europe's retreat from sound defence.  With the US defence budget falling from its current $640bn to $450bn by 2020 and with US forces likely to be stretched thin the world over the Americans will need strong military allies more not less. 

So Mr President, in this new age of Machopolitik get over your anachronistic dislike of a past Britain.  A strategic Britain remains a vital US interest because only such a power with real capability will be able to help lead Europeans and others to operate effectively in the field alongside hard-pressed US forces.  Just like on D-Day.

America still needs a strategic Britain.

Julian Lindley-French

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