London, United Kingdom. 14 April. Is the Special Relationship finally dead? This city of cranes, this monument to super-wealth, in which new gilded towers soar ever upwards on every street corner in the pursuit of Mammon, is the very picture of prosperity and Britain’s still extant global interests. And yet behind the cathedrals of plate glass that surround me all is not well. Britain’s Little Britain politicians in their Little Britain election campaign seem to care little about the real world beyond their rhetoric and understand even less. Instead, every ingredient of substance is tossed like a French omelette for the sake of narrow political gain. Yesterday, it was the turn of the Anglo-American ‘Special Relationship’ to be given the Chicken Little sky-is-falling-in electoral treatment by the Press. They may have a point.
The Times ran a story entitled “America reconsiders special relationship with Britain”. Normally we Brits always tend to use the upper case for the Relationship, whilst the Americans (and The Times) see the relationship very much in the lower case. It concerned a paper completed for the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in Washington by Derek E. Mix entitled, “The United Kingdom: Background and Relations with the United States”. Indeed, I have it here before me with my notes scribbled all over it. Now, I have known its author for many years and like the work of friends I have known and worked with at CRS over the years, such as Stan Sloane and Dick Grimmett, Derek’s paper is the very epitome of balance and carefully-considered wording.
The paper makes every effort to consider the Sspecial Rrelationship in the round. Britain remains an important trading partner of the US, and there is no question that the intelligence relationship is ‘Sspecial’ given the extremely unusual closeness of the UK’s SIS and the US’s CIA/DIA/NSA.
However, it is the ‘defence-strategic’ Rrelationship which is the very pith of the Sspecialness of the Rrelationship. When Churchill coined the phrase “Special Relationship” back in 1944 he understood both its strengths and weaknesses. From the very first meeting of the joint chiefs of staff in January 1942 the Americans were in charge. However, Britain (plus Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand et imperia al offered immense power). Those days are long gone but the central principle of the Rrelationship was and is that Britain remain the most militarily powerful American ally, in return for British influence over American policy and strategy. In other words, the Americans make the securing of Britain’s global interest implicit in the City here cost-effective.
In his report Derek is also scrupulous in his acknowledgement of the continued strength of the Rrelationship. “U.S. and UK officials, from the cabinet-level down, consult frequently and extensively on many global issues. American and British diplomats report often turning to each other first when seeking to build support for their respective positions in multilateral institutions or during times of crisis…”
However, there can be no doubt that the defence-strategic core of the Sspecial Rrelationship is under the most intense pressure. In a January 2015 meeting President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron went through the usual rituals of ‘Sspecialness’, reaffirming mutual love and respect. Privately, President Obama pushed hard for Cameron to commit to the NATO base defence-spending guideline of 2% of GDP. In spite of Cameron having lectured all other NATO members about the need to meet that commitment at the September 2014 NATO Wales Summit, Dave refused. The reason is now clear; Cameron is making huge, unfunded domestic spending pledges (£8bn for the NHS) as part of his Little Britain election campaign, has protected so many other areas of government-spending from spending cuts AND at the same time has promised to remove Britain’s £90bn budget deficit by 2020 that something has to give. That ‘something’ is Britain’s defence budget. To be fair Ed Miliband is little better.
Cameron’s tenure as prime minister has been pot-marked by strategic illiteracy. Indeed, ever since then Foreign Secretary Hague’s May 2011 speech which asserted there would be no “strategic shrinkage” under Cameron’s administration, Britain has been ‘shrinking’ alarmingly. Unfortunately, Cameron neither gets, understands, nor seems to care about Britain’s place in the world, its influence or indeed the maintenance of Britain’s ‘strategic brand’ essential to the country’s security and defence. Indeed, at no point in this election campaign has he even mentioned Britain foreign and defence policy. It is one of those areas off-limits, like Europe and immigration. As for a Cameron vision of Britain in the twenty-first century world – forget it. This is bordering on criminal for a country that is still one of the world’s top five powers. It is as though Cameron and his cronies not only accept decline as given, but welcome it.
In the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review Cameron made a contract with the British armed forces. Accept the 8-10% of funding cuts and the 30% cuts in operational capability and from 2015 on real investment will take place in the Future Force. Let me tell you now; if Cameron is re-elected that contract will be broken in SDSR 2015 and the next comprehensive spending review.
But here’s the rub; Britain’s security and defence strategy pre-supposes a close relationship with that of the United States. An increasingly over-stretched America facing a burgeoning China, a revanchist, unstable Russia and the rise of the Islamist anti-state is looking ever more to its allies to ease the burden. Just at the moment America needs Britain, Cameron’s Little Britain is in danger of going AWOL.
Perhaps the most telling comment in Derek’s excellent report is this: “In an increasingly “G-20 world”…the UK may not be viewed as centrally relevant to the United States in all of the issues and relations considered a priority on the U.S. agenda”.
Cut Britain’s armed forces further, Prime Minister and you will not only kill the Sspecial Rrelationship, you will effectively remove the central assumption implicit in British security and defence strategy – relevance to Washington. Indeed, here’s a bit of ‘Strategy 101’ for you, Prime Minister. The reason for strong British armed forces is not to rule the world but to influence Washington and to keep NATO relevant to the Americans. You are about to destroy both, if of course you are re-elected.
Little Britain: the death of the Sspecial Rrelationship? Prove me wrong, Prime Minister! Commit to NATO's 2%!