Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Fraser CameronDirector of the EU-Asia Center
The UK-U.S. relationship has been over for many years—at least since former U.S. president George H. W. Bush recognized Germany as the major U.S. ally in Europe in 1991. UK-U.S. relations reached their nadir over the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the mid-1990s, when a visiting UK defense minister could not raise a single U.S. congressman for a breakfast meeting on Capitol Hill.
The #UK-#US relationship has been over for many years.Tweet This
There was a brief revival in British-American ties under former UK prime minister Tony Blair, both with former U.S. president Bill Clinton and, strangely, with George W. Bush. But British public opinion was turned off by the Bush-Blair wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now, the UK military is simply not in a position to support any such enterprise in the future.
In foreign policy, Washington is critical of the UK’s constant accommodation of China, its threats to leave the EU, and its gradual decline into irrelevance. This leaves intelligence cooperation, where again, the UK tries to hang on to U.S. coattails. But this is insufficient for any bilateral special relationship.
The sooner the UK wakes up to the fact that the United States prefers a united European voice on foreign policy, the better.
Syed KamallMember of the European Parliament
As Mark Twain once said in London, “the report of my death was an exaggeration.” The same can be said of Britain and America’s special relationship.
The challenges of the last century saw the UK and the United States stand side by side not just in fighting both National Socialist– and Soviet Socialist–inspired dictatorships but also in forging a new era of globalization. In the twenty-first century, new challenges and opportunities mean that both nations will be looking to lift their gazes to the wider world.
Economically, the United States is understandably looking to the Pacific for these opportunities. Europe is seen as a single entity in decline, yet many in Washington fail to notice that the UK is now the fastest-growing economy in the G7.
The #UK-#US special relationship has become like a long marriage.Tweet This
The “Pacific President” Barack Obama is not a natural friend of the UK, but relationships between nations are not just government to government but also people to people. One million Brits work for American companies in the UK. One million Americans work for British companies in the United States. Britain and America share the world’s largest foreign direct investment partnership. Arguably, Brits and Americans share a common language. Opinion polls show that the two peoples view each other extremely favorably.
The special relationship has become like a long marriage in that it sometimes has its ups and downs, but it is a relationship to treasure: one based on common values and interests that are still relevant to tackle the challenges and exploit the opportunities of the future. It’s a relationship that works, and both sides would be remiss to let it fail.
Daniel KeohaneResearch director at FRIDE
No. But beyond the traditional guff of Britain playing Athens to America’s Rome, the partnership is alive mainly because of the close and privileged relationship between the UK and U.S. intelligence services. That remains special and should not be underestimated.
However, if recent trends in British foreign policy—falling defense spending, relative absence from key international security challenges, and moodiness toward the EU—continue, then those voices in Washington already questioning the UK’s relevance will surely strengthen in number and volume. And if the UK were to leave the EU, the country would become a useless ally for the United States.
If the UK wants a special relationship with the US, it should be more like France.Tweet This
It doesn’t have to be like this. The UK is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and one of the biggest powers in the EU. Britain has a unique combination of strengths including worldwide business networks, very experienced armed forces, and tremendous cultural influence. London is the richest and most globalized city in Europe.
The British prime minister (re)elected in the general election on May 7 should do three things: keep a global outlook; clarify British foreign policy priorities; and not only keep the UK in the EU but also lead European foreign policy. Whisper it, but if the UK wants to keep a special relationship with the United States, it should become more like France.
Michael LeighSenior adviser at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
The UK-U.S. special relationship is still alive, if not in robust health.
The #UK-#US special relationship is still alive.Tweet This
Britain and the United States have much in common as founder members of the Anglosphere, believers in free markets, states where green shoots of economic growth flourish, and partners in intelligence sharing. Hundreds of British security and intelligence officers are embedded in U.S. agencies, and there is cooperation on fighting cybercrime, drug trafficking, terrorism, and other scourges around the world. Britain and the United States remain major trade and investment partners.
But Britain’s American friends are perplexed at its absence from European efforts at crisis management, whether in Ukraine, the Middle East, or North Africa. Britain’s willingness to run down its capacity to project military power is another source of concern. With a scarcely discernible British voice, the EU is seen as more likely to cede to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blandishments when the union’s sanctions against Russia come up for renewal this summer.
The risk that the British might vote in a referendum in 2017 to leave the EU—which, in Washington’s view, London helps keep on an even keel—is yet another preoccupation. Finally, there is concern that a strong showing by the Scottish nationalists in the May 2015 general election could revive the risk of the disintegration of the United Kingdom and call into question some of the fundamentals of Britain’s security relationship with NATO and the United States.
If Britain sleepwalks toward the EU exit and punches below its weight on foreign policy, security, and defense, it should not be surprised if the United States reinforces its special relationship with other European states to tackle together today’s pressing challenges.
Edward LuceWashington columnist and commentator for the Financial Times
Not completely, but it’s fraying rapidly.
Heavy defense cuts have reduced the #UK's usefulness to the #US.Tweet This
On the minus side, the UK-U.S. defense relationship is not what it used to be. Heavy defense cuts have sharply reduced the UK’s usefulness to the United States. Britain simply no longer has the capacity to offer even the junior partnership role it provided in the first and second Gulf Wars and in Kosovo.
The surprising uninterest that British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has in global affairs is also partly to blame. In Washington, there is a strong sense that Britain is turning into an inward-looking power, more concerned with preventing its own breakup than with shoring up global stability. The UK’s recent decision to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank reinforced the perception that London is returning to its commercial roots.
On the plus side, Britain and the United States maintain as robust an intelligence-sharing relationship as ever and generally see eye to eye at most international gatherings. But the same could be said of Australia and Canada. After decades as America’s chief global lieutenant, the UK is fast becoming a provincial ally—and a less-than-stalwart one at times.
James RogersLecturer in European security at the Baltic Defense College and senior editor of European Geostrategy
Why should the UK-U.S. special relationship no longer exist? The relationship is not affected so much by daily politics or personalities; rather, it is a truly structural alliance that penetrates the hearts of both strategic communities in London and Washington, including the British and U.S. foreign offices, ministries of defense, policymaking communities, intelligence agencies, armed forces, and nuclear deterrence systems.
The partnership also has a geographical dimension: the United States depends heavily on the UK for global geostrategic reach, not least with military facilities like the Diego Garcia naval base on British overseas territories. At the same time, Washington looks to London to support its own efforts in keeping the world’s maritime communication lines open and unimpeded.
The #UK-#US alliance is at the heart of the Euro-Atlantic structures.Tweet This
Indeed, the UK-U.S. alliance sits at the heart of the Euro-Atlantic structures, not least NATO. Without it, NATO would lose its salience, insofar as the UK provides a second center of strategic decisionmaking (after the United States) that goes above and beyond anything provided by other European powers. And without NATO, the EU would likely deteriorate, due to the simple fact that NATO provides the benign security environment in which the EU can function and grow.
Moreover, the United States is aware of the demographic changes under way in Europe, which will likely see the UK grow in power relative to other European countries—especially Germany—over the coming years. Washington wants a serious strategic power as its principal ally, not a bit player that has no strategic reach or wherewithal beyond the European continent.
So long as London continues to protect and cultivate the sinews of British power, the UK will remain critical to U.S. global interests, meaning the two countries will remain in close alliance with one another.
The author writes here strictly in a personal capacity.
Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy
There will continue to be a special closeness to the UK-U.S. relationship due to the two countries’ shared language and culture. Britannia still rules American high and popular culture, and the importance of the intelligence and military relationship is unmatched for both sides.
But to borrow from Walter Bagehot, the great commentator on the English constitution, the UK-U.S. relationship has now become dominated by its dignified rather than its efficient parts. True, visits to the United States by British royals, actors, and prime ministers still capture at least some of the American imagination in ways the Germans and French cannot.
However, in terms of what actually works, there is little left to point to. Britain seems to be fragmenting and turning dangerously inward while simultaneously following the lure of commerce and finance with China and other emerging players—as evidenced by London’s rush to join the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, despite U.S. entreaties for it not to do so.
Britain continues to cut its capabilities and is becoming irrelevant in Europe.Tweet This
Britain continues to cut its once-impressive military capabilities and is becoming irrelevant in Europe. In doing so, London is taking away its trump cards in its relationship with Washington, which continues to pivot toward the Pacific. Today, France offers a more efficient partnership for the United States in Africa and the Middle East, while Germany does the same in Europe.
The United States, in turn, has lost its luster in Britain after the Iraq War and the continuing dysfunction of its federal government. Only a decade ago, Britain and America were shoulder to shoulder in Iraq. It seems much further in the distant past today.
Pierre VimontSenior associate at Carnegie Europe
This question seems relevant when linked to the issue of the new Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which the UK joined in March 2015 despite U.S. misgivings. A major difference of views on the bank immediately stirred the idea of a broken relationship between Britain and the United States. But the reality may be more complex.
To start with, the UK was not alone in becoming a member of the Asian bank; most EU member states followed the same line on an issue on which the U.S. administration appeared somewhat out of tune with its main Western partners.
It is hard to pretend that the #US-#UK partnership is broken.Tweet This
Then, if one looks more broadly at the most recent global crises, it is hard to pretend that the U.S.-UK partnership is broken. The collaboration that the two nations have developed in recent days and weeks looks pretty much the same as it did in the past: in the UN Security Council, with the latest resolution on the conflict in Yemen; on the sanctions policy against Russia for its actions in Ukraine; and on the Libyan crisis, with the two special envoys from Washington and London acting in unison to rekindle ongoing efforts for a renewed political dialogue. All in all, the impression of solid and serious British-American cooperation is still very much there.
So can one talk of business as usual? Not really, as the two countries are experiencing an uncertain international context in which both appear somewhat uncomfortable and each has a foreign policy that seems less assertive than in the past.
Furthermore, this special relationship, like many others (such as the Weimar Triangle, the Visegrád Four, the Benelux trio, and even the Franco-German tandem, in spite of the recent success of the so-called Normandy format on Ukraine) is showing its strains. The combination of domestic constraints, changes of leaders, and the increasing complexity of the international community makes these bilateral or multilateral partnerships less efficient than before.
Xenia WickettProject director for the United States at Chatham House
The special—or, in the words of U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron on March 12, 2012, essential—relationship is based on the two nations’ mutual values and history. But similar values alone cannot sustain such a relationship. Common sentiments, while vital, must be backed up by mutual interests and supported by capabilities.
Similar values alone cannot sustain the #UK-#US relationship.Tweet This
It is here that concerns arise.
From the U.S. perspective, Washington’s relationship with the UK is like a stool with three legs. The first leg represents the strong intelligence and military assets and capabilities that the UK has long brought to the table.
The second leg is manifested through Britain’s membership in the European Union. The United States appreciates a close partner in the EU that promotes interests (such as reform) that align with those of the United States.
The third leg stems from the value Washington gains from having an external perspective on challenges (such as those in the Middle East and Asia) and from having a partner that will ensure that the United States does not have to act unilaterally.
Unfortunately, today two of these three legs are looking shaky. Military spending in the UK in 2015 will likely go below the target of 2 percent of GDP on which NATO member states have agreed. And Britain’s EU membership is increasingly in question. That leaves a single unsteady third leg on which to maintain this special relationship.
In the words of former British prime minister Lord Palmerston, “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” While defense cuts or withdrawal from the EU won’t immediately change the relationship, UK policymakers should anticipate that if they cannot address these concerns, the United States will further embrace other partners that can.