Mind the Gap: Is the Relationship Still Special?

T he Anglo-American alliance, commonly known as the “special relationship,” should not be in question. It is the world’s most powerful bilateral partnership. It has been at the very heart of British foreign policy since the Second World War, and central to US strategic thinking for nearly all postwar American administrations. The military, intelligence, and diplomatic ties between the United States and the United Kingdom are unrivaled on the world stage, and London’s close-knit partnership with Washington has privately been the envy of every major European power, much as they may hate to admit it publicly.

Forged by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the face of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, the special relationship reached its apogee in the 1980s, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, with the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. After a period of decline under John Major, it was revived by Tony Blair, initially with Bill Clinton and subsequently with George W. Bush. Most recently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have come to symbolize the strength of the alliance, with ten thousand British troops currently serving alongside their American allies in the war against the Taliban and their al-Qaeda backers.

In Afghanistan, the war is overwhelmingly an Anglosphere operation. More than three-quarters of the 120,000 soldiers currently serving in the NATO-led mission are from English-speaking, Anglosphere nations. More than 345 British servicemen and servicewomen have sacrificed their lives in Afghanistan since the beginning of military operations in October 2001, greater than the combined losses suffered by all other European contingents.

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But the special relationship faces significant challenges in the second decade of the new millennium, from planned British defense cuts to the rise of a European superstate. And in Washington, the Obama administration has been distinctly lukewarm toward Britain, with a foreign policy that has looked more toward Asia and the Middle East than Europe and the UK.

A s Steve Clemons’s analysis of the number of times President Obama has referred to forty-five different countries in “key speeches, policy statements and media interviews” showed, Britain has been barely a blip on Obama’s teleprompter. The UK received just eight mentions in the first seventeen months of Obama’s presidency, barely ahead of Indonesia with six and Kenya with five. In contrast, China was mentioned fifty-eight times, India forty-six, and Russia twenty-eight. Even South Africa and Brazil warranted seventeen and sixteen mentions, respectively. Among the European states, Germany received twenty-five mentions (three times more than the UK), and France seventeen.

The relationship between Barack Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown was strained to say the least, with the two leaders at times barely on speaking terms. Brown struggled to build up a repartee with his American counterpart, and his first visit to the Obama White House in March 2009 was widely interpreted by the British press as a disaster, with the PM denied an official dinner or Rose Garden press conference and sent back to London with a tatty ceremonial gift of twenty-five DVDs, which couldn’t even be played in the UK. Brown was snubbed again in September of that year on the fringes of the UN General Assembly, when the president declined to meet with the prime minister even after several requests, following the hugely controversial release by Scottish authorities of the Lockerbie bomber with the blessing of the Labour government. In March 2010, the Labour-dominated House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee effectively declared the “special relationship” to be dead, firmly recommending against use of the term.

Tensions between London and Washington were further exacerbated by Hillary Clinton’s reckless decision to back Argentina’s calls for a negotiated settlement of the Falklands sovereignty question (which Britain rightly refuses to engage in) and President Obama’s aggressive bashing of BP, Britain’s biggest company, in the wake of last summer’s oil spill. The BP episode in particular led to a furious backlash against the Obama administration in sections of the British press, with a growing perception across the Atlantic that the American president was anti-British. A YouGov poll at the height of these tensions showed just fifty-four percent of Britons with a favorable view of the United States, down from sixty-six percent before the Gulf spill. A significant majority of those surveyed in the UK believed that Obama had harmed the special relationship, with sixty-four percent agreeing that the president’s handling of the BP crisis had harmed relations.

The election of David Cameron as Prime Minister in May 2010 brought new hopes for a revival in the special relationship, after a difficult sixteen months since Obama entered the White House. As soon as Cameron entered Downing Street, the president reached out to the British leader in a widely reported phone call where he declared that the United States “has no closer friend and ally than the United Kingdom.” Two months later, Cameron was in Washington and was received far more warmly than his predecessor. The two leaders immediately struck up a cordial relationship, and in their joint press conference, Obama noticeably dropped the kind of harsh “boot on the throat” rhetoric toward BP that had raised the ire of British politicians and media.

Cameron and Obama, both relatively youthful leaders who had revitalized their respective political parties with a message of change, superficially have much in common. But what does the future hold for the special relationship under David Cameron, both for the remaining two years of Obama’s current term, and beyond if there is a handover of power in the White House? After all, Cameron is expected to be prime minister until at least 2015, provided the coalition government survives that long, and may well outlast his US counterpart as a world leader.

T he special relationship is unquestionably a major priority for the Conservative-led administration in London. As William Hague noted in his first speech in Washington as foreign secretary, at Georgetown University, “Today it is impossible to imagine a mortal threat to each other’s security that we would not face together, or support each other in confronting. The US-UK relationship is still special, still fundamental to both countries, still thriving and still a cornerstone of stability in the world.”

Alongside Cameron and Hague, there are several prominent Atlanticists in key British Cabinet positions. Chief among them is the Churchillian defense secretary Liam Fox, a frequent visitor to Washington when the conservatives were in opposition and a widely respected figure among US defense officials. There is also George Osborne, the pro-American chancellor of the exchequer, and Michael Gove, the highly gifted education secretary. In addition, the Work and Pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has close ties to the United States, and as leader of the Conservative Party strongly backed the US-led war in Iraq.

But there are several factors that work against the special relationship. The first, and most important, is the indifference of the Obama White House, exemplified by the views of a senior State Department official who told the Sunday Telegraph in the wake of Gordon Brown’s ill-fated visit: “There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other hundred and ninety countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.”

The special relationship is of course a two-way street, and no matter how much London tries to elevate it, it cannot succeed at a political level unless Washington shares the same approach. In marked contrast to George W. Bush, Barack Obama simply does not attach a great deal of importance to the alliance with London.

The American president appears to have no natural affinity for Great Britain and has paid little attention to alliance building in general. Britain is not unusual in this respect: Israel, another key friend, has also been treated harshly by the Obama White House, and dependable allies in eastern and central Europe were “thrown under the bus” after Russia objected to US plans for Third Site missile defenses. The new administration spent a great deal of energy in its policy of “constructive engagement” with strategic competitors and adversaries, from Russia to Iran, while making little effort to shore up traditional alliances. While President Obama has offered warm words toward the new prime minister, it is highly doubtful we will see a repeat of the kind of rapport built up between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair.

Indeed, David Cameron will need to look beyond the Obama White House in order to strengthen the long-term alliance with the United States. In the wake of the political revolution that swept America during the November 2010 midterms, it makes a great deal of sense for the Conservative-led government in London to reach out to the Republican leadership in Washington, which now controls the House of Representatives, to address areas of common interest, including economic, trade, and defense issues. While continuing to work closely with the current administration, the prime minister must also be prepared to work with a different set of players if the winds of change continue to blow through the election of 2012 and usher a new occupant into the Oval Office.

A second key factor that threatens the special relationship is the new wave of British defense cuts, which may ultimately weaken the UK’s ability to fight alongside the United States in future conflicts. As part of the £81 billion ($125 billion) austerity package aimed at eliminating Britain’s structural deficit by 2015 (currently standing at 11.4 percent of GDP), the current government has announced a 7.5 percent reduction in the defense budget. But while the Cameron coalition is absolutely right to address the ballooning budget deficit, such a change strikes at the heart of the special relationship by engaging in what some American policymakers see as virtual unilateral disarmament. Such a view may be extreme, but there is no doubt that this decision will inflict significant long-term damage on Britain’s ability to provide for its own defense, and will ultimately weaken the Anglo-American alliance. The situation would have been even worse if the British defense secretary had not fought a valiant battle to prevent cuts that could have been as high as twenty percent
of GDP.

There can be no doubt that the defense cuts, unless reversed, will significantly undercut Britain’s position and increase the burden on the United States as the world’s only superpower. As the US’s own defense secretary, Robert Gates, warned just days before the British cuts were announced: “My worry is that the more our allies cut their capabilities, the more people will look to the US to cover whatever gaps are created. At a time when we are facing stringencies of our own, that’s a concern for me.”

While British defense spending will hover just above the recommended NATO level of two percent of GDP by 2015–16, it will fall dramatically from its current level of 2.7 percent. The armed forces will lose a combined total of seventeen thousand personnel, and the Army will lose forty percent of its tanks and artillery. Britain will be left without a carrier-based strike force until 2020, and one of the two planned new aircraft carriers will be sold, rather than placed into service. The Royal Air Force’s much-vaunted Harrier squadrons are being scrapped, making another Falklands-style operation virtually impossible. Inexplicably, while the military has been subject to severe cuts, Britain’s international aid budget, in what seems a paroxysm of political correctness, has actually been increased by an astonishing fifty percent, rising from £8.4 billion ($12.9 billion) to £12.6 billion ($19.4 billion) in 2014, equivalent to £479 ($738) for every household in the UK.

The special relationship also faces a major challenge from the rising ambitions of the European Union on the world stage. Brussels increasingly seeks to usurp the power of individual European nation-states, including Britain, through the Treaty of Lisbon, which is little more than a blueprint for a European superstate. The recent establishment of the European External Action Service (EEAS), or EU diplomatic corps, and the creation of an EU ambassador to the United Nations, are major steps toward the goal of “ever closer union.” As European MEP Daniel Hannan has noted, the EEAS has a budget twenty times larger than that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with seven thousand staff in 130 embassies. The EU’s new ambassador to Washington, João Vale de Almeida, has already declared that he is “leading the show” when it comes to Europe’s foreign and security policy.

B ut if the special relationship is in need of renewal, predictions of its death are greatly exaggerated. It has survived for nearly seven decades and has provided the core of the West’s defense of the free world against the forces of fascism, Communism, and now Islamist extremism. Both US and British foreign policies are adapting to a more multipolar world, and Washington and London are seeking to build special partnerships with India, the rising power in the East, that must ultimately counterbalance the ambitions of China in Asia. But as conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the wider War on Terror have demonstrated, the United States and Great Britain always look to each other in times of war and adversity, and that is unlikely to change dramatically in the coming decades, provided there is firm leadership on both sides of the Atlantic committed to ensuring the partnership’s success.

In David Cameron, Britain has a prime minister and a cabinet (with one or two exceptions) that passionately believe in the special relationship. But Cameron must ensure the defense cuts his administration has introduced are temporary measures and will later be reversed as the UK’s economic position improves. Britain needs to significantly increase its defense spending if it wishes to maintain its position as one of the world’s leading military powers. At the very least, the prime minister must pledge to restore spending to its level at the end of the last Conservative government, with further rises in subsequent years. He must also defend British sovereignty in Europe and fight against the rise of a supranational superstate in Brussels that threatens the independence of Britain’s foreign and defense policy.

Cameron has significant potential as a world leader, but for British goals to be advanced internationally, the alliance with the United States must be at the heart of London’s vision. It is an alliance that must continue to flourish if the West is to defeat Islamist terrorism and defend the cause of liberty and freedom across the globe. As Lady Thatcher noted in a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in June 1991, just months after leaving Downing Street: “Whatever people say, the special relationship does exist, it does count and it must continue, because the United States needs friends in the lonely task of world leadership. More than any other country, Britain shares America’s passionate commitment to democracy and willingness to stand and fight for it. You can cut through all the verbiage and obfuscation. It’s really as simple as that.”


Nile Gardiner is the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation and a former aide to Lady Thatcher.

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