Global Security: UK-US Relations - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents


5  THE BRITISH POLITICAL APPROACH TO UK-US RELATIONS

184. The FCO stated that its desire to preserve its relationship with the US does not mean that "British governments defer to the US when we occasionally disagree". It also stated that the:

    UK-US dialogue is based on mutual respect and candour which is rare between international partners, however close. The strength of the relationship lies in part in our ability to maintain a frank and open relationship with the United States even when we disagree. The UK's ability to express a different view to that of the US, coming as it does from a close friend without a hidden agenda, is something which senior US officials tell us they find valuable.[298]

185. Notwithstanding these claims, a number of analysts have expressed concern about the way in which the British Government has viewed and approached its relationship with the US in recent years. Dr Robin Niblett highlighted what he considers is the "tendency of British politicians [to] continue to talk up in public the country's overall 'special relationship' with the US" even although in his view "the gap between aspiration and reality […] is becoming ever more awkward".[299] Professor Wallace and Christopher Phillips stated:

    Many of those recently involved in the management of transatlantic relations in London see the tendency for British leaders to give way to sentiment (and to the glamour of Washington), while their American counterparts pursue underlying national interests, as the greatest imbalance in the relationship.[300]

186. Nick Witney commented that, for politicians, "there isn't a better photo-op than in the Rose Garden or the White House", while Stryker McGuire argued that for British prime ministers who are "encountering rough seas at home", the 'special relationship' can be a "comfort blanket" providing "safe harbour" and offering "ego-boosting" properties.[301]

187. A recurrent theme in much of the evidence we received was that the UK's approach to the US could more appropriately be characterised as subservient rather than simply subordinate.[302] The accusation is not new. On a number of occasions since the end of the Cold War, Britain has been accused of failing to define its own agenda, and of passively following the US lead.[303] During our current inquiry, the issue of the UK's alleged undue deference towards the US achieved particular prominence in connection with the continuing debate over Tony Blair's relationship with George W. Bush and the 2003 Iraq War.

188. Giving evidence to the Iraq Inquiry in February 2010, Tony Blair offered an insight into the nature of the relationship and his view of its purpose when he stated: "this is an alliance that we have with the United States of America. It is not a contract; it's not, 'You do this and we'll do that'".[304] This partially echoes what were told by Sir David Manning - Mr Blair's foreign policy adviser before the war—who told us, "I always took the view that essentially the relationship wasn't about quid pro quos". However, Sir David added: "If we wanted to do something, we should do it because it was in the national interest".[305]

189. The Acronym Institute argued, "it will take some time to build a more positive view of the UK's contributions and overcome the stigma of having been the Bush Administration's poodle".[306] Dr Allin told us, the 2003 Iraq War was posed as a test of alliance solidarity, and, "according to the terms of the test, Britain passed and other European countries did not". He adds that although this amounted to a short-term tactical gain for Britain, "the residue that it left was not positive".[307]

190. In his written evidence, Lord Hurd argued that in its relationship with the US "Britain has the role of a junior partner, which is rarely easy".[308] He stated that neither Winston Churchill nor Margaret Thatcher was by nature or temperament a junior partner but they both learned reluctantly the art. He continued:

    A junior partner cannot dictate the policy of the partnership; it may not even have a blocking power. The junior partner has however the right to ask questions, to press that these be fully considered and to insist on rational answers. […] Tony Blair did not learn the art of the junior partner; he confused it with subservience. As Professor Strachan wrote in the August/September [2009] issue of Survival "a preference in favour of alliance obligations did not relieve London of the need to think through the best strategy to serve its own national interests, but was treated as though it did".[309]

191. It should be emphasised that a view of British "subservience" was not held unanimously by our witnesses. Sir Jeremy Greenstock was able to recount to us instances in relation to Bosnia and Iraq which suggest that the UK was able to moderate the views of the US on a number of occasions,[310] and he noted that, aside from Iraq, the UK continued to hold very different approaches to the US on a broad range of issues. It is also worth noting, as Dr Dunn stated, that perceptions of the relationship are markedly different on the two sides of the Atlantic. In spite of subsequent reservations about the war, many Americans continued to hold Mr Blair in high regard and value the fact that Britain was their country's ally in Iraq. Stryker McGuire told us that with regard to Iraq, Mr Blair "did end up looking subservient". However, he added that "it is also worth noting that not only was Britain shoved aside in the run-up to the Iraq War and in the aftermath, but so was the State Department. It was the Defence Department and the White House that were basically running the show".[311]

192. We conclude that there are many lessons to be learned from the UK's political approach towards the US in respect of the Iraq War. We await with interest the conclusions of the Iraq Inquiry which has been investigating these issues in some detail. We conclude that the perception that the British Government was a subservient "poodle" to the US Administration leading up to the period of the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath is widespread both among the British public and overseas and that this perception, whatever its relation to reality, is deeply damaging to the reputation and interests of the UK.

193. We asked our witnesses to what extent the British Government's approach to UK-US relationship has differed under the Prime Ministership of Gordon Brown from that under his predecessor. The evidence we received in response suggested that upon taking office Gordon Brown, a previously strong Atlanticist, realised the political value of using his first meeting with George W. Bush to demonstrate, not least to the British public, that his Government intended to distance itself to some degree from the Bush Administration.[312] Referring to the meeting, which took place in August 2007, Dr Dunn told us "Brown was stiff […] and, according to one American official present, 'went out of his way to be unhelpful'".[313] Although there was no direct criticism of President Bush or the US Administration, and the British Embassy in Washington was instructed to deny that any offence was meant or any policy difference was being signalled, Dr Dunn argued there were many indirect signals and "dog whistles" designed to show that Mr Brown's approach was to be different from that of Mr Blair.[314]

194. Dr Robin Niblett commented that in the first six months after he took office, the new Prime Minister tried to maintain a somewhat distant approach to President Bush. However, when the new leaderships in France and Germany made an effort to rebuild their relationships with a much more open, second-term George W. Bush, "suddenly Prime Minister Brown went back and talked about this being the closest relationship and one of the most special relationships". Dr Niblett continued that "there was a sense of 'Oh gosh, now we're going to be pushed aside, so we have to compete our way back in'". He contended that this, combined with the decision to draw down British forces from Basra in Iraq, led many senior US officials to question the extent of British commitment to the US. He adds: "I do not necessarily think that that is justified in terms of what physically happened, but the impression left towards the end of that period of the Bush Administration was of a UK that was not as reliable".[315]

195. It could be argued that, notwithstanding this deliberate retuning of the presentational aspects of the UK-US relationship, there was little substantive change in this period in terms of British policy, with the exception of Iraq where the Government announced a reduction in British involvement in Basra province. However, as Dr Dunn stated in his written evidence, even this policy change was "muted in both scale and purpose". He noted that the Prime Minister "sought to compensate for it by announcing an increase of British troop numbers in Afghanistan to bring the total to 7,800. This appeared calculated to signal the Government's political ambiguity in its support for Iraq in contrast to the 'good war' in Afghanistan; to demonstrate simultaneously that Britain is a good and loyal ally but that it doesn't support this president in this war".[316]

196. Dr Dunn told us that as a result of the signals that the British Government sent to the US, the Bush Administration looked for other interlocutors in Europe, particularly the new administrations of Angela Merkel in Germany and of Nicolas Sarkozy in France, who were content to "fill the vacuum resulting from the decision by the Brown Administration to create distance".[317]

Other European approaches to the US

197. A recent study of relationships between individual European countries and the US concluded that treating the US with an excessive degree of deference has become a common habit in a range of EU countries. Giving oral evidence to us, Nick Witney, who was one of the authors of the study, explained, "it all goes back to the sense that without Uncle Sam, we're all doomed, and that NATO is the bedrock of our security and the US are the ultimate guarantors of our security, as indeed was the case during the Cold War".[318] His report stated:

    European foreign and security policy establishments shy away from questions about what they actually want from transatlantic relations or about what strategies might best secure such objectives. [They] prefer to fetishise transatlantic relations, valuing closeness and harmony as ends in themselves, and seeking influence with Washington through various strategies of seduction or ingratiation.[319]

198. It goes on to note that transatlantic relations often involve much talk of shared history and values, seeking to engage the US in a web of summitry, making token contributions to causes dear to American hearts and attempting to press for reward for past services.[320] The danger, according to the report's authors, is that Americans find such approaches "annoying rather than persuasive— and the problem with European deference towards the US is that it simply does not work".[321] The report stated that "seen from Washington, there is something almost infantile about how European governments behave towards them— a combination of attention seeking and responsibility shirking".[322] It claims that in the process European states consistently sell their own interests short and in the meantime, Americans find "European pretensions to play Athens to their Rome both patronising and frustrating […]. They do not want lectures from Europe; they want practical help".[323]

Unduly deferential?

199. A number of our witnesses suggested that British officials have tended to take a more hard-headed approach to relations with their US counterparts than British politicians. The former British Ambassador to the US, Sir David Manning, expressed what many regarded as the "officials'" view when he stated:

    The UK should not be subservient. I am quite clear about that, but I don't like the idea of junior partnership, either, because it sounds as though we are tied to something in a junior role. The key is to work in partnership with the United States when our interests dictate—and they will in many areas although not necessarily on every occasion.[324]

200. In contrast, we were told that politicians often seem to be seduced by Washington's power, glamour and corresponding photo opportunities. As Ian Kearns of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) think-tank argued, this situation has led to dismay amongst officials over the "failure of UK leaders to think in terms of hard edged national interest rather than increasingly misguided appeals to sentiment".[325] Stryker McGuire told us that, "[British] politicians sometimes try to use the special relationship for their own ends in a way that US politicians do not need to. Tony Blair saw the special relationship as a way of perpetuating Britain's greatness at a time when it was an important military power, but not a great one, and when it had geopolitical importance but had even more by attaching itself to the United States".[326]

201. We note the evidence from our witnesses that British and European politicians have been over-optimistic about the extent of influence they have over the US. We recommend that the Government continues its informed and measured approach to the US whilst remaining mindful that the US is, and will continue to be, Britain's most important ally.

Importance of personal relations

202. Of the many tiers of personal relations which exist in the UK-US relationship, public and media attention tends to focus most closely on that which exists between the British Prime Minister and the US President. This is partly a reflection of the fact that, as Stryker McGuire told us, "the links between London and Washington tend to be above the ambassadorial level".[327] Where personal meetings cannot be arranged between Prime Minister and President, video links are held and conversations conducted on a regular basis, a scenario which also reflects the fact that heads of Government are increasingly involved in business that would have previously been the preserve of diplomats. As Dr Niblett told us, "the personal chemistry is important. In a world [..] where more and more critical foreign policy decisions seem to centralise in the Executive branch, partly because of the media and the speed of reaction, you need to trust somebody and be able to go on instinct at times, as a leader at that pinnacle position. Not having a personal linkage and element and a sense of trust can be problematic".[328]

203. In Justin Webb's view, the top-level relationship also provides a way in which the UK can continue to "punch above its weight if there are relationships that work, as there have been on both sides of the political spectrum".[329] He continued: "people who know one another and understand the cut of their jib tend to get better access than people who do not. Americans can be terribly closed when it comes to access if they do not trust and like the people".[330] A good top-level relationship also arguably ensures a British voice is not overlooked in the inter-agency struggle that can, and frequently does, dominate US politics.

204. Inevitably, however, there are limitations to what the relationship can achieve in support of the broader bilateral relationship, not least because, as we noted above at paragraph 164, and, as Professor Clarke stated, "friendship between Downing Street and the White House when it manifestly exists does not necessarily translate into influence with Congress or with the plethora of US governmental agencies".[331] In addition, as Dr Allin told us: "If you invest too much work and too many expectations in the personal relationship, you will simply be hostage to the personality of the American President".[332]

205. Although often overshadowed by Prime Minister/Presidential relations, the second tier of the relationship, namely that which exists between the Foreign Secretary and the US Secretary of State, is also important, particularly during times of war or crisis, as Jack Straw's relationship with both Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice showed. A number of our witnesses also remarked on the good relationship that exists between David Miliband and Hillary Clinton. It is argued that a strong bilateral relationship below the Prime Minister/Presidential level can also help to ensure that the views of the Foreign Office are heard and communicated to key opinion formers in the US. One of the criticisms often levelled at the Blair Government was that No. 10 listened more carefully to advice from the Cabinet Office and its Strategy Unit than the FCO and that as a result, key foreign policy decisions were not made with the benefit of expert foreign policy advice.[333] Ivan Lewis told us that currently there was "a healthy relationship between No. 10 and the Foreign Office", and that "the Foreign Office feels that it is an organisation that is empowered, enabled and respected to get on with job that it is charged with doing, but there will be big strategic national interest issues where it would be totally irresponsible of a Prime Minister not to want to have a very significant role".[334]

206. Top-level personal relations are undoubtedly an important aspect of the UK's bilateral relationship with the US. However, they remain only one aspect of it and the political legacy of the UK's involvement in the Iraq War highlights the risks and problems that can arise when the relationship between the Prime Minister and President dominates and drives foreign policy decision-making. In addition, as Ian Kearns stated in his written evidence, to "treat the views of the current US Administration as a permanent feature of the landscape is to fail to acknowledge the obvious point that US politics is itself dynamic and cyclical". He argues that "to simply agree with the United States in all circumstances is to agree to be buffeted by the prevailing political winds in Washington".[335]

207. We conclude that the Prime Minister/President relationship is an important aspect of the UK-US relationship. However, it is equally important to ensure that the UK does not conduct foreign policy on the basis of this relationship alone and that strong and enduring links are nurtured at wider Ministerial level and between Parliament and Congress.

208. We note that the current Minister of State responsible for the US also covers a range of others policy areas, namely: counter-terrorism; counter-proliferation; South East Asia and Far East; North America; Middle East and North Africa; South Asia and Afghanistan; drugs and international crime; global and economic issues (excluding climate change); migration; and NATO.

209. We conclude that there is cause for concern as to whether the apparent lack of focus on the US at the level of Minister of State in the FCO - which arises simply because of the sheer breadth of the relevant Minister of State's current portfolio - is appropriate given the importance of the UK-US bilateral relationship. This reinforces our view, which we have expressed in our recent Report on the FCO's last annual report, that the size of the FCO Ministerial team in the House of Commons should be increased.


298   Ev 57 Back

299   Ev 122 Back

300   Wallace and Phillips, "Reassessing the special relationship", International Affairs 85: 2 (2009) 263-284 Back

301   Stryker McGuire, "Why put yourself through all this?", The Independent, 5 March 2009 Back

302   Ev 83; Ev 102; Ev 126 Back

303   Ev 100 Back

304   Rt Hon Tony Blair Transcript, The Iraq Inquiry, 29 January 2010 Back

305   Q 127 Back

306   Ev 126; see also Ev 80; Ev 136 Back

307   Q 3 Back

308   Ev 83 Back

309   Ev 83 Back

310   Q 127; Q136 Back

311   Q 96 [Mr McGuire] Back

312   Q 4 [Dr Niblett] Back

313   Ev 134 Back

314   Ev 134 Back

315   Q 4  Back

316   Ev 134 Back

317   Q 4 Back

318   Q 59 Back

319   Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney, "Towards a Post-American Europe: a power audit of EU-US relations", European Council on Foreign Relations, November 2009, www.ecfr.eu Back

320   Ibid. Back

321   Ibid. Back

322   Ibid. Back

323   Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney Back

324   Q 127 Back

325   Ev 102 Back

326   Q 93 Back

327   Q 94 Back

328   Q 16 [Dr Niblett] Back

329   Q 94 Back

330   Q 94 Back

331   Ev 139 Back

332   Q 11 Back

333   British Foreign Policy since 1997, Research Paper 08/56, House of Commons Library, 23 June 2008  Back

334   Q 155 Back

335   Ev 104  Back


 
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