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
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.
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".
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.
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"
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.
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.
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'".
This partially echoes what were told by Sir David Manning - Mr
Blair's foreign policy adviser before the warwho 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
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
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".
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".
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
 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".
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,
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".
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
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'".
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.
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".
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".
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".
Other European approaches to
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".
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.
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.
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".
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
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".
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 dictateand they will in many
areas although not necessarily on every occasion.
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".
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".
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
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".
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".
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".
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".
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".
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.
Ivan Lewis told us that currently there was "a healthy relationship
between No. 10 and the Foreign Office", and that "the
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".
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".
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
298 Ev 57 Back
Ev 122 Back
Wallace and Phillips, "Reassessing the special relationship",
International Affairs 85: 2 (2009) 263-284 Back
Stryker McGuire, "Why put yourself through all this?",
The Independent, 5 March 2009 Back
Ev 83; Ev 102; Ev 126 Back
Ev 100 Back
Rt Hon Tony Blair Transcript, The Iraq Inquiry, 29 January
Q 127 Back
Ev 126; see also Ev 80; Ev 136 Back
Q 3 Back
Ev 83 Back
Ev 83 Back
Q 127; Q136 Back
Q 96 [Mr McGuire] Back
Q 4 [Dr Niblett] Back
Ev 134 Back
Ev 134 Back
Q 4 Back
Ev 134 Back
Q 4 Back
Q 59 Back
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
Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney Back
Q 127 Back
Ev 102 Back
Q 93 Back
Q 94 Back
Q 16 [Dr Niblett] Back
Q 94 Back
Q 94 Back
Ev 139 Back
Q 11 Back
British Foreign Policy since 1997, Research Paper 08/56,
House of Commons Library, 23 June 2008 Back
Q 155 Back
Ev 104 Back