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


The US view of the UK

210. President Obama's approach to foreign policy and his conscious decision to embrace a more multilateral approach to issues of global concern than that of his predecessor have been widely welcomed in the UK and further afield.[336] However, it does not necessarily mean that greater policy alignment will result, in all instances, in greater UK influence over the US. According to Heather Conley and Reginald Dale "there is clear evidence that Europe (and thus Britain) is much less important to the Obama Administration than it was to previous US administrations, and the Obama Administration appears to be more interested in what it can get out of the special relationship than in the relationship itself".[337] Whereas the Bush Administration's approach was arguably based largely on sentiment surrounding strong UK support after the 9/11 attacks, the Obama approach has been described in evidence as "more functional and instrumental".[338] Indeed, most witnesses suggest that the current Obama Administration will be more pragmatic in its relations with individual allies and is looking to each of them to provide practical support, rather than counsel, on specific issues.

211. As the New American Foundation put it, the Obama approach is "all about putting a price on access and a price on the relationship".[339] Supporters of this view cite the fact that the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not mention the UK-US relationship at all in her confirmation hearing statement, referring only to the UK in the broader context of relations with France, Germany and other European partners.[340] In a subsequent speech in July 2009, she focused heavily on the Administration's intent to improve relations with major and emerging powers such as China, India, Russia and Brazil, as well as Turkey, Indonesia, and South Africa.

212. Professor Clarke told us that the, "essence of the US/UK relationship is that it is top and bottom with rather less in the middle. It is politically high level and atmospheric at the top, in the personal relations between leaders; very specific and practical in its base foundations, and somewhat difficult to discern in the week-in, week-out middle range of everyday diplomatic life". He added:

    The rarefied atmospherics at the top of the relationship all revolve around the friendship, or lack of it, between the respective leaders. In the UK we take for granted that those relationships should be generally good. We are shocked and concerned when they are not; and baffled when they appear, as at present, to be somewhat neutral. Periodic anti-Americanism on the British Left, or the unpopularity of a particular US Administration, does not significantly alter this underlying national perception. [341]

213. As we noted earlier at paragraph 31, there are those in the US Administration who appear to be baffled and somewhat frustrated by what they see as the British obsession with the state of the 'special relationship'. Many of our witnesses also commented on the related issue of President Obama's supposed coolness towards the UK. Professor Clarke stated that behind official rhetoric about the 'special relationship', "at the UN General Assembly meeting in September, it was clear that Gordon Brown was not favoured by the Obama Administration" and that it is apparent that this Administration has at least a different emphasis in its attitude to the United Kingdom, if not a different approach overall".[342] However, giving oral evidence to us, Dr Allin argued that it was not the case that Barack Obama did not like Gordon Brown, but rather, "that he is not sentimental in his relations with any of Europe's leaders". [343]

214. Sir David Manning pointed out that President Obama did not come to the post with the knowledge of Europe and the UK evident in his predecessors. As an American who grew up in Hawaii, whose foreign experience was of Indonesia, and who had a Kenyan father, it was unsurprising that President Obama does not have "sentimental reflexes" towards the UK.

215. We conclude that the UK should not regard the US's more pragmatic approach to the UK as a threat to the relationship but rather as a timely opportunity both to re-assess its own approach to the US and to reflect current and future challenges.


The diffusion of global power

216. We asked our witnesses to explain what has been described as the current, "pragmatic" US approach. Several referred in the first instance to underlying structural changes in the international political system, which have been under way since 1989 but which accelerated after the attacks of 9/11 as the US's focus moved away from European security to countering global threats.[344] Dr Dunn commented that:

    Europe is at peace, secure, prosperous, has a remarkably similar view of the world, its problems and their resolution, there is much less need for US political attention compared to many other states on many other issue areas. This does not mean that the US and UK are less close, but the relationship is less important than it was during the Cold War, or even the 1990s.[345]

217. The close co-operation between the UK and US in Afghanistan and Iraq in the years following 2001 meant that these structural changes were partially masked, even if (as we discuss below at paragraph 222) in time they would come to affect the UK-US relationship.[346] As Professor Clarke stated, "wars and conflict tend to emphasise the vitality of the relationship; periods of detente, global diplomacy and an orientation towards economic policy tend to disguise it".[347]

218. Simultaneously, the growth in geopolitical power of the rising economies such as Brazil, Russia, India and China (the so called BRICs) demanded the US's attention whilst also challenging US influence in some areas and arguably diminishing the importance of the UK and Europe to America's wider diplomacy.[348] Professor Clarke commented that the "dangers and opportunities presented by the Asian economies […] and the natural economic asymmetry between American and Chinese economic needs", suggest that the US would pay considerably more attention to East Asia and the Pacific arenas of economic and trade activity. He noted that China currently held 83% of the US trade deficit in non-oil goods, amounting to some $800 billion, while the US was the dominant market for Chinese manufacturers - responsible for perhaps 50-60 million Chinese jobs. He continues, "and all this while China's currency is kept undervalued by anything from 20-30%—a huge protectionist trade barrier operated by Beijing that infuriates Congress. These imbalances will not be righted quickly and suggest a volatile economic relationship that is probably structural".[349]

219. Nick Witney told us that the long-term trend towards a more diffuse global power structure is one which the Obama Administration has "latched on to", and in response it has adopted what it calls a multi-partner strategy to try to ensure the maintenance of US power.[350] A recent example of this was the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change in December 2009, where G2 (the US and China) power dynamics dominated the Summit's outcomes.

Changing US demographics and Anglo-Americanism

220. At the US domestic level there are also dynamics at play which may reduce the importance of the UK to the US. It has been argued that although the UK's role as the 'mother country' has been unique, and Caucasian and many other Americans as a whole continue to be remarkably Anglophile,[351] nonetheless as the proportion of Caucasians shrinks in the United States, the percentage of Americans with a natural affinity for Europe as a whole and for the 'mother country' in particular will diminish, progressively undermining the broader, civilizational foundations of the special relationship and British influence in America.[352] In other words, "Anglo-Americanism is in decline in terms of demography and relevance alongside this gradual shift away from a Euro-centric US economic and political culture".[353] Justin Webb told us about the ongoing debate in US academia about "whether or not the Mayflower link—that sense of being, in essence, European and all the things that go with it in terms of the Protestant work ethic and the sense of what the nation is—is gradually disappearing, as waves of immigrants come from all sorts of exciting and interesting places from right around the world". Mr Webb suggested that "the Obama generation, or those who regard themselves as Obama people, probably subscribe to the […] view that America is just an incredible melting pot, and that the Mayflower is a long time ago. You can read about it, but it does not have any relevance today".[354] Many of our other witnesses made similar points, including Professor Clarke who concluded that "the internal dynamics of the United States's own economy and its changing demographic structure also strongly suggest that west-coast and Hispanic concerns will tend to dominate east-coast and ex-European concerns in the minds of Congress and the US electorate".[355] The issue, according to Heather Conley and Reginald Dale was whether "in the race to get those all-important votes, the parties, both Republican and Democrat, slightly lose, in years to come, the attachment that at the moment, generally, America has to the idea that it is an English-speaking country".[356]

221. Dr Niblett believed that there were other "more intangible" forces at work in the UK-US relationship from a US perspective: "a new generation of policy-makers are rising within American think tanks, businesses, law-firms and universities who look to Asia as much if not more than Europe for dynamic change within their areas of interest. European studies are in serious decline at America's Ivy League institutions. And Anglo-Americanism is in decline in terms of demography and relevance alongside this gradual shift away from a Euro-centric US economic and political culture".[357] It is also worth pointing out that the UK itself is also changing and becoming more diverse as a result of migration and globalisation.

222. We conclude that the effects of globalisation, structural changes and shifts in geopolitical power will inevitably affect the UK-US relationship and that it is entirely logical for the US to pursue relationships with other partners who can provide support that the UK cannot. We further conclude that the UK has limited options in terms of how it can influence these structural changes other than to ensure that it has an appropriate foreign policy strategy in place which recognises both the challenges and opportunities created by this developing situation.

More, not less, Europe

223. Historically, part of the value of the UK for the US was seen to be its role as a potential guard against too much European integration.[358] In the late 1990s the focus switched, with Tony Blair's view that the UK could act as a bridge between Europe and the US. However, our witnesses were in agreement that the 'bridge' metaphor collapsed as a consequence of the Iraq War, and that the current US Administration no longer sees the EU as a threat to be held at bay. Indeed, the US has moved to a point where it actively hopes that the EU will be able to develop a more integrated approach to foreign and security issues.

224. Many of our witnesses stressed the importance that the US attaches to the development of a more integrated EU that is capable of speaking with one voice on a range of foreign and security issues. Dr Dunn stated that "the Americans would like to see a more united, and expect a more united, Europe than we have". He added that "primarily, they want a more engaged, more capable and more involved Europe. […] There is a huge frustration that the division of Europe leads to the incapacity of Europe to act with one voice, one policy or any capability on the international stage".[359]


225. Many of our witnesses were in agreement that, in the longer term, the UK's influence both globally and with the US looked set to decline. As Professor Clarke stated, "the Cold War was undoubtedly good for Britain's influence in the world [but the] present environment of disparate power and great uncertainty does not provide as relatively cheap and easy a vehicle for British diplomacy as did NATO in the Cold War".[360] He argued that, "for the United Kingdom, the long-term perspective suggests that its natural influence with the United States will be diminished".[361] Similarly, Heather Conley and Reginald Dale believed that the combination of structural changes which will shift the US focus away from Europe with reductions in the UK's defence or diplomatic capabilities will, over the longer term signal an end to the UK's "disproportionate influence in world affairs". They expected such trends almost certainly to "reduce Britain's weight in Washington more than in any other capital" and weaken the politico-military and intelligence elements of the relationship.[362] They accepted that "the civilizational bond will endure longer, but it will also gradually diminish as memories of World War II fade and anglophile Americans of European origin become less dominant in US society". They add that:

    President Barack Obama, who has little personal or cultural affinity with Europe, is the most prominent example of this inexorable trend. Although we believe that the US-UK relationship will in many ways remain 'special' for years to come, it is likely to become progressively less important to America.[363]

226. As we have already discussed, many of our witnesses believe that the UK-US relationship itself is already suffering from "diminished capabilities, especially in the UK capacity to keep up with US military power and with the limitations on UK influence within the European Union.[364] Ironically, given the UK's support for international institutions, the re-engagement of the US Administration in multilateral institutions may also in time dilute the UK's influence. Dr Robin Niblett's view was that "the more that the US is focused on managing the shifting relations between the major powers in an emerging 'G-20 world' the harder it will be for the UK to find a durable perch within US conceptual thinking and decision-making". He noted that "US support for an increase in China's voting weight within the IMF at the recent G20 summit in Pittsburgh, most probably at the cost of Britain and other European members, may be a minor harbinger of the future".[365]

227. The counter-argument is that the Obama Administration's desire to break with the recent past in foreign policy may actually work in the UK's favour. Professor Clarke is one expert who takes this view. Although this might be uncomfortable for the UK in the short run, "in the long run it is likely to be an advantage to the UK since a more instrumental view of the partnership will tend to point up the practical value the UK can offer to the US, certainly in comparison with other European allies".[366]

228. Professor Clarke argued that the renewed interest of the US Administration in a European defence and security identity may also, paradoxically, work in the UK's favour: "when the US periodically shifts its focus to favour more integrative European approaches to security, the UK has tended to re-orientate itself to stay well within Washington's focal distance. On this occasion too, the UK will probably stand favourably compared with other European allies who, however enthusiastic some of the new Eastern members in particular might be on their US relationships, cannot deliver the practical value of the UK in most aspects of security and defence".[367]

229. In the short-term, there may also be advantages for the UK. As Nick Witney told us, most of President Obama's instincts and substantive policies are ones which, in principle, the United Kingdom supports.[368] Sir Jeremy Greenstock believed that it was to the UK's advantage that President Obama is not "a sentimentalist but a multilateralist".[369] He added:

    I think that it is thoroughly healthy that we should have a President in the White House whose respect we have to earn. This is at the public level as well as at the level of confidential Government business, because that is the reality, and it always has been the reality. If it makes us sharper in a competitive sense, because we are not relying on sentiment and a playing field that is tilted slightly our way by history, values, sentiment and all the rest of it, we will perform better.[370]

230. We conclude that over the longer term the UK is unlikely to be able to influence the US to the extent it has in the past. We further conclude, however, that in the short-term the UK must capitalise upon the opportunities for influence which have arisen as a result of the greater alignment between the UK and US on a range of key policies.

The UK's future approach to the US

231. Given the many pressures which bear down upon the UK-US relationship, how should the UK approach its relationship with the US in the future? In terms of the political relationship, it is the FCO's view that, "the UK is still regarded as one of the most reliable US partners".[371] It added that the Government did not "foresee any fundamental changes in the nature of the UK's bilateral relationship with the US" but recognised that it "is not and cannot be complacent about the working of the UK-US bilateral relationship or the broader transatlantic one".[372]

232. There is little doubt, as we discussed earlier, that the UK benefits in many ways from its relationship with the US. We noted the scale of the links between the two countries, ranging from trade, finance and economics, to culture and tourism, to the areas where practical co-operation in the military, intelligence and nuclear fields can rightly be regarded as special. It is inevitable that pressures, tensions and disagreements will arise in respect of all of these areas. Yet we are confident that the state of the relationship in each of these sectors is such that it will be possible to weather these pressures over the longer term, if the correct political approach is in place.

233. Many of the written submissions we received suggested that if the bilateral relationship is to continue to be of value to the UK, the UK's own approach needs to adapt to reflect more closely that of the Obama Administration. For instance, Dr Niblett advised that "this and future British governments should be as dispassionate in the way they approach their relations on matters of foreign policy with the US as the US has been with the UK".[373] While the FCO believes that it has "a uniquely close relationship with the US […]",[374] Dr Niblett argued that it was vital that the UK does not "cling to the notion of an all-encompassing bilateral special relationship—the US cannot honour this broad a concept, whatever the rhetoric they choose (or feel obliged) to offer in support of the notion". He explained:

    The United States can and does honour an intimate and even privileged bilateral relationship in specific areas (intelligence sharing and nuclear and military co-operation) and on specific policies (towards Afghanistan, for example). But there are limits to how far the US side of the relationship will reach.[375]

234. Ian Kearns argued that because of the shift in the US focus towards Asia, Britain needs to be more assertive in its relationship with the United States "through the varied channels at its disposal, rejecting a subservient role, but equally being aware of the limited power Britain can wield in a world characterized by shifting power balances".[376] Many other witnesses offered similar views.

235. Rejecting a subservient approach should not however mean rejecting a close relationship with the US. We believe that the UK's relationship with the US will properly remain highly important in the years to come, and that it is right to attempt to exercise influence where this is in the UK's interests. In his written evidence, Professor Clarke described the strong consensus in UK policy circles that the country should still seek to "position itself" alongside the US as much as possible in the coming era. He noted that, "this is not, in itself, a strategy—many other choices are required in making strategic judgements over priorities, commitments, ways and means—but it is an important assumption that underlies the greater part of British thinking about its future in the world".[377] For Ian Kearns, "There is an urgent need for UK policymakers to get beyond declarations on the importance of the relationship and to begin defining more clearly what the UK actually needs from it".[378] To that end, he argued that the UK needed a "clearer and fully up to date statement of UK national interests to underpin policy and the approach to the relationship with the United States".[379]

236. The fact remains that the bilateral relationship with the US allows the UK to bring US power to British interests. However, in order to do this, the UK must be able to deliver what the US is looking for and deliver it well. As we have already discussed, there are many policy areas where the UK is already providing this support but in other areas it has led to overstretch in the UK and disappointment on the part of the US. For Dr Niblett the British Government needs to "focus on specific areas where it will invest its political effort and human and financial resources, alongside the United States, in order to achieve their common goals".[380] As with the issue of defence, there is a strong argument to be made that the UK ought to be more focused in its global efforts, mindful of its strengths but also its limitations.

237. One of the areas many of our witnesses suggested the UK could provide added value was in relation to Europe. We have already discussed the fact that the US would like to see the development of a more integrated Europe. In the view of Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney, although "America hopes for a more unified and effective Europe, […] hope is not the same as expectation". They explained:

    Americans will be too busy to lose sleep over whether Europeans can rise to the implicit challenge of the offer of partnership. Americans will always find it difficult to resist the opportunities to divide Europe on specific issues, even as they accept that a unified Europe would be in their longer-term interest. […] So determining how far the transatlantic relationship remains relevant in the new century—how far Europe can insert itself into the US-China relationship which Obama has declared will "shape the 21st century"—is largely down to the European side.[381]

238. Thus there is scope for the UK to play a leading role in Europe which would in turn be of value to the US. There appeared to be a recognition of this already in the Government's recent Green Paper on the Strategic Defence Review. Announcing its publication in a statement to the House, the Defence Secretary Rt Hon Bob Ainsworth, said that "defence must improve its ability to work in partnership with our key allies and security institutions to make the most of our combined resources. Our alliances and partnerships will become increasingly important and will define how successful we will be in meeting the challenges that we face. We will strengthen our alliance with the United States if we strengthen our position in Europe".[382]

239. Nick Witney suggested that many US officials would like to see the UK active "particularly in the defence and foreign policy fields, waking up some of [the] Europeans",[383] while Stryker McGuire stated that "Washington wants […] London [to] play a role in Europe. America feels that that is in America's interests because Americans prefer the British vision of Europe to the Franco-German vision of Europe, which they see as much more federal".[384] Many of our other witnesses also concurred with this view.

240. The evidence we have received suggests that the UK's future approach to the US ought not to be driven by sentiment, or close personal relations, neither of which are likely to secure long-term influence or prove useful to the US. We conclude that the UK's relationship should be principally driven by the UK's national interests within individual policy areas. It needs to be characterised by a hard-headed political approach to the relationship and a realistic sense of the UK's limits. In a sense, the foreign policy approach we are advocating is in many ways similar to the more pragmatic tone which President Obama has adopted towards the UK. We believe that this is an issue that would be deserving of scrutiny by our successor Committee in the next Parliament.

241. We conclude that the UK must continue to position itself closely alongside the US in the future, recognising the many mutual benefits which flow from close co-operation in particular areas. We further conclude that the UK needs to be less deferential and more willing to say no to the US on those issues where the two countries' interests and values diverge.

336   See for example, the data published by the German Marshall Fund's survey on Transatlantic Trends 2009 published in September 2009. It shows that three in four (77%) respondents in the European Union and Turkey support President Obama's handling of international affairs compared to just one-in-five (19%) who approved of President Bush's foreign policy in 2008. Back

337   Ev 106 Back

338   Ev 140 Back

339   "Will Barack Obama end Britain's special relationship with America?" Daily Telegraph, 28 February 2009 Back

340   Statement of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nominee for Secretary of State, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 13 January 2009,  Back

341   Ev 138 Back

342   Ev 140 Back

343   Q 11 Back

344   Ev 114; Ev 131 Back

345   Ev 131 Back

346   Ev 131 Back

347   Ev 139 Back

348   Ev 131  Back

349   Ev 140 Back

350   Q 47, see also Q 99 [Mr McGuire] Back

351   Ev 105 Back

352   Ev 107 Back

353   Ev 121 Back

354   Q 91 [Mr Webb] Back

355   Ev 140 Back

356   Q 114 Back

357   Ev 129 Back

358   Q 12 [Dr Niblett]  Back

359   Q 12 [Dr Dunn] Back

360   Ev 140 Back

361   Ev 140 Back

362   Ev 105 Back

363   Ev 105 Back

364   Ev 113 Back

365   Ev 121 Back

366   Ev 141 Back

367   Ev 141 Back

368   Q 53 Back

369   Q 129 Back

370   Q 130 Back

371   Ev 57 Back

372   Ev 58 Back

373   Ev 119 Back

374   Ev 57 Back

375   Ev 122 Back

376   Ev 100 Back

377   Ev 141 Back

378   Ev 102 Back

379   Ev 102 Back

380   Q 129 Back

381   Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney  Back

382   HC Deb, 3 Feb 2010, col 304 Back

383   Q 77 Back

384   Q 101 Back

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