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

Written evidence from Professor Malcolm Chalmers, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI)[82]


  1.  The purpose of this note is to offer some thoughts on the UK/US military relationship, together with pointers towards areas in which policy might be developed.

2.  The relationship with the US will remain central to UK foreign policy for the foreseeable future. As the world's largest economy, and its largest military power by a significant margin, the US's support is critical for the achievement of the UK Government's main international objectives. In most areas of policy, most of the time, the UK and US hold similar positions. But they do not always do so. The two countries will continue to take divergent approaches on some issues, whether because of fundamental differences in national interests and priorities, because of the constraints that national resources or constitutions place on their ability to act, or simply because of differences in political judgements.

3.  The defence relationship between the UK and the US is a central part of this wider relationship, and has its own particular features. Despite the withdrawal from Empire, the UK has continued to give a significantly higher priority to defence spending than its NATO European allies. This additional investment is commonly justified by the closer relationship with the US that, it is argued, the UK gets in return.

  4.  One of the key distinguishing features of the UK's contemporary defence policy is that its military capabilities—and indeed those of most NATO Member States—are now primarily designed to be used as contributions to collective operations, rather than in defence of uniquely national interests. Thus, for most of the more challenging types of operations, the UK only envisages committing its armed forces to operations if the US is also doing so. For example, despite claims that the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade were vital to the UK's national interests, there was never any question of it being involved in these operations without US military commitment. Nor, despite the government's insistence on the threat that a Taliban-led Afghanistan would pose to the UK, is there now any realistic possibility that the UK would retain its armed forces in that country were the US to leave.

  5.  The Government's commitment to maintaining a position as the US's leading ally (previously in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan) has been a driving force in recent decisions to commit forces to major operations. It has also been a key driver in debates on how geographical responsibilities in theatres of operations have been shared, and on the extent to which the UK armed forces have been given operational autonomy over their area of responsibility. Each of the UK's armed services have sought to maintain a high level of inter-operability, as well as something close to qualitative parity, with their US counterparts, a goal made all the more difficult by rapid technological change. None of this is cheap. As the time for a new UK Defence Review approaches, there is bound to be renewed scrutiny of whether the UK is getting an adequate return (in terms of influence on the US) in return for its defence efforts, and what this means for future defence priorities.

  6.  The UK remains one of the world's leading middle powers on a range of comparative measures, including GDP, development aid spending, and military capability. The diplomatic clout from its permanent seat on the UNSC should not be underestimated; and it has an important role (comparable to those of France, Germany or Japan) in shaping international policy across a wide range of issue areas, from financial reform to climate change to non-proliferation. It needs to be realistic about the extent to which it can shape US defence policy, given a defence budget that is only a ninth of that of the US. Yet the single superpower does attach political value to having allies, especially when (like the UK) they can bring some significant military and diplomatic capacity to the table.

  7.  In the light of recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, together with the forthcoming Defence Review, there is a strong case for a thorough review of how the UK can maximise the national political and security benefits that it obtains from its defence investments. There is still a common tendency to articulate the need for the UK to spend more on defence in terms of national honour and a generic need to maintain a strong role in the world. This is often underpinned by an assumption that the UK must accept the burden imposed by the altruistic and internationalist nature of its foreign policy, which (it is argued) contrasts with the more self-interested policies of other major powers. Considerations of honour and responsibility indeed do have a place in foreign policy. Yet there is a danger that, if not anchored in a clear calculus of national benefits and interests, these sentiments can lead to policy approaches of doubtful utility and unacceptable costs.

  8.  Although public support for the armed forces appears stronger than ever, levels of public support for the operations that they are being asked to conduct (in Iraq and now Afghanistan) have fallen to worryingly low levels. If that support is to be rebuilt, the Government will need to do more to reconstruct a clear linkage between UK national interests and the deployment of its armed forces on what are widely seen to be US-led "wars of choice".

  9.  So how should the UK shape its approach to US-led interventions so as to more clearly pursue its own interests, while accepting that those interests are normally still best pursued in an alliance setting?

  10.  First, where particular UK interests are at stake (eg terrorist threats to the UK from Pakistan), it should use the influence that it acquires through its military contributions to argue for US and alliance support for those interests.

  11.  Second, it should recognise that the point at which it can exert the greatest influence on the US (or other allies contemplating military action) is either when decisions to take military action are about to be taken, or when commitments to provide forces (or reinforcements) are being made. If the UK has reservations about how military operations may be conducted, or whether they should be conducted at all, it needs to be willing to link its commitments to a satisfactory resolution of its concerns. Sometimes, it needs to be willing to say no.

  12.  Third, it should recognise that, when the US is fully engaged and determined to take military action, the views of allies are unlikely to count for much in its decision-making calculus. This was probably the case in Iraq in 2002-2003. By contrast, the UK is more likely to have some influence in situations where the US, for whatever reason, is less willing to commit itself wholeheartedly to an operation. For example, when the UK was the leading ISAF power on the ground in Helmand in 2006-08, it had a commensurate share in shaping policy in that province. Once the US began to deploy large forces to the province in 2009, however, the UK's ability to set the ISAF agenda in Helmand, and indeed in southern Afghanistan as a whole, began to decline. One lesson from this is that the UK can often be more influential if it pursues an approach that is complementary to that of the US, rather than simply mirroring whatever current US priorities might be.

  13.  Other recent examples of the benefits of a "complementary" defence posture (as distinct from a "supplementary" one) were (a) the UK's national intervention in Sierra Leone, when no other NATO member state would have been willing to take on such a commitment; (b) the UK's championing of the possible use of ground forces in Kosovo in 1999, at a time when President Clinton was reluctant to do so. In both cases, it was the UK's willingness to take a lead in military action, or to plan for unilateral action, that was the key to its ability to help shape the strategic environment.

  14.  Finally, the government should focus defence investment in areas of national comparative advantage, where the gap in capabilities between the UK and US is less than that in overall military capability, and where a second centre of operational capability can accordingly bring greater influence. Capabilities in which the UK still claims to be relatively well-placed include special forces and intelligence services. Some might add a governmental aid machinery that is (compared with USAID) relatively well-geared to working directly with local governments. Comparative advantages can often vanish remarkably quickly, given the US's ability to innovate and its massively greater resources. With the recent surge of doctrinal innovation in the US military, for example, the UK has now largely lost the comparative advantage in counter-insurgency that it had developed in Northern Ireland. In the coming period of defence austerity, it will be particularly important to be able to prioritise those areas where comparative advantage can be sustained, where necessary at the expense of those areas where this is not feasible.

25 September 2009

82   Malcolm Chalmers is Professorial Fellow in British Security Policy at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI). He is also Visiting Professor in Defence and Security Policy at Kings College London. He is a member of the Defence Secretary's Defence Advisory Forum. This paper develops some ideas that were discussed in Malcolm Chalmers, "A Force for Influence? Making British Defence Effective", RUSI Journal, 153, 6 December 2008, pp 20-27. Back

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