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


Written evidence from Dr Robin Niblett, Director, Chatham House

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  Robin Niblett has been the Director of Chatham House (home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs) since January 2007. Dr Niblett's research has focused on European external relations, US foreign policy and transatlantic relations. He spent 10 years from 1997-2007 at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC, where he was Executive Vice-President and Director of the Europe Programme and Initiative for a Renewed Transatlantic Partnership. He is the author of a number of CSIS and Chatham House reports, most recently Ready to Lead? Rethinking America's Role in a Changed World (Chatham House, February 2009)

SUMMARY

    — The relationship between the UK and the US remains "special", but is special principally at the tactical levels of intelligence sharing, nuclear deterrence and military co-operation, most clearly in the current operations in Afghanistan. — The fact that Britain and the United States possess a uniquely close infrastructure for co-operation on two of the most direct and common threats to their national security—fighting violent Islamist extremists in general and in Afghanistan, in particular—will mean that the UK-US political relationship will continue to be among the most intimate for both countries.

    — However, the UK-US relationship is becoming less special at the strategic level. The two countries look out at some of the most important challenges to their common international interests from different perspectives.

    — European security is no longer at the centre of US security priorities. And the fear that the EU might emerge as some powerful counter-weight to US influence has receded. Many Americans would welcome a more co-ordinated EU in the areas of defence or energy, for example. The value of Britain to the US as an opponent of deeper European integration has receded.

    — In a "G-20 world", the US is one of the big players alongside China, India, Russia, and Brazil. They are all viscerally sovereign powers which resist the rise of genuinely multilateral forms of international governance.

    — The Obama Administration is conducting increasingly intense diplomatic relations with these countries on multiple levels simultaneously, and not all of these levels contain the UK as a key US partner.

    — Inevitably, this decline in its relative position also reduces the scope for British influence on US decision-making in its international relations.

    — Britain finds itself in an awkward position, therefore. The US remains the world's pre-eminent power; its engagement and decisions are vital to nearly all priorities for British foreign policy—from negotiations to combat climate change and to control nuclear proliferation to stabilizing Afghanistan. It is natural for British policy-makers to want to be as close to their US counterparts as possible and to try to influence their policy choices.

    — At the same time, it must be recognised that British and US perceptions of the nature of certain international risks and the appropriate policy solutions are not always in synch. These include dealing with the reassertion of Russian power, instability in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, the need to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the rise of China's power in East Asia.

    —  In many such areas of its foreign policy, Britain hews closer to the view of other EU Member States than it does to the current US approaches.

    —  Despite these realities, British politicians continue to talk up in public the country's overall "special relationship" with the US. In fact, 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.

    —  The British government needs to focus on specific areas when it will invest its effort and resources alongside the US, in order achieve their common goals. Natural areas for strong continuing bilateral US-UK co-operation include Afghanistan, Pakistan, dealing with Iran's nuclear programme and re-writing international financial regulation and other new rules for the post-crisis global economy.

    —  Some areas where Britain should not assume it will share common interests with the US include the effort to "re-set" the West's relationship with Russia, dealing with China and India, and approaches to managing climate change, where the US body politic remains far more sceptical than the Administration. In these areas co-ordination with our EU partners needs to be the main priority.

INTRODUCTION: THE EMERGENCE OF THE "SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP"

  1.  Much has been written about the origins of the "special" relationship between Britain and the United States. In essence, the UK-US relationship evolved gradually in the 10 years following the end of the Second World War as successive British governments realised that (a) they no longer had the capacity to protect or project British interests around the world, while the United States would take its place as the world's dominant power, and that (b) the most direct threat to British and European security—that of Soviet military aggression and/or political subversion—could only be confronted if the United States were tightly woven into a transatlantic alliance whose principal focus was the defence of Europe and the broader Atlantic community.

2.  A corollary and third driver of the special relationship has been the mutual suspicion in Washington and London about a deepening of European political integration that could come at the expense of US engagement and influence in the Atlantic community.

  3.  Throughout the Cold War and beyond, Britain was one of the most stalwart of America's European allies, and the one best-placed to support the US within and outside the Atlantic area. This led to the building of an infrastructure of bilateral co-operation in the areas of intelligence sharing and nuclear and military co-operation that allowed each side to define the relationship as "special" rather than just close.

  4.  To be sure, there are also important cultural and historical connections between the UK and United States, especially as seen from the US. There are also some broadly shared values, principally a commitment to supporting democracy, individual rights and open markets around the world. It is worth noting, however, that popular attitudes in the UK and US towards religion, the death-penalty, the international rule of law, among other issues, are far more divergent than notions of a "special relationship" might suggest.

THE US-UK RELATIONSHIP TODAY

  5.  Today, the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States remains "special", but is special principally at the tactical level where the two countries still engage in unique bilateral interaction on matters of intelligence (including on counter-terrorism), nuclear deterrence (sharing the Trident system) and military co-operation, the latter manifested most clearly in the current operations in Afghanistan.

6.  There are always risks of UK-US rifts at this tactical level—the unmasking of the plot in Britain to blow up transatlantic airliners in August 2006 revealed important differences in British and US approaches to counter-terrorism, and there is a growing gap between the extensive resources and troop levels the US Administration can deploy in distant military theatres like Iraq and Afghanistan and the more limited resources available to Britain.

  7.  But the fact that Britain and the United States possess a uniquely close infrastructure for co-operation on two of the most direct and common threats to their national security—fighting violent Islamist extremists in general and in Afghanistan, in particular—will mean that the UK-US political relationship will continue to be among the most intimate for both countries.

  8.  It is also a fact, however, that the UK-US relationship is becoming less special at the strategic level. In other words, leaders in the two countries look out at some of the most important challenges to their common international interests (both in terms of long-term prosperity and security) from different perspectives.

  9.  There remain, therefore, practical advantages to both sides of sustaining both the infrastructure and the appearance of the special relationship. But, without a more dispassionate assessment in London of the differences in international perspectives and interests between the UK and the United States and of the limits of British influence over US decision-making in the 21st century, disappointments will continue to outweigh the visible advantages.

THE US-UK RELATIONSHIP AS SEEN FROM WASHINGTON

  10.  The "bottom line" today, as Americans would put it, is that the second and third drivers that gave rise to the special relationship are no longer there. The threat to Britain, Europe and the United States from possible Soviet domination or destabilization of Europe has disappeared. Russian meddling and aggressiveness towards parts of central and eastern Europe is an important concern, but is outweighed in US perceptions by other more pressing international concerns, as will be discussed further below. European security is no longer at the centre of US security priorities.

11.  And the idea that the European Union might emerge as some powerful counter-weight to US influence has receded. Many Americans, especially a number of senior officials in the Obama Administration, would welcome a more co-ordinated EU, including in the areas of defence or energy, for example—an EU that could be in a position to share more effectively the burdens of projecting stability and security within and beyond the Atlantic area. The value of Britain as a reliable opponent of deeper European integration in the security area and other areas, therefore, has receded.

  12.  This shift in US perspective has been under way for some time, certainly since the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Clinton Administration. At heart, it is a reflection of the emergence of a more multi-polar world, where rising powers offer both opportunities and risks to US interests, and where European nations and the EU are of greatest value as allies that potentially tilt the bargaining advantage in the US favour, not simply as members of a static Atlantic Alliance.

  13.  In this "G-20 world", the US is one of the big players alongside China, India, Russia, and Brazil. Although all are increasingly aware of their inter-dependence at an economic level, they are viscerally sovereign powers which resist the rise of genuinely multilateral forms of international governance at a political level. The UK is not one of the big powers and, although more deeply attached to its sovereign prerogatives than many other EU Member States, is bound formally and informally into EU positions on a range of policy topics.

  14.  Of course, the UK remains important in this emerging order as a US ally in NATO and in the UN Security Council—for example, on issues such as containing Iran's nuclear programme—as well in advocating for open markets in the IMF and WTO.

  15.  However, as the apparent fiasco of the British government's efforts to secure a bilateral meeting with President Obama at the UN General Assembly in September 2009 revealed (the latest in a line of minor, accidental slights by the new US Administration towards the Prime Minister), the Obama Administration is now conducting its diplomatic relations on multiple levels simultaneously, and not all of these levels contain the UK as a key US partner.

  16.  There are other more intangible forces at work in the UK-US relationship from the 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.

  17.  Inevitably, this decline in the "specialness" of its position also reduces the scope for British influence on US decision-making in its international relations. Such influence has been difficult to exercise even in the hey-day of US-UK relations (the Reagan Administration's early decisions in the Falklands conflict were one case in point) and even under the most positive of personal relations between Prime Ministers and Presidents (Prime Minister Blair's lack of impact on US policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict following his support for the Iraq war, for example).

  18.  But the more 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. 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.

BRITAIN: STILL TALKING UP THE "SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP"

  19.  The US remains the world's pre-eminent power; its engagement and decisions are vital to nearly all priorities for British foreign policy—from negotiations to combat climate change and to control nuclear proliferation to stabilizing Afghanistan. It is natural for British policy-makers to want to be as close to their US counterparts as possible and to try to influence their policy choices if at all possible. US policy-makers are not under the same pressure. There is an asymmetry of power, and we need to live with this reality.

20.  At the same time, however, it must be recognised that British and US perceptions of the nature of certain international risks and the appropriate policy solutions are not always in synch. This was most apparent during the George W. Bush Administration, where the US position on the Arab-Israeli conflict, on combating climate change and on some of the techniques that needed to be used to win the "global war on terror" ran counter to British approaches.

  21.  The arrival of the Obama Administration appears to have narrowed some of the differences between the US and UK approaches, including on the three examples given above. In addition, British public opinion has swung behind President Obama.[83] Nonetheless, the panorama of global challenges that the US faces do not always look the same from a UK vantage point. There are four examples, among others:

    (a) British concerns about Russia's growing influence in Central and Eastern Europe are based not only on the sorts of strategic considerations shared by US policy-makers, but also on immediate fears about the future of British energy security. There is considerable British scepticism about the potential for "re-setting" the West's relationship with Russia as the Obama Administration is attempting to do now.

    (b) British concerns about political stability and sustainable development in North and Sub-Saharan Africa are based on more than fears about growing radicalisation—a principal driver for US policies and actions on the continent. Britain will be one of the favoured destinations in Europe for the illegal migration that will accompany continued instability on the African continent.

    (c) British insistence on finding a fair and durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based on more than a desire to help promote peace and prosperity in the Middle East. A resumption of conflict there could lead directly to a rise in extremist violence in Britain.

    (d) Britain does not share the same concerns about the rise of China's power in East Asia as does the United States, which has an array of military alliances and commitments across the region.

  22.  In many areas of its foreign policy, Britain hews closer to the view of the majority of other EU Member States on how to confront these questions than it does to the current US approaches. Despite its continuing close relationship with the Obama Administration on the centrality of Afghanistan and Pakistan, on nuclear disarmament or on dealing with Iran, for example, there are many other areas where Britain will be hard-pushed either to convince the US to alter its policy approach or to build a transatlantic consensus for action.

  23.  Despite these realities, more often than not British politicians appear determined to continue to talk up in public the idea of the permanence of the country's overall "special relationship" with the US. The gap between aspiration and reality, however, is becoming ever more awkward.

WHERE TO?

  24.  It is a fact that British politicians from both major parties are ambivalent about engaging more proactively with their EU partners in order to try to increase Britain's international leverage on issues of common European concern. Given the growing gap in strategic outlook between the US and the UK, however, Britain could find itself adrift between these two moorings of its foreign and security policy.

25.  Whether British ambivalence about the EU should or will ease in the near future is not the topic of this paper. But it is also very possible that the EU's international influence outside its near neighbourhood or outside international trade policy (two areas where it can have real clout) will remain marginal, irrespective of how engaged Britain might be.

  26.  As it thinks about its relationship with the US, therefore, it is all the more important that this and future British governments be as dispassionate in the approach to their relations with the US as the US has been with the UK.

  27.  Most importantly, they should 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. 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.

  28.  Similarly, 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. Natural areas for strong continuing bilateral US-UK co-operation—whatever the occasional disagreements—include Afghanistan, Pakistan, dealing with Iran's nuclear programme and re-writing international financial regulation and other new rules for the post-crisis global economy.

  29.  Some areas where Britain should not assume it will share common interests with the US include the effort to "re-set" the West's relationship with Russia, dealing with China and India (both on political and economic interests), and approaches to managing climate change, where the US body politic remains far more sceptical than its executive branch of government. In these areas co-ordination with our EU partners needs to be the main priority.

30 September 2009






83   President Obama's approval ratings in the UK earlier this year stood at 82% compared with the 17% for President Bush in 2008. In addition, 73% of those surveyed in Britain in 2009 expressed a favourable opinion of the United States, compared with 48% for the EU-German Marshall Fund "Transatlantic Trends Survey" 2009. Back


 
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