Monday, 2 September 2013

Assessing the impact of the UK-US special relationship

A motion to engage in military intervention in Syria was opposed by the UK's main opposition party on Aug 30
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire 
Whilst Washington's plan to establish a Coalition for a possible military intervention in Syria was interrupted by the United Kingdom's refusal to get involved in the conflict, it is unlikely that this will affect the bilateral relations for the long-term future.

US-UK History

The United States and the United Kingdom have been exceptionally close allies for well over a century. The relationship signifies a unique willingness to forget historical grievances and co-operate based on similar international interests. This is especially true when recalling the UK’s historical role as America’s colonial ruler and to this day, remains the only nation to have ever assaulted Washington D.C. and set the White House ablaze. Nevertheless, today they remain two of the closet allies on the international scene. Whilst there is speculation and scepticism about the equality of the partnership, only the US-Israeli relationship seems to stand out as an example of bilateral co-operation that may exceed the “Special Relationship” that the US and the UK enjoy. 

It is worth noting that this is not the first time the relationship has been tested by difference of opinion. The US and the UK have previously found each other at odds on several occasions, increasing the possibility that the recent parliamentary vote is just a hiccup in a continuing relationship. The Suez Canal conflict in 1956, The Yom Kippur War, The Vietnam War and the US invasion of Grenada are just few incidents that the US and the UK have initially found themselves ideologically opposed, or at least initially so. 

The Commons vote does have greater implications than just a difference of opinion for US-UK relations however. The “Special relationship” is often seen as the starting point for building any international military coalition, i.e. the UK is the first nation of reference when the USA is preparing an intervention. Historically the UK has seldom refused participation in US led action. Vietnam is the only major example where the UK has outright refused to commit militarily in recent years upon being asked. At the time, this had devastating repercussions for several years. Lyndon B. Johnson was so furious at the time he spent the rest of his presidency focusing on his ties with other Anglo nations such as Canada and Australia.

The fallout from the UK’s refusal is already visible. Obama’s multi-national efforts appear to be falling apart already. Now that there is a realisation among NATO’s members that even the UK can apparently refuse the call of duty, it may not be long before other nations similarly do so. The very notion that even the US’s most powerful ally will not support military action does very little to inspire confidence regarding the mission’s ability to succeed. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that the vote has managed to serve as a substantial embarrassment to both Washington and the British Cabinet. 

Britain now appears spectacularly weak on the international scene. Despite its leaders talk for tough action, it is apparently unable to convince its own legislature to take action. Given that the UK is fighting an uphill struggle to maintain its status on the international scene against rising powers such as India and China, the nation may find that the summit has risen exponentially. It is all the more embarrassing that David Cameron was one the leaders most ardently campaigning for action against the Assad regime. Externally, it appears that Cameron is unable to even gather the full support of his own party to follow the government’s lead. All the more frustrating considering that the Prime Minister does not actually require the support of the House of Commons to initiate hostilities, rather this was a formality introduced by Tony Blair. 

This will not go unnoticed in Washington, especially given the responses from Damascus and Moscow. Given statements of what appeared to be barely contained enthusiasm who will likely now attempt to cite the commons vote as a means to argue against intervention. Suddenly, Britain’s value as an unflinching and reliable ally of the USA may find itself questioned by the US state Department and the Department of Defense.

The rift in UK-US relations may not come as a surprise to some. In fact, the strength of the special relationship has been questioned since the Obama administration took office. The Bush Administration was well known for its immensely pro-Anglo stance, preferring to rely on Canada, the UK ad Australia for political support over Europe.  By contrast, Obama has been derided by some critics as being rather cold towards the UK, despite Cameron’s Atlanticist ideology.  Critics would cite the Falkland Islands dispute as an example of this.  Some go as far to say that the current administration, in actuality, treats the UK on far less equal terms than the Bush Administration.  Obama has instead focused his efforts on rebuilding America’s ties with the nations that were outraged by the invasion of Iraq, primarily those in Western Europe.  As a result, how would this latest blunder affect the relationship between Cameron and a supposedly distant White House?

Move towards France

One theory is that this is the latest example signifying an increasing reliance on France as the USA’s major military ally for future international action. France has stated its full support for any military action and that the UK vote will not change its position towards Syria. Obama has repeatedly stressed ties with France during his Presidency, especially due to the rift between the two nations that occurred after the invasion of Iraq.  In the short term this makes strategic sense. The UK is currently undergoing a period of major retrofits within its Navy and Air Force, which has weakened its conventional military somewhat. France on the other hand, is not going through an arduous stage of rearmament anytime soon so much of its current strike capacity is intact. From a military perspective, France is currently a more valuable ally for Washington to have. 

Previously, the UK has been a more beneficial political ally due to the UK’s greater international presence and ability to recruit the consent of its former subjects. This has declined somewhat in recent years. France however, is slowly being perceived as the consensual military power of the EU. Germany lacks considerable recognition as a leader in foreign affairs outside economy, so France is often viewed as the leader of diplomatic and military power in Western Europe. The UK will never be perceived as this, having distanced itself from Western Europe whenever possible. French support does far more to suggest the presence of a multinational coalition than the UK’s at this point in time. The perception of European support is invaluable to Washington for any military strike. There is hope that France can enlist other European nations to follow suit.  How many it can actually persuade however is a different story. Eastern Europe tends to position itself more towards the UK so may show some hesitance. Germany will likely refrain from action.  Domestic issues in Italy and Spain may also prevent these two nations from taking part.  Nevertheless, French support can suggest the tacit support of European nations, who will refrain from damaging relations with France by criticising the move.  

Mutual interest 

The Syria crisis has seemingly lead to small friction in UK-US mutual foreign policy commitment. However, despite this, the geopolitical realities transcend and persevere through flashpoints of indecisive governments. The UK has a major interest in retaining the special relationship and vice-versa. For the UK, it is employing a strategy based on being an adaptable and flexible broker between Europe and the United States. The UK will want to keep all of its options whilst pivoting between the two continents. The key part of this strategy is balance. The main reasoning between the balance between the US and Europe for the UK is that the UK can be absorbed too much into US foreign policy, so much so that it becomes akin to a 51st state. 

The US sees the UK as a key member to share the burden of conflicts that it chooses to conduct. Most notably, this was seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. In sharing the burden, it minimizes the perception of unilateral, oppressing force that is shared by adversaries and challengers to US influence around the globe. It also has the ability to share intelligence and conduct intelligence operations with a stable, well-trusted ally. It also allows the US to exert defence policy in Europe while using Germany as the broker for EU economic commitments. 

For the UK, this relationship enables London to keep its options open. If the EU is the collapse and nation-states become the primary institutions of Europe, the UK can rely on political and military weight in enhancing its position and influence in the region. Such a relationship allows the UK to be granted benefits such as extracting special concessions and considerations that other states do not have the position of receiving from the US. Such a relationship allows the UK to influence the only global superpower in the world. 

The Obama administration's choice to go to Congress on Syria would probably wouldn't have had happened if the Cameron's cabinet hadn't chosen to do so. This highlights a political unity on domestic and foreign policy levels which both administrations will wish to emphasize. It also highlights the domestic challenges each nation is facing in revitalizing trust in democratic institutions and the marriage between democracy and security. This has been particularly highlighted by comparisons in the media to Iraq and the Snowden affair distorting the perception of democracy in Western countries.

However, geopolitical realities remain, which both nations wish to mould to their own self-interest. As such, despite the recent blip to US-UK relations, in the longer term, these two nations will continue to cooperate at the level for which qualifies them as a special relationship. It would be far more unnatural for these two nations to agree unconditionally on each issue. 

Written by Bradley Cole and David Stanton 

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