Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Special Relationship in the 21st centuary

One of the main debates in British foreign policy at present is the UK's relationship with the US. The so called special relationship between the two countries has come under much pressure over the last few years. Firstly from the Bush administrations two wars and secondly from the Obama Administrations cold shoulder. The question for the UK is should it continue to pursue close relations with the US at any cost as it has done since 1940 or should it step back from the US and pursue other partnerships.

Special Relationship what do we get?

There are two main areas where the special relationship comes into play. The main area the two countries cooperate on is intelligence. In particular signals intelligence. The UK and the US are the two main partners in the ECHELON system. Canada, Australia and New Zealand also participate in this global listening system. In addition the UK is believed to have paid for construction of one of the NSA's SIGNET satellites and is allowed access to it at any time.

Human intelligence is also another area where we cooperate. The CIA and MI6 have a very long standing relationship. In addition the USA often provides satellite imagery to the UK when required however this type of data has often been slow to be distributed to the MOD.

The second main area of cooperation has been technology. Many advanced technologies produced by one of the two are given to the other. Examples of this over the past 50 years and jet engines, Radar and CHOGOM armour given by the Brits and Nuclear submarine reactors and SLBM's given by the Americans.

In addition to this UK allows the US to operate bases in Ascension Island, Diego Garcia and the United Kingdom itself.

Both countries also cooperate closely on Nuclear weapons. The UK pays part of the costs for Trident and they are believed to cooperate closely on Nuclear weapons design as well as ongoing maintenance and testing.

Indeed there are probably no two nations on earth who cooperate with each other so closely than the UK and the USA. However much of this close cooperation was based on the cold war rivalry with the Soviet Union.

During the cold war the UK relied on the US to guarantee its security from the USSR. The USA relied on the UK to keep sea lanes open from the US to Europe as well as providing air bases to strike at the Russians. With the diminished threat from Russia this is no longer the case.

In recent years cooperation has revolved around the global war on terror. No other country has matched even a tenth of the blood and treasure the UK has expended on Americas wars post 911.

While America can handle operations of any magnitude on its own it does have a relatively small Army. Certainly nowhere near large enough to sustain occupation forces in two countries for a decade or more. Indeed the UK is the only other country in the world capable of deploying and sustain a sufficiently sized and high tech force in the field. Typically in any operation since the 1991 Gulf War the UK has deployed around 15% of the total force. Not an insignificant amount considering what the rest of the world has put in.

Strains in the Relationship

In recent years a number of strains have appeared in the relationship between the two. The US has complained about intelligence being leaked in the UK on numerous occasions. The US has sought to withhold vital technology transfer agreements in relation to the F35. There were also major operational disagreements between the two in Iraq which eventually saw the UK pulling out most of its forces in the south.

While these types of strains can undoubtedly be over looked as short term tensions between two close friends recent events are beginning to put the validity of the relationship into question. Indeed the Obama administration seems to be hell bent on ending the close ties amongst the two countries. Just at the time when the UK has 10,000 personnel in Afghanistan fighting in a war for America.

Obama avoided Gordon Brown at the UN summit to the point that Brown was forced to jump him in the kitchens just to have a word. Hilary Clinton called for the UK to begin negotiations over the Falklands and the White house even referred to the islands as the Malvinas. Obama played up on anti British sentiment when he began to call BP British Petroleum a name the company has not used since 1998.

The main question the UK now has to answer is are these recent events merely the incompetent bumbling of an increasingly unpopular administration or does it represent a major shift in US policy away from the traditional Anglo Saxon cross Atlantic ties towards the new emerging powers of the third world.

Factors to Consider

There are a number of factors to consider when examining the future of the special relationship.

1. The demographics of the US have fundamentally shifted over the last few years. Away from the Anglo Saxon WASP toward the Latino community.

2. The UK has significantly cut its defence budget and now has less to offer the US in return.

3. US strategic policy is moved away from Europe and now focuses on the Asia Pacific region.

With these factors in mind the future prospects for the special relationship look dim. Once current operations in Afghanistan are wrapped up we will probably see a dramatic cooling in relations between the two countries.

Should we be worried?

The short answer to this question is no. American has always pursued its own best interest's even when these were counter to the UK's. This is only natural and we should not recent the US for this. A cooling of this special relationship can allow the UK to begin rebuilding its own foreign policy and pursuing its own interests.

While the US is still a fantastically important country to be allied with we do not need to subjugate ourselves to it. The UK and US will always be natural allies. We share tow much in common to be anything else. However with the rise of the mega powers of the 21st century we must be free to pursue other relationships with the likes of Russia, India and Brazil. Close ties with the US can often prevent this as the US seeks to limit our ability to share technology or intelligence.

Also in a world where security threats are dominated by Islamic Terrorist our close relationship with the US can actually reduce our overall security. Its allot easier for Tehran to fire a missile at London than it is as Washington. France has not had any suicide attacks from Muslims angry about the Iraq war.


As the UK is basically the only other country in the world with a significant ability to employ force's at a great distance as well as one of the only other nations with advanced weapons techoigy we now have a great opportunity to enhance our standing in the world.

What should we do?

Firstly we must enhance our military capability. If we increase defence spending from 2.2% of GDP to 3% we could significantly enhance our capabilities. We can also turn the lion share of our military budget away from European defence to power projection.

Britain represents the lynch pin of NATO. The UK now represents the main bridge between an increasingly belligerent EU keen to pursue its own military program and an increasingly apathetic USA who sees the Europeans as not contributing enough to the Alliance.

Leaving NATO would be a mistake. It is still the world’s greatest military force; however NATO should remain an alliance for European defence rather than a force for power projection and peace keeping. Instead we should focus on enhancing our own independent strategic capability and focus on helping the rest of Europe do the same.

With the largest defence budget in Europe we could get our EU partners to build their own power projection abilities around ours. By doing this we can have the biggest single influence on European foreign policy.

To do this we must enhance our Navy in particular. With a larger Navy built around Aircraft carriers and large scale amphibious forces we can give Europe the ability to intervene militarily across the world. Something it can’t do at present. In addition we must re build the British Army on light more deployable forces becoming almost a marine corps for Europe.

We must also enhance our C4ISTAR ability allowing Europe to deploy without US assistance. A major part of this will be in space based systems especially reconnaissance satellites. Operating a joint European capability may be the best way to do this.

If we enhance our own capability and the ability of Europe to deploy forces through us we can only improve our relationship with the US. Indeed in the future the US will need Europe to give it strategic weight to counter China. Making our selves the centre of this relationship will force the USA to pay more attention to us. If we have more to offer we can ask for more.

We should also look to pursue military equipment programs on our own. Indeed without the UK most European military projects would never happen. IF European allies have the choice to buy from Britain, France or the USA we will probably find ourselves to be the main benefiter. This will bring a large boom in the UK defence industry giving us a major boost in terms of jobs and making our own programs cheaper and more capable.

Having independent equipment will also allow us to better engage with the rising powers of the third world. At present much of our equipment sales can be blocked by the US worried about transfer of their own technology. If we make our own weapons systems this would cease to be a problem.

Rest of the World

There are a number of nations that we should seek to engage within the 21st century. It is far better to engage with them now from a position of strength than in the future from a weaker position. Indeed this is no different to the way the UK handled the USA in the late 19th century. turning an enemy into an ally.

The most important relationship to develop should be India. While the UK and India a fairly warm diplomatic relationship it does not go nearly far enough. The main area where we need to improve is military cooperation.

Basing a permanent Royal Navy fleet in the Indian Ocean would allow us to train and deploy together. Furthermore we should give them access to our advanced weapons technology allowing India to become a much needed counter to China.

The UK maintains the 5 powers defence agreement in the Asia pacific region. This includes Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. We should seek to enhance this arrangement and Bring India into the fold.

In recent years the US has sought to enhance its presence in the region in particularly North East Asia and the pacific to counter the rising ambitions of China. Britain along with India could look to match this in the south and Indian Ocean.

We could also lobby for India to gain a place on the Security Council. Indeed it is ridiculous that India is not already on the Security Council. If the UK uses its diplomatic ties with France and the USA as well as the pressure that India itself could bring on Russia and China this should be achievable.

If we seek to reform the security council now on our own terms if will be better than holding on to our present position for as long as possible only to be subjugated at some point in the future when our position as one of the 5 is untenable.

We could also look to do something similar for Brazil as a way of engaging with a country which will undoubtedly be an essential ally in the future for us.

Our relations with Russia should be handled principally through the EU. Quite simply it is in everyone’s interests that Russia comes into the fold of European nations. Eventually the Russians will realise this. With a large border with China and a rapidly diminishing population the Russians will come looking for Friends. Europe would be the natural country to provide this and we should do everything to facilitate.

China is a different story. There always needs to be a bad guy in the world and in future this is likely to be China. China is large enough and ambitious enough to be an independent power of the first rate. We will never be able to build close ties with them. However we will not necessarily need to have belligerent relations with them. Allie India, Europe and Russia as well as the USA will be enough to check Chinese ambitions in the 21st century. Long enough until China finds democracy as begins to see things in the same way as everyone else.


A cooling of the special relationship is nothing for us to fear. Indeed it may give us the opportunity to enhance our own diplomatic and military standing in the world. Allowing us to deal with the rising powers of the third world on our own terms. Enhancing our diplomatic and military standing can only enhance our relations in future with the USA giving us more to offer a country that will always be our natural ally

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