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Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Foreign Affairs Committee and the Death of the Special Relationship?

According to a recent report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FASC) of the House of Commons, Britain should draw back from or downgrade her 'special relationship' with the United States. The press has seized upon a few quotes from the FASC's press release and declared the Anglo-American relationship 'dead'. While this blog rejects that idea, it is interesting that a recent MoD report (see earlier blogs for more details) also makes reference to the increasing importance of the EU's role in Britain's international relationships. That, coupled with another report "Obama's Lukewarm Start With Europe," National Journal, 13 March 2010) on American President Barack Obama's failure significantly to alter his country's general view of Europe - much derided during the Bush era - as not "pulling its weight" in international conflicts, especially Afghanistan, does suggest it is worth keeping an eye on possible, though subtle, shifts in Anglo-American relations. None of this is to deny the continuing and fundamental character of the Anglo-American alliance and relationship in general. Britain's nuclear capacity is profoundly tied into that relationship: for example, Britain does not even own or control all the data necessary in the computer software that would permit it to train its missiles on targets other than those already determined by the US. For example, the UK could not train its missiles on the United States (not, of course, a course of action this blog would recommend). The point is that Britain's 'independent' nuclear deterrent is completely dependent on the US. This is not news: it has been pointed out in report after report since, in my own experience, at least the 1970s. But the popular and other press hardly concerns itself with such uncomfortable facts. This blog congratulates Professor Norman Dombey (Sussex University) for his written evidence to the FASC which has not been given very much, if any serious coverage: do see it at: (If this does not work, Google Foreign Affairs Select Committee and you should get there).

Of course, Britain's military forces are almost entirely integrated into US-dominated NATO forces. According to Professor Dombey, the exclusive character of US-UK nuclear relations means that Britain would be violating agreements made with the US, during the cold war, by sharing nuclear information with its EU partners.

FASC chairman, Mike Gapes MP, argues, in his 'rejection' of excessive deference towards the US, that Britain ought to take a leaf out of President Obama's book and be more 'pragmatic'. There is no hint of the irony implied by such a statement. Gapes also says that "The UK needs to adopt a more hard-headed political approach towards our relationship with the US with a realistic sense of our own limits and our national interests.

"Certainly the UK must continue to position itself closely alongside the US but there is a need to be less deferential and more willing to say no where our interests diverge. In a sense, the UK foreign policy approach this Committee is advocating is in many ways similar to the more pragmatic tone which President Obama has adopted towards the UK.

"The UK and US have a close and valuable relationship not only in terms of intelligence and security but also in terms of our profound and historic cultural and trading links and commitment to freedom, democracy and the rule of law. But the use of the phrase 'the special relationship' in its historical sense, to describe the totality of the ever-evolving UK-US relationship, is potentially misleading, and we recommend that its use should be avoided."

Interestingly, Gapes then suggests that: "Yes, we have a special relationship with the US, but we must remember that so too do other countries including regional neighbours, strategic allies and partners. British and European politicians have been guilty of over-optimism about the extent of influence they have over the US. We must be realistic and accept that globalisation, structural changes and shifts in geopolitical power will inevitably affect the UK-US relationship. It is entirely logical for the US to pursue relationships with other partners who can provide support that the UK cannot. Having said that, recent minor disagreements between the UK and US do not threaten the relationship. Rather they highlight a need for better understanding between our governments to maintain its strength."

This hardly reads as a rejection of the special relationship, a term that needs considerable unpacking in any case.

In addition to the military alliance with the US, Britain and America are almost inextricably bound up with each other. I am not referring here to linguistic, cultural, and political-historical connections: those factors are profoundly important if difficult to tease out in regard to their political significance.

Here, I am referring to what has been pointed out by Robert Worcester: Britain and the US are each other's largest foreign investor; thousands of US public servants and officials visit their UK counterparts each year, dwarfing the levels of such exchanges with any other nation.

And, although globalisation may be changing the world in myriad ways, Britain and the United States are the two major driving forces behind the entire process. Recall, the MoD's attachment to Britain's role in defending global flows - of people, ideas, money, trade, and so on.

It may be imprecise to call the relationship 'special': it is certainly too early to declare it dead.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent analysis: readers may be interested in Professor Michael Cox's views on this report, available here: