As British Prime Minister David Cameron makes his first official visit to Washington, Britons are furiously debating Britain’s role in the world. It is an issue that has preoccupied the country’s elites since the British Empire irreversibly unraveled after the end of World War II. But the latest iteration of the debate is calling into question the very cornerstone of British foreign policy for more than 60 years, namely the Anglo-American “special relationship.”
The term “special relationship” was first coined by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during his “Iron Curtain speech” in March 1946. The term describes the unusually close political, military, diplomatic, cultural, and historical ties between the United States and Britain. Although both allies maintain close relationships with other countries, the level of bilateral cooperation in military operations planning, nuclear weapons technology, and intelligence gathering and sharing is unparalleled in modern history.
The United States and Britain have both benefited handsomely from the relationship. Throughout the Cold War and beyond, Britain has been an invaluable bridge between the United States and Europe, and Washington has long valued London’s role in mediating relations between the two continents. At the same time, Britain has secured not only military protection, but also the ability to exert an influence in international affairs far beyond its fading status as an imperial power.
But now a growing number of voices, primarily among the anti-American British left, are calling for Britain to reassess its close relationship with the United States. Many are still fuming over former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s support for the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Others are wondering what Britain is actually gaining from the relationship at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama is perceived to have already downgraded it to the level of a “special partnership.”
Many left-wingers want to carve out a new role for Britain as a post-modern pacifist “soft-power” great power. Former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband, for example, has tried to recast Britain as a “global thought leader.” Others say Britain should become a “global hub” in the fight against climate change. A British think tank recently sponsored a conference titled “Rethinking the UK’s International Ambitions and Choices.” The conference was tasked with “assessing the UK’s international priorities and the policy choices it faces in matching its ambitions, interests and resources, providing the context in which the UK government can make informed decisions about its international policies and resource investments.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, in his first major speech since taking office in May, recently outlined his government’s long-term vision for Britain’s role in the world. He promised a sweeping overhaul of British foreign policy aimed at expanding the country’s “global reach and influence” to every inhabited continent.
Speaking at the Foreign Office in London, Hague said that if Britain wants to maintain its influence in a changing world, it will have to move beyond its special relationship with the United States and forge new strategic alliances around the globe.
In the speech, Hague said: “Our new government’s vision for foreign affairs is this: A distinctive British foreign policy that is active in Europe and across the world; that builds up British engagement in the parts of the globe where opportunities as well as threats increasingly lie; that is at ease within a networked world and harnesses the full potential of our cultural links, and that promotes our national interest while recognizing that this cannot be narrowly or selfishly defined.”
For starters, Hague said Britain needs more influence inside the European Union and he called for establishing closer alliances with its smaller member states. He also stressed the importance of forming closer ties with “new and emerging powers” like India, China, and Brazil and seeking new relationships with countries in Latin America.
Although Britain will still have an “unbreakable alliance” with the United States, it should not be at the expense of other potential partners. Hague said Britain’s ties with the United States should be “solid not slavish.”
But are ambitions to extend Britain’s influence realistic?
Although Britain is often called a “great power,” in practice most governments around the world view it as a “middle power” and only pay attention to Britain when it is acting as a close partner of the United States or part of the European Union. Consider major international issues such as Afghanistan, for example, or the multilateral diplomacy over Iran or even climate change. Britain derives its global influence on these issues not from itself but from its close ties to the United States or the European Union.
Churchill understood Britain’s dilemma and engaged in what geostrategists sometimes call “middle power bandwagoning,” which is a fancy way of saying that the strong link to America is what allows Britain to play far above its weight in international politics.
But even if one confers Britain with great-power status of its own accord, the country is falling down the ranks of the top global economic powers. Britain has the second-worst deficit as a percentage of GDP in the world. Only Greece has higher deficits, and economists say it is only a question of time until Britain’s debt exceeds that of Greece.
On June 22, the British government unveiled the country’s most painful budget in a generation. It outlined an unprecedented program of deep spending cuts and tax hikes to tackle the country’s record $1.3 trillion debt and get public finances back under control.
The austerity measures will cut almost every aspect of Britain’s power projection. The Foreign Office, for example, has been ordered to slash its budget by 25 percent. And British Defense Secretary Liam Fox says that budget cuts will force the British military to become smaller, lighter, and more dependent on foreign allies. Moreover, an upcoming Strategic Defense Review (SDR), which will sketch out what sort of armed forces Britain can afford in the medium- to long-term, is expected to recommend significant cuts to Britain’s nuclear deterrent.
The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee says the British Ministry of Defense faces a funding shortfall that runs as high as $100 billion over the coming decade. The report warns that the defense budget is “fundamentally unaffordable.” Matters have become so bad, it says, that the Defense Ministry “will have to take difficult decisions, such as to cancel whole equipment programmes.”
The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British military think tank, has produced one of the most comprehensive estimates of what the military budget might be like during the period covered by the SDR. In a report titled “Preparing for the Lean Years,” RUSI says defense spending in Britain could be slashed by up to 15 percent in real terms during 2010-2016 as the next government enacts austerity measures to tackle massive public debt. RUSI says cuts on this scale could produce significant reductions not only in manpower but also in the acquisition of new weapons systems; they could also affect ongoing operations abroad, such as in Afghanistan.
In an interview, Hague recently said: “Napoleon’s maxim was that the side that stays within its fortifications is beaten — and in foreign policy, and in ensuring our future security, the country that is just reactive is in decline. So we are embarking on a major new phase, more systematically and strategically than has been done in this country for a very long time. That is what I call a distinctive British foreign policy.”
But even Hague’s supporters wonder how he will be able to reposition Britain as a central hub in the geopolitical world at the same time that his government is forced to radically cut spending on diplomacy and defense.
In the end, Hague may yet conclude, as did Churchill, that Britain can best expand its global reach and influence by strengthening, not weakening, its special relationship with the United States. If he does, both countries will be better for it.