Beyond Friendship - The Future of Anglo-American Relations, Chapter Four: Britain and the Special Relationship

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Beyond Friendship - The Future of Anglo-American Relations, Chapter Four: Britain and the Special Relationship

May 24, 2006 11 min read
Robin Harris
Dr. Robin Harris is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. His...

The British voices raised against the Special Relationship may be louder now, but their arguments have not changed, and they are still wrong. Even the analogy with the “bridge,” which was at root a timid attempt to make the Anglo–American alliance more acceptable to its detractors, both misconstrues and underrates the benefits which Britain and America gain from the Relationship.

Britain no longer needs, if it ever needed, to be partially integrated into Europe to gain a hearing in Washington. Similarly, the days when Washington needed London as a means of influencing Europe are gone, partly because the Europeans are less important anyway, partly because the European Union is determined to go its own way, and partly because almost the last world leader the other Europeans are inclined to heed is Britain’s Prime Minister—this or any other one, incidentally.

Economic Benefits

Britain’s gains from its closeness to America are more solid and more clearly identifiable. Perhaps the most obvious two-way benefit is economic: The U.K. and the U.S. are the largest single source of overseas investment in each other’s economies. In 2004–2005, U.S. investment in the U.K. rose by 47 per cent, accounting for more than the combined U.S. investment going to Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Ireland.[1] This propensity to trade, despite the protectionist measures erected occasionally by the U.S. and fairly consistently by the EU, bears eloquent testimony to the ease with which Americans and the British do business with one another.

Trade is facilitated, of course, by a common language (and not obstructed, be it noted, by lack of a common currency). It is also easier because the U.S. and U.K. business cultures and legal systems are so similar. There is mutual acceptance of the benefits of competition, most obviously manifested in the willingness by regulators to see takeovers, and of the advantages of light regulation. The fact that Britain is so closely connected to the mighty American economy, whose performance continues to outshine that of Europe in every respect—GDP growth, productivity growth, innovation, and job creation—is particularly important for the British standard of living.

That importance reflects another feature of Britain’s unique global position: the fact that, of the major world economies, it is the one most dependent on trade. About half of that trade, depending on how it is measured, is with Europe; but the rest of it is with faraway countries of which, although it cannot be said that the British “know little,” it must be admitted that they can do rather little to protect their interests.

Here, too, closeness to America is vital to British success. In previous decades, it was the matter of keeping open the sea-lanes that most preoccupied successive British governments anxious to promote the country’s commercial prosperity. Certainly, that is still a factor in Britain’s defense profile. But both unhindered access to reasonably priced raw materials and the security of foreign investments rely nowadays on something more than gunboat diplomacy (even if Britain had sufficient gunboats). They have to depend, in the last resort, upon stability underpinned, and if necessary imposed, by the United States.

That is true above all in the Middle East, in West Africa, in Central Asia, and around the Pacific Rim, where without U.S. involvement Western energy supplies could be jeopardized or Western markets imperiled. But it is true globally too, for without the prevailing assumption that America could deal, if necessary, with any power that challenged global order, economic confidence would plummet and the worth of Britain’s investments and income along with it. So the British have much for which to thank America—which, when remembered, should help to allay the occasional and inevitable curse.

Intelligence Sharing

In all probability, however, the single most important benefit enjoyed day by day by the citizens of the United Kingdom from Anglo–American collaboration is almost unsung and, necessarily, for the most part unpublicized. This is the privileged position accorded by America to Britain in the sharing of intelligence. It is also the one area where there has been an unbroken line of cooperation. Having begun with the need to penetrate the plans of the Axis Powers, the intelligence services of the two allies soon moved to monitoring the activities of the Warsaw Pact. Today, within a well-established framework, the agencies of the U.K., the U.S., Australia, Canada, and New Zealand continue to share intelligence. U.S. representatives even attend part of the weekly sessions of the JIC.

The precise degree of interchange is, naturally, itself secret, and it certainly varies according to the behavior of the participating powers and the precise nature of threats; but British intelligence continues to enjoy a unique relationship with its U.S. opposite numbers in all matters of vital national interest, especially under present conditions of vigilance against Islamic terrorism. As John Negroponte, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, recently observed: “The British have long been our closest counterterrorism partners—the seamless cooperation in the aftermath of the July attacks in London reflected that commitment.”[2]

British politicians critical of Britain’s closeness to the U.S., and in particular the country’s prominent role in Afghanistan, sometimes suggest that terrorist outrages on British streets are the price the nation pays for such involvement.[3] What they do not acknowledge, however, is that the Islamic terrorist threat, which did not begin with the American-led invasion of Iraq and will not end with its ocupation, can be countered only by intelligence and that without U.S. intelligence cooperation, British streets would be still less safe and British citizens at still greater risk.

Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and Security Service (MI5) are highly effective in their special fields of human intelligence acquisition or HUMINT; but in communications intelligence, the United States is far ahead of anyone else. Of course, intelligence information—particularly communications intelligence, which needs to be carefully sifted and analyzed to make sense—is not infallible. If it were, neither the outrage of 9/11 in New York and Washington nor that of the London bombs of July 7, 2005, would have occurred. That, though, is an argument for improved information gathering and more use of HUMINT, not for risking current information sharing, which is what the long-term effect of leaving America to her own devices would inevitably involve for Britain.

Indeed, a useful initiative for any incoming British government to take now would be to re-examine with the United States whether there are not ways in which Britain’s HUMINT skills and traditional links with much of the Islamic world, including that part of it which is now resident in Britain itself, could be put to better use. The more that Britain gives to the intelligence relationship the more it can (and should) expect to receive back from it.

Military Strengths and Weaknesses

In the end, Britain’s worth to America will always be measured by the country’s willingness and ability to deploy effective military power alongside its ally. This cannot be too often or too emphatically stated: Unfortunately, British politicians, including Tony Blair, who privately recognize the fact never put the point so bluntly. It needs to be made, though, because it dispels the illusion that Britain can enjoy security and influence on the cheap.

To this, the obvious rejoinder is to point to the fact that more than a hundred British servicemen have now lost their lives in Iraq. This is a real sacrifice, though it pales before the number of U.S. troops who have died. One could add that no other American ally has committed anything like the military effort that Britain has done. British special services, probably the best in the world, were heavily engaged in the early part of the campaign against the Taliban. In Iraq, the commitment continues. The British control their own zone around the port of Basra and, despite the serious growth of Iranian and radical Shia influence, continue at least to keep the lid on the cauldron. Several thousand more British troops have recently been sent on a dangerous (and in many ways unsatisfactory) mission in Afghanistan. Britain is pulling its weight.

The trouble is that Britain’s weight, in the sense of its overall military capability, is inadequate for the tasks which it faces and which, as America’s leading ally, it must expect to continue to face. Like other NATO countries, including the United States, Britain sharply reduced its defense expenditure at the end of the Cold War. Both countries, as almost everyone can now see and some saw at the time as well, cut too far. The U.S. Army was downsized by 30 per cent in the 1990s, which is one reason why the strain of Iraq is so intense; but unlike America, which at least pushed up its spending after the attacks of 2001, Britain has not increased spending at all to cope with the new threats. Indeed, since Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, budgeted defense spending as a share of GDP has fallen from 2.7 percent to about 2.3 percent.

In fact, this understates the problem in three important ways. First, Britain gets less for every dollar spent on defense than does the United States; and this is connected with (though not wholly dependent on) the second problem: that Britain commits less to weapons research. One should add that only Britain and France among European countries have any significant military research and development (R&D) spending at all.

Defense budget percentages on R&D are somewhat misleading, simply because the total sums involved bear no comparison with each other. In 2004, the U.S. spent more than twice as much on defense as the 25 EU member states combined. So when one looks at defense R&D, one finds that the U.S. spends almost exactly ten times as much as the UK.[4] Yet it is precisely through keeping and, where possible, increasing its technological lead that the U.S. is ensuring its unchallenged status of global superpower. And it is because Britain has not either itself invested enough or drawn sufficiently on American expertise that it is becoming questionable whether forces from the two countries will be able to serve together in future years on the same battlefield.

The huge gap between the capabilities of the allies first became embarrassingly clear in the 1999 air operations over Kosovo. Tony Blair was prominent in the martial rhetoric, but the British bombs—when the British aircraft could fly at all—almost always missed their targets. Similarly, in Iraq, the fact that the British were given their own separate zone to run was not just sensible military division of labor: It was an implied reflection of the difficulty of integrating British forces effectively when the Americans had more advanced equipment.[5]

The third problem facing the British armed forces is that while the resources committed have stayed more or less the same, the duties undertaken have greatly expanded, partly in line with the need to stand by America when almost no other power will do so, but also as Tony Blair’s policy of liberal internationalist interventionism—what he calls his “doctrine of international community”—takes effect.[6] British troops are thus currently stationed in Afghanistan, Belize, Bosnia, Cyprus, the Falklands, Germany, Iraq, Kosovo, Kuwait, Oman, Sierra Leone, and, of course, Northern Ireland. In none of these locations have British forces been superfluous. In all, they have been a force for good. The fact remains, however, that today’s mismatch between the resources committed to defense and the expanding ambitions of New Labour liberal interventionism cannot continue.

The short-term consequences of this are already apparent. The length of time between tours has been cut: Government guidelines state that deployments should be 24 months apart, but the average for infantry units is now down to 21 months, and for some elements of the Army, it is less than a year. This has a cumulatively bad effect on morale. Not surprisingly, recruitment in all three services has fallen in recent years. The long-run effect is, though, bound to be more serious. The risk is that at some point, despite their professionalism and fighting spirit, British forces may be sent into battle and fail in their mission.

There are two separate issues here. One is that of procurement; but since this fits so closely with the subject of the following chapter—the damaging effects of European integration on Britain’s role in the Special Relationship—it can be considered at that point. The other issue is the scale of resources committed by Britain to its defense responsibilities and how that relates to the current plans for reshaping the military.

The British Ministry of Defence is rightly committed to restructuring the country’s armed forces so as to take advantage of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, combining the use of instantly available networked information and the large-scale use of precision firepower. This involves, for the Army, development of a fully integrated Network Enabled Capability (NEC) and an emphasis on fast, medium-weight vehicles. It also means, in general, fewer platforms, with particular implications for the Navy and Air Force.

An “effects based approach” of the sort the British planners have adopted requires maximum flexibility. The trouble is that it does not, of itself, require fewer personnel; it is certainly not cheaper; and simply because nothing is less predictable than the shape and timing of the next war, one cannot afford capability gaps at any stage. Most important is the fundamental planning assumption which Margaret Thatcher has urged:

To the question of what precise overall capabilities, and thus exactly what levels of defence spending, are necessary to cope with such scenarios I can only answer: “More than at present—and possibly much more than you think.”[7]

This is not happening. The period of transition, therefore, involves worrying risks. If the first military lesson of Afghanistan and Iraq is the importance of technological superiority, the second is that without sufficient men on the ground, that superiority may prove worthless. Yet all three British services are now facing manpower cuts: 1,500 for the Army, 1,500 for the Navy, and 7,500 for the Air Force.

  • The Air Force is also to lose three Jaguar squadrons two years earlier than planned, and the replacement Typhoons will not enter full operational service until the end of the decade.
  • The Navy will lose three type 42 destroyers and three type 23 frigates.
  • The last of the Sea Harriers is being taken out of service, and the Royal Navy will then have no close air defense until 2015.
  • Problems with the Joint Strike Fighter, and particularly the variant needed to replace the Harriers, have also thrown into doubt the future viability of the two new supercarriers for which the Navy budget is being squeezed.

The Navy, it seems, is always—and oddly for a maritime nation—at risk of decimation in the name of one scheme or another. On a previous occasion, planned cuts almost rendered the retaking of the Falklands impossible. As part of the deal to supply Trident II, the Reagan Administration even imposed the condition that cuts in the surface fleet should be reversed.[8]

It was right to intervene in this way, even under a Thatcher government. In the current climate of British politics, where butter can always be guaranteed to win over guns, the U.S. should be much more vigilant about British plans. After all, it is part of the Special Relationship that, in extremis, one partner assumes the burdens of the other. The U.S. may suddenly find itself having to take the strain as a result of the U.K.’s imprudence.


[1]UK Trade and Investment Agency figures, June 29, 2005.

[2]John D. Negroponte, Director of National Intelligence, statement before Committee on Intelligence, U.S. Senate, February 2, 2006, p. 3.

[3]For example, Kenneth Clarke, former Chancellor of the Exchequer and recent Tory leadership candidate, has said: “The decision by the UK Government to become the leading ally of President Bush in the Iraq debacle has made Britain one of the foremost targets for Islamic extremists.” Quoted in The Independent, September 1, 2005.

[4]Burkard Schmitt, “Defence Expenditure,” European Union Institute for Security Studies, February 2005.

[5]This at least is the case of “Blue Force Trackers” (a satellite-based tracking and communication system) lent by the U.S. to some British formations, which the latter could not or would not use. See the U.S. study quoted by Richard North, The Wrong Side of the Hill: The Secret Realignment of UK Defence Policy with the EU (London: Centre for Policy Studies, 2005), pp. 21–22. For North’s important broader thesis, see below.

[6]Tony Blair spelled out the concept at a speech to the Economic Club of Chicago on April 22, 1999.

[7]Margaret Thatcher, Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World (London: HarperCollins, 2002), p. 41.

[8]Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (London: HarperCollins, 1993), p. 248.


Robin Harris