Memorandum from Professor Michael Clarke,
Centre for Defence Studies
THE US/UK "SPECIAL
1. The so-called "special relationship"
between the US and the UK was all top and bottom and no middle.
At the top of the relationship exists the friendship between leaders
and the common cultural affinities etc. This is present intermittently,
but makes a big difference when it is evident. At the other end
of the relationship are a series of specific connections in the
fields of nuclear co-operation, intelligence, and the operational
relationships between the armed forces of the two nations. In
the middle of the range, however, it was impossible to detect
any special consideration which the US gave the UK on economic
matters, relations with Europe, successive trade rounds, arms
control, détente or ostpolitik or any of the matters of
2. Nuclear co-operation is of declining
importance in the relationship, not withstanding the current arrangements
for the Trident submarine force; but intelligence co-operation
has always been strong and relatively important to both sides.
Co-operation between the armed forces is strongest between the
two navies, followed by the airforces. Co-operation among ground
forces is less operationally apparent given the different nature
of ground force operations.
3. The relationship seemed to be steadily
losing force after the early 1960s as British leaders turned toward
Europe and away from the US problems in Vietnam and the Middle
East, and as the detailed issues of co-operation appeared to lack
their previous salience. Faced with the lack of substance in the
middle of the relationship95 per cent of all day-to-day
politicsthe concept of there being a special relationship
between the US and the UK became very unfashionable.
4. The relationship became more complex
in the 1990s with the end of the Cold War. The United States was
steadily re-appraising its relationship with European securitya
re-appraisal still on-goingand the UK was very anxious
not to do anything which could alienate the US from mainstream
European security concerns.
5. As of 2000, in the aftermath of the Kosovo
crisis, the US attitude towards European security has become clearer.
Where US policy-makers determine that a structural issue is at
stake in European security, they will be heavily engaged; where
they feel that a crisis will not affect the generally favourable
security situation in Europe, they will look to their allies to
deal with it themselves. In a serious crisis involving Russia
in Europe, one would expect the US to be fully committed. In any
subsequent crises in former Yugoslavia, such a commitment is now
6. In this context the UK switched its policy
dramatically in 1998 with the St Malo agreement which effectively
announced that the UK would henceforth take a leading role in
European defence and security questions without compromising its
credentials as a reliable partner of the US. The Thatcher and
Major governments had reluctantly accepted limited measures of
European defence co-operation; the Blair government, after a year
of hesitancy, embraced it enthusiastically in a pro-active manner.
By influencing the European Security and Defence Policy process
the UK made a clear bid to control the subsequent agenda of it
and reinvigorate its relationship with the US as a transatlantic
partner with diplomatic clout.
7. This new found confidence in the UK was
partly based on the increased salience of military powerused
in a very discriminating wayin the post-Cold War world.
British forces repeatedly demonstrated in former Yugoslavia that
their high competence was uniquely suited to the messy conflicts
of the post-Cold War world, and the degree of commitment which
it was possible to makewith up to 35 per cent of the army
committed to operations at any one time was not lost on
American policy-makers as they searched for European military
partners in the post-Cold War security environment.
8. Nevertheless, the strength of the UKs
military capabilities did not disguise the increasing difficulty
of UK forces keeping up with technological developments within
US forces. Operation Deny Flight in 1995 caused the RAF some real
concerns in exposing how difficult it had become to interface
forces with those of the United States in real operations. Operation
Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999 made this abundantly clear and
revealed the degree to which the UK was slipping behind the United
States. The implication of the Strategic Defence Review of 1998
tried to remedy some of these deficiencies but it will still be
some time before investments made in that period pay off.
THE US/UK RELATIONSHIP
9. The present crisis since September 11
has served to re-emphasise all of the aspects of the special relationship
on which it was originally based. The Prime Minister has been
remarkably assertive in his backing for President Bush in this
crisis and has achieved, at least in public images on both sides
of the Atlantic, something close to parity of responsibility for
the allied response to the terrorist bombing. At the most detailed
level, the intelligence relationship now emerges as critical between
the two countriesparticularly with the UKs superiority
in human intelligence and its more particular abilities through
its special forces to gather intelligence in hostile country.
The relationship between the particular armed forces of the UK
and the US is now operationally closer. Of the 40 thousand allied
troops currently in the Gulf and Arabian sea region (as of 12
October) almost 27 thousand of them are UK troops. About a quarter
of the deployed aircraft and over a third of the ships in the
region are British: a contribution which dwarfs that of any of
America's other allies. Not least, the co-operation between special
forces and specially trained conventional forces has also become
necessarily close in the present crisis. Not least, nuclear co-operation
between the two powers, certainly in the concerns for Central
Asian proliferation may also have been reawakened by the concerns
surrounding the current crisis. The bilateral relationship between
the US and the UK has made a startling come-back in the present
circumstances, though it remains to be seen how the government
will play this aspect of the current crisis.
10. In contrast to this, NATO as a whole
is struggling to remain relevant to the US in the present crisis.
The US found NATO command structures extremely irksome in the
Kosovo crisis and has demonstrated a determination in the present
crisis not to be bound by them. The military forces it is using
presently in South West Asia and not its "NATO forces"
but rather independent military units which derive their training
and doctrine from within the continental United States. NATOs
eight point strategy to support its declaration of Article 5 is
relatively insubstantial and reinforces the fact that the US is
not prepared to mobilise the NATO integrated military structure
in support of its national objectives in this crisis. Sending
the NATO AWACS force to patrol US air space and the Standing Naval
Force, Mediterranean to the Eastern Mediterranean are military
insignificant measures, designed merely to convey political commitment.
NATO will undoubtedly remain a useful political framework for
the United States in Europe, but its military structure could
simply wither away under the pressures of US indifference and
the increasing problems of reform within a structure that has
become bureaucratically sclerotic. The need for reforming NATO
is overwhelming, and any further enlargement after the Prague
summit of 2002 will only add to the urgency; any decision not
to enlarge will deprive NATO of one of its chief political rationales
in the present era.
11. For the United Kingdom, a decline in
the real capacity of NATO to function as an integrated military
structure would represent a major reverse since NATO has served
UK interests so well in the past and the UK has partly defined
itself, in relation to America, as a linchpin of an American led
alliance. NATO will not die under present pressures, but it may
be rapidly transformed into a more general political organisation
which serves UK interests rather less well in the future and plays
less to our manifest military and diplomatic strengths.
12. Against the problems which beset NATO,
however, it must be pointed out that the present crisis has served
to reinforce in a dramatic sense how far the UK have now emerged
as the "second military expeditionary power" in the
world. The UK is a long way behind the US and very much the junior
partner in any military coalition, but is probably better able
than any other power in the worldnot excluding Russia and
Chinato project, and use, effected military force. Other
nations could be more effective in their own territorial defence
than the UK, but no other nation, save the US itself, can project
real military power to the same extent. This is a card in the
British hand which has been appreciating in value during the 1990s
and in present circumstances may turn out to be a very high-value
card indeed. How the UK may choose to preserve, and/or use this
ability is a major strategic question for the coming years. Maintaining
operational military co-operation with US forces may prove very
expensive for the UK and may incur opportunity costs in relation
to the ESDP project and our relations with other European allies.
On the other hand, the leverage which such bilateralism may provide
over US policy and influence could provide the UK with unique
advantages in driving the ESDP forward beyond the next Capabilities
Commitment conference in November 2001 and the Helsinki headline
Goal summit in 2002.
Professor Michael Clarke
Centre for Defence Studies, London