Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from Professor Michael Clarke, Centre for Defence Studies


  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 alliance politics.

  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 relationship—95 per cent of all day-to-day politics—the 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 security—a re-appraisal still on-going—and 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 extremely doubtful.

  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 power—used in a very discriminating way—in 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 make—with 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.


  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 countries—particularly 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 world—not excluding Russia and China—to 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

October 2001

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