Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Professor John Baylis, Centre for the Study of Conflict, University of Wales, Swansea


1.   Introduction: The Context

  1.1  It would be wrong to say that everything has changed since September 11, but it seems likely that the whole basis of international relations is entering a new phase. During the Cold War the structure of world power was essentially bipolar and, as time went on, a consensus on the "rules of the game" gave the system some predictability and stability. During the post-cold war era there has been more uncertainty, with a greater diffusion of power and one, apparently impregnable, superpower, supported at times by international coalitions of various kinds. The attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon has highlighted the vulnerability of even the United States, and has potentially changed the whole structure of world politics. The international system is now increasingly divided between those engaged in trying to eradicate terrorism and those involved in, and giving support to, terrorist activities. It is clear that one of the key questions for the future is how far the global coalition against terrorism can hold together over the coming months and years as we move into what is likely to be a very rocky and unpredictable period of international relations. If a global coalition can take effective action the move towards a more co-operative international system might be enhanced by the events of September 11. If this is not possible then Robert Kaplan's "The Coming Anarchy" may have arrived already. These events pose new and demanding challenges for British diplomacy in general, and for Britain's relationship with the United States in particular.

2.   Britain's Relations with the US Prior to September 11

  2.1  Undoubtedly the most important strategic element of British foreign and defence policy since 1945 has been the continuous process of building and maintaining the "special relationship" with the United States. As David Reynolds has argued (and as a wide of declassified government documents show) the "special relationship" has been a deliberate tool of diplomacy, as well as a reasonably accurate description of Anglo-American relations since 1945, especially in the intelligence and defence fields. The perception of officials and governments of both political parties has been that British interests require a close and, if possible, preferential partnership with the United States. Sentiment and culture have played their part, but at the heart of the "special relationship" has been the coincidence of interests between the two states and a common world view.

  2.2  In the cold war, despite occasional crises (eg Suez and Skybolt), the perception of a common enemy was relatively easy to maintain. In the more complex post-cold war period the challenges have been greater, but governments of both political parties have continued to emphasise the continuing importance of close ties in an uncertain world. The traditional conventions of being the first, and most supportive, ally of the United States in a crisis, and not openly criticising the US when there have been disagreements, have been maintained. There has been a continuing belief that the US is only likely to be influenced through dialogue with close friends who are prepared to share the burdens with the United States in times of need.

  2.3  With the new, sometimes strident, unilateralism of the Bush era the opportunities for friction in Anglo-American relations increased. In practice, the Blair government has worked very hard to ensure that at a personal and a practical level the "special relationship" remains intact. Despite misgivings in some influential quarters over NMD, the Kyoto convention, the Chemical and Weapons convention and US Middle Eastern policies, Britain has continued the role as America's most supportive ally.

3.   The New Global Crisis

  3.1  Two things were noticeable about the reaction of the Blair government in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on September 11. Firstly, the constant message of standing "shoulder to shoulder" with the American government and the immediate offer of support. Secondly, the deliberate search to build a broad international coalition within hours of the atrocity occurring. The contentions of the past were immediately on display, Britain is, and has been seen to be, the most supportive (and toughest) of America's allies. Britain has been prepared to aid the US in a practical and major way in their hour of need. Therein, officials have argued, lies the greatest opportunity to influence the Bush administration in the dangerous period ahead.

  3.2  There have been many period since the second world war when British Governments have sought to use the "special relationship" to influence the US when, what were perceived to be, dangerous policy options were being considered (eg Korea, the 1950s debates about nuclear pre-emption, the Cuban Missile crisis). It appears that similar anxieties existed in Whitehall in the immediate aftermath of September 11. Worries about the "new unilateralism" in general, and the apparent decline in the influence of Colin Powell, are likely to have caused policy-makers in London to fear the prospect of the United States "lashing out" in rage against those suspected of performing the atrocities and those suspected of harbouring them. The message from London appears to have been that determined, sustained and effective action must be taken but that the implications of such action must be carefully weighed and that a global coalition against international terrorism should be involved in the range of responses (legal, economic, diplomatic as well as military) that would be necessary. The implication was that strident unilateralism should have no place in the new post-September 11 era. This message appears to have reinforced a similar message from certain parts of the US Administration.

4.   British interests in the coming era

  4.1  The dreadful events of September 11 have created new and very serious challenges for British diplomacy. With hindsight, the attempts by the Blair government to sustain and nourish the "special relationship" have been proved correct. Through that policy and the immediate response by the Blair government, Britain has been, and continues to be, in a unique position to try to influence American policies. How much influence Britain will be able to exert (as in the past) will be limited and will depend on how Britain responds to the actions undertaken by the US in the months ahead (some of which the government may well not agree with).

  4.2  Britain would seem to have had three immediate objectives. The first was to provide support for those in the Administration, like Colin Powell, who were arguing for a careful, thoughtful assessment before action was taken. The second was to continue to argue that, despite some of the operational difficulties, maintaining a global coalition should be a key element in American strategy. Britain has an important interest in helping to sustain a multilateral approach to the crisis (with states making different contributions to the joint cause) and, as Mr Blair has shown, the government is in a good position to use its broad diplomatic expertise to try to achieve this task. The third objective has been to argue that British experience suggests that an effective counter-terrorism strategy requires a multi-dimensional approach, with co-ordinated economic, financial, diplomatic, psychological and military approaches being pursued simultaneously. In such a strategy military action has to be carefully calibrated to the broader objectives of the campaign. The importance of the parallel campaigns of forceful action and humanitarian support for the people of Afghanistan, in particular, seems to have been a useful British initiative.

  4.3  This said, whatever, the definition of a "proportionate" response, military action sustained over a considerable period is likely make the task of sustaining the global coalition extremely difficult to achieve. If significant "collateral damage" is inflicted even the most supportive Muslim states will find it difficult to continue their support of the US. Opposition, over time, is also likely to emerge amongst other allies if the actions taken are not seen to be effective. Should this happen, and the coalition begins to break up, the danger will be that demands will grow in the UK for even more unilateral action. The mind-set of a state at "war" might lead to tougher responses against perceived enemies. There are already influential voices in the administration calling for a small tight alliance of states to assist the US, rather than a loose and potentially unreliable, broad coalition. The dilemma for the government in such a situation will be that, given the strong commitment given to the US, they will have to continue to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the Bush administration to achieve any influence, but there may be more and more actions being undertaken unilaterally with which they (and an increasing number of British citizens) do not approve. The fragmentation of the coalition will clearly pose enormous dangers for the future of international security.

  4.4  One of the issues preventing this from happening, and in keeping the coalition together, will be whether the broader multi-dimensional approach to terrorism includes significant changes in UK policies, especially those towards the Middle East. Without a serious, sustained and balanced attempt to re-ignite the Middle East Process the task of maintaining the involvement of moderate Muslim states in the coalition is likely to prove difficult, if not impossible. There would appear to be a clear British interest in reinforcing the emerging consensus in the US that this is necessary and playing a diplomatic role, in conjunction with the EU, in helping to overcome the very dangerous impasse which currently exists. It should be noted that, for the moment at least, there does appear to be some sensitivity to these issues in the US, especially with the unprecedented talk about a Palestinian state. Britain can play an important role in sustaining these sensitivities and what appears to be a new and very positive direction to US policies.

  4.5  Above all, British interests demand that the actions taken against the terrorist threat are effective. US policy makers are clearly aware of the multi-dimensional requirements of dealing with terrorism, but Britain has an important role to play in sustaining this emphasis on a broader strategic vision in its talks with US officials. Britain will also need to play a key role in the wide range of legal, financial, economic, political, psychological and security measures which will be necessary. These measures will clearly require much greater and more effective international co-operation than has been achieved in the past. Only time will tell if this can be achieved.


  5.1  The potential for a sustained period of intense international instability and economic crisis is clearly very considerable. While our close ties with the United States will give us some influence over US policy-making, past experience suggests that there is a limit to that influence. The US government will do what it feels is in its own security interests.

  5.2  It seems that the whole context of the debate about NMD, for example, in the slightly longer term, will be very different in the aftermath of 11 September. For the moment it seems likely to move to the diplomatic back-burner. In the medium to longer term, however, it is likely to return to centre stage. Although NMD would be irrelevant in the face of determined low-tech terrorist attacks, the events of 11 September, will undoubtedly be used by supporters to argue that ballistic missile defences against "rogue states" or terrorist groups with access to missile technology are even more important now than they were before the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. It is likely that America's allies will be expected to see the logic of this and provide the necessary support. Opposition or even qualified support may well be difficult to sustain. The key issue here, however, is not so much NMD itself, but its implications for arms control in general and the maintenance of strategic stability, whatever form that will take in the post-11 September period. Britain would seem to have an interest in helping to preserve an arms control regime which reflects a new consensus on what is required to maintain international stability. Prior to 11 September, the first tentative steps were being taken to open a dialogue with Russia on a new concept of strategic stability which might not be based so centrally on the ABM Treaty of 1972. If the multilateral coalition against terrorism can be maintained, it might make it easier to develop a consensus on a new concept of strategic stability which reflects the changing perspectives of the major powers, particularly those with nuclear weapons. Should the coalition fragment, this task will clearly be more difficult, with all of the implications for the future of international security. Britain would appear to have an important role to play in helping to engage the United States, Russia, China, France, India and Pakistan, as well as other members of the international community, in a dialogue about the future of arms control and the form a new concept of strategic stability should take. A vital part of this policy will be to bolster support for the new interest in multilateralism in the US. Whether this can be achieved remains far from clear at present.

  5.3  In the light of Mr Blair's broad vision of what is needed to establish a new international order (expressed at the Labour Party Conference) and in the context of the prevailing view in Washington that "those that are not with us are against us", British diplomacy is likely to face important and significant challenges in the months and years ahead. Translating the Blair doctrine into reality is going to require enormous political skills and financial resources. Equally, influencing the US in a way that serves these expansive British diplomatic and strategic interests is likely to be a delicate and sensitive task.

Professor John Bayliss

Director of the Centre for the Study of Conflict, University of Wales, Swansea

October 2001

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