Describing the lead-up to the Persian Gulf War in a Naval War College Review article, President George H.W. Bush recalled a moment of diplomatic terror in the Oval Office.
Contrary to initial efforts to isolate Iraq and Saddam Hussein by blockade and sanctions, persuasive intelligence meant that a coalition maritime interception force in the Gulf would need to permit a ship to leave the Gulf of Oman and return to Aden without being inspected. The concern in the White House was who would tell British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had been told that every ship would be inspected. Seeing no volunteers, Bush called Thatcher himself.
The U.S. president writes of that phone call: “I will never forget Margaret’s words: ‘George, that’s fine with me. But this is no time to go wobbly.’ (There was never any question that Margaret Thatcher might “go wobbly” herself, I might add.)”
The ease with which the leader of the U.K. (population 62 million) could caution the leader of the U.S. (population 310 million) not to go wobbly in the face of a crisis captures the popular idea of two nations so closely bound at the hip that their leaders discuss international crises like they’re debating next year’s vacation at the family dinner table. And it has been during the wars of the past 100 years that this so-called “special relationship” has been most apparent. From World War I through the Cold War to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the public unison of leaders like Roosevelt and Churchill, Reagan and Thatcher, and Bush and Blair have symbolized the significance and seemingly enduring nature of the relationship.
But the combination of a new set of leaders, new economic realities and new national security priorities does begin a shift in the relationship. It may not yet be seismic, but it’s the beginning of a change that, from necessity, is likely to lead to a relationship that is less U.S.-U.K. and more U.S.-Europe.
Consider the new Franco-British defense cooperation treaty signed by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy just days after a trio of key defense and national security-related documents were rolled out by the British government. Much of the agreement is technical, centering on equipment and maintenance and covering things such as joint training and joint maintenance work on transport aircraft. These are the low-hanging fruit when it comes to what is most urgently needed — cost savings. But there are other, broader ambitions in the treaty which, if successful, would see the two nations’ armed forces working much more closely than they do currently, sharing big-ticket equipment such as aircraft carriers and potentially leading to the creation of shared British-French brigades.
On top of these initiatives, the countries will seek to jointly develop new-technology, complex weapons. And a separate agreement has been signed on nuclear cooperation.
Put together, these add up to an effort that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. For Britain’s part, at least, it’s a strategy that helps ensure the island nation can continue to strive for military peer status with the U.S., albeit with its continental partner. The reality is there is no alternative; the U.K. can no longer afford that status on its own.
In some respects, it’s the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that have highlighted that reality. America’s military technological superiority — and its ability to quickly adapt vast amounts of advanced technology to urgent battlefield needs — came as something of a shock to its British allies.
Gen. Sir Nicholas Houghton, U.K. vice chief of defence staff and a former senior British military representative in Iraq and deputy commanding general of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, described it this way in an interview in Washington in November:
“Going back to the early Iraq days, there was an extent to which we were quite smug about our established doctrinal practices where the Americans perhaps had a little to learn, but they learned much quicker and therefore left us behind and we had to play some catch-up. So the mutual benefits were self-evident, but the Brits have had quite a lot to learn from the Americans, particularly in the adaptation of technology in the battlespace and the speed of decision-making informed by the rapid passage of information. These are things that the United States has a technological edge with and the Brits have had to play catch-up and I think that’s a wholly good thing. We are not too proud to recognize our humility in that respect.
“I think we envy the industrial scale that the United States can apply to some of these things which we occasionally lag behind. Similarly, I think there were certain doctrinal differences that we were playing catch-up on. In terms of the overall strategy and military dimension of it, I think it is now at a commonly accepted mature level in respect to the population-centric counterinsurgency.”
For these reasons, Houghton’s view is that Iraq and Afghanistan has been a mutual learning game for the U.S. and the U.K. militaries, but it’s the British who have been the net benefactors. For the British armed forces to continue to be recognized as a first-division military power, therefore, it’s essential that it finds ways to stay caught-up technologically.
Houghton admits that the French agreement is part of the solution:
“It makes absolute sense in the context of resource pressure for the United Kingdom and to France, but also to the American dimension of the relationship, that we do our best from within the European pillar of NATO to make certain that the most appropriate level of defense capability is generated. And, therefore, for there to be a mature relationship between the United Kingdom and France in terms of ways in which we can combine our defense capability — some of it through training, some of it through operation deployments, some of it through defense R&D — all of this makes absolute sense that the European pillar of NATO can be seen to deliver more, which can only be a good thing. I think the days when it was seen to be something of a zero-sum game and whatever Britain was doing with Europe was to the detriment of what Britain was doing with America, I don’t apply that zero-sum game methodology. I think it’s of mutual benefit to both partners in the relationship.”
What the British — perhaps far more so than the Americans — decidedly do not want is an appearance that the French agreement replaces its trans-Atlantic special relationship. Hence a number of British policy and strategy directors, and Houghton himself, have visited Washington in recent months to issue reassurances.
It’s Houghton’s view that the U.K. Strategic Defence and Security Review brought no strategic shocks to the U.S. and that it won’t bring any significant changes to the U.K.-U.S. defense relationship. “It’s a review that, among other criteria, put the nature of the relationship with the United States generally and the United States military particularly as one of the main design criteria,” he said. “I would say that we put our desire to make the United Kingdom the No. 1 ally in defense terms with the United States central to our thinking.”
Nevertheless, post-Afghanistan, it may be that Whitehall will find itself polishing up its French more often than it has to remember to say “tomayto.” AFJ