The perennial worry in London about the state of the “special relationship” took a new twist last week, with the chief of the British military chief publicly wondering what America’s Pacific focus will mean for his country’s security.

General Sir David Richard, Chief of the Defence Staff, delivering his annual lecture to the Royal United Services Institute, identified as the first of his Grand Strategy concerns “Greater US military focus on the Pacific meaning less emphasis on Europe and her problems. For the first time the Pentagon has specified that its Main Effort will be South East Asia.” He quickly allowed that “I know this does not mean it will turn its back on Europe and NATO” but nonetheless worried “countries this side of the pond need to think through what this means to us.”


He pointed for the need for the UK to seek supplemental partnerships and alliances, observing, “as the world evolves, so new groupings will emerge. The most obvious is our alliance with the French.”

“The UK will require other carefully chosen alliances over the coming decade through which to influence the strategic landscape and help determine the outcome of fast moving crises. Already our collaboration with countries in the Gulf and Africa has delivered results in the region, for surprisingly little cost.” He added, “While there are no templates and each security challenge will be different, we will require allies, not only established ones like our NATO partners but also non-traditional countries which will challenge our interoperability but offer opportunity and reach.”

But, surely, the UK has always had the ability to engage in minor expeditionary operations with coalitions of the willing? Indeed, if anything, the radical austerity which has the erstwhile naval superpower sharing a single aircraft with France, has diminished that capacity. And, given that all of the likely partners for such missions have diminished capacity, too, it’s not exactly clear how it is that the UK can be more militarily independent of the US than it has been.

Furthermore, as Richards himself notes, “NATO is the bedrock of our security. It has guaranteed peace in Europe for 60 years and, as Libya and Afghanistan demonstrate, enables us to project power efficiently in concert with others to pursue our national interests. NATO provides the structure for joint and combined operations.” 

Richard Norton-Taylor and Nick Hopkins, national security analysts for The Guardian, see this as mere throat clearing, calling it a “ritual reference.” But who is it that the UK is going to work with outside of the NATO umbrella that will provide meaningful combat power? Qatar? The UAE? 

From where I sit, this all seems rather silly. The security goals of the United States, the United Kingdom, and most Commonwealth members could hardly be more aligned. And, frankly, interventions that lack widespread support within that grouping probably ought be eschewed—especially by countries in the midst of major defense cutbacks.

But my colleague Ian Brzezinski, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Policy, sees this as part of “a significant pattern of in Europe. A number of European countries are not just signalling concern about US disengagement from the continent, they are taking actions to mitigate the impact that will have on their security.” And he fears this  “contributes to a self-fulfilling prophesy that undercuts NATO and its centrality in European security. “

While he understands the frustrations in Washington over European defense commitments, he believes the Obama administration “has done nothing significant in an effort to demonstrate its commitment to the continent. Indeed, its approach to Transatlantic security is summed by the Reset with Russia, Secretary Clinton’s declaration of a Pacific Century, and an impending second round of force presence cuts within a year.”

Thus far, however, there has been no official response to Richards’ much publicized speech from this side of the Pond. And that’s a cause for concern.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: James Joyner