Retired brigadier and author Allan Mallinson writes in the Times of London that the special relationship between the UK and the US “needs repair work.”
Our Army has had a bumpy ride these past five years in Basra, not helped by a perceived falling away of US respect for our capability and commitment. Our two nations’ armies, working side by side in two world wars and in many a conflict since, have frequently rubbed each other up the wrong way, but in the past there has been fundamental mutual respect. In Iraq, when the “coalition of the willing” began crumbling, the British stuck it out, even though we could not properly align our strategy and tactics with your troop surge because we simply did not have the resources.
He believes his country needs a radical reassessment of how it allocates its defense funding.
Why, for example, are we so overstretched keeping 8,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan out of an Army of 100,000? Frankly, it is because we are still trying to shoe-horn expensive projects like aircraft carriers and Eurofighter into an ever-diminishing defence budget. Unlike you, we have simply not matched our increasing interventionism these past ten years with greater defence spending.
If the UK is to maintain aircraft carriers, Mallinson believes, it will need to do so in coalition with other European partners and, even on smaller budget items, “To benefit from economies of scale, we will have to co-operate more with the US on buying equipment; and as your most steadfast ally we would look to your generosity in this.”
Just as importantly, he argues that “We need to confer more: just as in the Second World War, we ought to have a former service chief working deep in the Pentagon, alongside your Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the President’s principal military adviser, on the military strategy for the defeat of global terror.” This is in stark contrast with planning for the Iraq War, which excluded the Brits entirely.
Patrick Barry, a research associate at the National Security Network, sees hope for these sort of reforms in the Obama administration. He contends that “even alliances as fundamental as our relationship with Great Britain have suffered considerable strain over the past 8 years. As the occasional surfacing of squabbles over counterinsurgency, or more substantively, the war in Afghanistan, indicate, deep grievances exist. “
His colleague Adam Blickstein argues that the concept of “special relationship” is best understood outside a bilateral context:
The key to the special relationship has been that it was never based on a myopic partnership solely between the America and Britain, but that the U.K and U.S traditionally lead broad coalitions of nations with common strategic goals and common internal domestic views. Domestic political uncertainty and dissatisfaction amongst traditional allies, not to mention the effects of the economic crisis, may hinder our ability to return to the traditional notion of a special relationship. Indeed Blair’s support for the Iraq war may have inextricably scarred it. Perhaps Barack Obama and Gordon Brown can reinvigorate it, especially in terms of Afghanistan, by reengaging our allies, especially those who are still reluctant to participate in necessary military operations there (Britain has already intimated it is indeed up to other allies to act first on increasing their commitment in Afghanistan).
The problem with this view, though, is highlighted by Mallinson’s piece. Yes, both the US-UK and the broader transatlantic alliances have always been built on shared values, goals, and interests. Increasingly, however, there is a massive disparity in political will and operational capacity.
While a Rumsfeldian dismissiveness and talk of “work-arounds” is decidedly unhelpful in building soft power, the underlying frustration is at least understandable. It requires an enormous amount of effort to build multi-national consensus on something as big as going to and prosecuting a war. For a variety of reasons, that’s a good thing. If, however, the end result of the process is a substantial hamstringing of options with very little to show for it in the way of additional resources, it’s not entirely unreasonable to wonder if it was all worthwhile.
So, yes, the United States must do a better job of treating its European allies as partners. At the same time, it would be helpful if they demonstrated a proportionate commitment to the partnership.