Is the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States fundamentally flawed? It’s an alliance based on shared histories and values, one that has become the cornerstone of British foreign policy after two world wars. But does it serve Britain’s interests as it once did? Could the UK gain from a little more independence of mind and a greater readiness to “play it alone”, à la France?
Gratitude for past US military assistance should not stop Britain from pursuing its own interests today. After all, Washington seldom trumpets its relationship with Britain as “special”. The US considers itself as having “special relationships” with Canada, Mexico, Russia and Germany – to name but a few. If anything, it seems increasingly eager to establish a rapport with the EU as a whole, rather than any individual member state.
Although Britain may benefit from privileged access to US intelligence and weapons, by adhering to US policies around the globe it has forsaken old relationships. This is borne out in the Middle East, where Britain has, in its uncritical deference to the US, sacrificed trading, commercial and diplomatic ties with Libya, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan.
Increased independence also becomes appealing when an alternative European option may offer the same, if not greater, economic and political attractions. British exports to the EU are worth £187bn a year at present and are predicted to rise to £277bn by 2030. European markets for transport, energy and digital services, combined with global trade deals, could add a further £58bn, and many thousands of jobs, to that total.
More urgently, the global political environment has altered dramatically since 1945. Radicalisation at home, and terrorism and the migration crisis, can be countered effectively only through collaboration between neighbouring states.
The US-UK relationship has also harmed Britain’s standing among international bodies such as the United Nations. Take US policy on Bosnia. The UN mandate during the Bosnian War was predicated on the need to keep the peace. To this end, the UN imposed Operation Deny Flight, and Nato was tasked with policing a no-fly zone over Bosnia – a task that was assigned to the United States. But the US had a different agenda.
Washington responded by imposing a policy of “lift and strike” that in effect led to the rearming of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and then the mass bombing of Serbs. When the Croats proved reluctant to arm the Bosnian army with sophisticated weapons, the Americans took it upon themselves to send arms to the Bosnian Muslim army, making air drops beyond the limits of Operation Deny Flight.
In other words, the US pursued its own agenda in tandem with Nato and its allies when it suited Washington, but was equally prepared to deceive its allies and pursue a unilateral policy in the Balkans. The US showed a readiness to ignore policies agreed with Britain and other countries that should not be too quickly forgotten.
The US action helped cause many of the 15,000 deaths and create 600,000 refugees in the Balkans. It led to a diplomatic backlash, the result being that the US suspended sharing intelligence information with Britain. Later, the UK tried to hedge its bets, first with the Anglo-French St Malo Declaration and later with the so-called “Euro army”.
So far, the sceptics’ case for leaving Europe has been based entirely on nostalgia. Co-operation with America forms part of that delusion. Sovereignty is being wrongly exploited to undermine British interests and security. Instead, a judicious and flexible “special relationship” with Europe should be sought. After all, the United States has expressed a wish for Britain to remain a part of the Union. In this instance, it might be wise to heed the Americans’ advice.
This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue