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How Brexit broke up the ‘special relationship’ Trump's weakening of our military alliance is part of a long-term trend — but Brexit and Iraq accelerated it

Trump's state visit to Britain last year: the special relationship is not what it once was (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

Trump's state visit to Britain last year: the special relationship is not what it once was (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

January 20, 2020   4 mins

There is something keeping Ben Wallace “awake at night”, in his own words. As the Defence Secretary, one can imagine any number of things but, here, he is referring to something quite specific — that, under President Trump, the US is stepping back from its international leadership role. This would mean, contrary to half a century of British defence planning assumptions, that the UK will have to fight wars without US support. It hasn’t done this — apart from a tiny intervention in Sierra Leone in 2001 — since the Biafra War in Nigeria over 50 years ago.

Whatever one thinks of the so-called special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, the reality is that it has enabled Britain to maintain a larger global role than it otherwise would have. Falklands campaign? Forget it without American fuel, weapons delivery and satellite intelligence. What about Libya in 2011? Not a chance without American logistical support to the air campaign. (That this support was required even when Libya is approximately 1000 km from our airbase in Cyprus demonstrates how necessary it is).

That is not to say that Great Britain has been a wholly dependent partner. Particularly in the world of signals intelligence, the UK is genuinely world class, and useful to its ally. And in other areas too — the military, for instance — the UK has been able to provide genuinely useful contributions to American foreign policy actions where it counts: at the sharp end.

In the world of diplomacy, the UK had deep and overlapping networks of influence that helped America create political solutions to problems. This, of course, was nowhere more true than between the US and the EU. Yes, the UK was a junior partner, but it was not completely without merit.

This is also probably not just a Trump blip, such that normal service will be resumed once he leaves office. The US has been trying to rebalance itself away from Europe, and towards Asia, for a decade if not longer. But in terms of the UK-US relationship, this geopolitical shift has been compounded by two further factors.

Firstly, very, very poor British performance in the Iraq and Afghan wars, where US troops had to deploy to both Basra and Helmand — the operational areas the UK was responsible for — in order to bolster British forces. And secondly Brexit, which inevitably weakens the UK’s relationships with European nations, and thus makes the UK less useful to America.

It is against this background that some of the recent actions of the Trump administration have played out: withdrawing from Syria via tweet, and the assassination of General Soleimani. Both actions — done without warning any allies, let alone close ones like the UK — were perceived to have increased the danger to UK troops who are deployed in both theatres, and in many cases co-located with US troops.

Now, it is not completely clear whether Ben Wallace’s worst nightmares will come true but let us, for the sake of argument, say that the British government can no longer assume US military support in the execution of its foreign policy goals. What are the UK’s geopolitical options going forward over, say, the next twenty years?

Firstly, this means that the UK will not be able to project power globally. Maintaining a full spectrum of capabilities that can be used around the world is horrendously expensive. The US is the only nation able to do this currently, and their defence budget is approximately $700 billion (compared to $53 billion for the UK). Thus, Britain will have to limit itself to a regional role in an area centred on the British Isles.

The next question to ask is what geopolitical threats the UK will face in this core area over the next twenty years or so. Prediction of this sort is a mug’s game, but I think the key threats are four. In no particular order:

1. Climate change, desertification and overpopulation in Africa and the Middle East: the population of Africa is projected to hit 2 billion by 2040 (it is 1.2 billion now). The current wave of African and Middle Eastern migration into Europe, from whatever cause, could be just the beginning. The resulting instability in Europe will be a British problem just as the balance of power, and who is in charge on the continent, has been a British foreign policy concern for a thousand years.

2. Peak demand for hydrocarbons within the next twenty years, due to tumbling prices of renewables (they are currently roughly at parity), and the mainstreaming of new technologies like electric vehicles. This will turn current oil and gas producers — like Russia and the Middle East — into quasi-failed states. Russia, for instance, gets 50% of its government budget from the sale of hydrocarbons. This trend will cause another wave of instability on the periphery of Europe, leading to more pressure on European stability.

3. Cyber defence of telecommunications and other critical infrastructure.

4. Keeping the maritime area around the UK — the north-east Atlantic, the North Sea and the Channel — clear and open for trade. Britain is an archipelago that is totally reliant on trade.

There should also be a fifth category of threats that includes everything that we cannot currently conceive of due to the pace of technological change, or that we have identified, but are not sure how it will play out. For instance, one of these might be a future competition over rare earths — minerals used in digital, and particularly renewable, technology. Reserves are located in places like China, Australia, South America and the Congo.

This analysis of threat, if only half correct, implies that Britain will need to forge closer military and intelligence links with European nations, or perhaps with the EU, if it develops its own defence capabilities. And European nations seem to be ahead of the UK in this realisation: both Macron and Merkel — the EU’s two most powerful leaders — have both, at different times over the last two years, made the point that Europe cannot rely on the US security guarantee and need to develop their own integrated defence structures.

This, of course, is the EU Army, the concept of which was raised as a spectre repeatedly by Brexiters during the EU Referendum campaign and its aftermath. But Brexit or no Brexit, the reality is that the UK’s geopolitical focus will remain Europe. Britain may be able to leave the EU, but it is unlikely to be able to escape the geopolitical gravity of Europe.

Mike Martin is a former British army officer and War Studies Visiting Fellow at King’s College London. His latest book is Why We Fight.


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Simon Newman
Simon Newman
3 years ago

“Keeping the maritime area around the UK ” the north-east Atlantic, the North Sea and the Channel ” clear and open for trade.”

I’d think one likely threat would be the need to defend our fisheries from the EU!