By James Maclaren, Nov 17 2020 08:50AM
Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was interviewed for BBC radio and became one of a line of pundits who, in the light of Joe Biden’s presidential election victory, cast doubt on the future of the Special Relationship widely believed to exist between the United States and the United Kingdom and which just as widely, particularly in the aftermath of every U.S. election campaigns, is just as widely dismissed as dead and buried.
Is this true? Is there a special relationship? and will the misty-eyed affection President-Elect Biden has for his (admittedly distant) Irish past mean that the UK is pushed out into the Washington cold as the Administration cosies up to closer friends in Paris and Berlin? Many have said for years that a ‘special relationship’, born of the wartime alliance and formed out of common cause in the fight against fascism has not existed for some time.
Yet, if that is the case why do people, who presumably don’t believe it exists, keep predicting its death? Is it just wishful thinking? How on earth did it ever survive the catastrophe of British misadventure in Suez to allow just six years later the purchase of the Polaris strategic missile system; limp through the failure of Britain to support American misadventure in Vietnam, only a few short years later to receive the offer of an U.S. aircraft carrier, plus much more, in its campaign to restore sovereignty to the Falkland Islands. How did it stand together to carry the heavy burdens of unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and crises in Syria, Libya and elsewhere.
Those who predict a few election remarks about a piece of UK domestic legislation and a romantic affection for an Irish poet will see the relationship between Britain and the U.S. put into the deep freeze will be sadly disappointed. Seven decades of geopolitical cooperation have seen far worse than that and Mrs Thatcher’s description of the ‘… blood, language, culture and values’ that bind the two countries remains true. During one White House administration the UK is described by those with prejudice as the U.S.’ poodle, in the next the same critics talk of a washed-up country of no interest to Washington. These shallow pronouncements mischievously mistake a proper understanding of what the special relationship is.
So, what is this ‘special relationship’ and is it threatened?
Americans are two things: sentimental & hard-nosed. In the business of politics, they use sentimentality to get elected. Once elected they use their hard-nosed instincts to get business done. And when ‘stuff’ needs doing they look for allies they can trust and upon whom they can rely for more than words.
There are four instruments of national power: diplomacy, information, military (and intelligence) and economic (DIME). Combined and wielded in the national interest, the UK is far ahead in the global rankings of all others with the exception of the U.S. It is in the military instrument of power, however, where the key to understanding the U.S./UK special relationship is found.
Outside of the inner compound of the U.S. Central Command headquarters (HQ CENTCOM) is a small town of portacabins in which are the offices of dozens of liaison officers drawn from many allied nations. They get no closer to the heart of decision making. Only the UK planning staff sits embedded inside the operations and intelligence complexes. Even German and French officers are asked to leave sensitive meetings denying them access to UK/U.S. plans and intentions. GCHQ the UK signals intelligence and the NSA, its U.S. equivalent are the only two agencies capable of global signals interception and they operate as two sides of the same coin, dividing the world up and sharing the product between themselves with few restrictions.
The UK still operates sixteen overseas military bases, a total second only to the U.S. many of which are used regularly as part of the U.S. critical deployment infrastructure. The F-22 is a highly secret 5th generation strike aircraft with technology so sensitive that foreign military sales are banned by Congress, yet there is a Royal Air Force pilot in one of the operational cockpits. Fifteen percent of every F-35 built is made of British components while the procurement of two Queen Elizabeth super aircraft carriers will provide much needed relief for the stretched carrier resources of the United States Navy. An F-15 circling the skies above Syria is likely to be refuelled by a Royal Air Force tanker, while special forces teams on the ground conduct joint missions overseen by a joint headquarters supported by strike and rescue assets from either nation.
This level of investment, integration, understanding, shared toil and above all trust is too valuable to disown. It has not been the words of presidents and prime ministers who create a ‘special relationship’, it is the continued actions of their military and intelligence services.
U.S. presidents come and they go. Pundits and the media are welcome to their political theatre. Meantime, where it counts, in the often hostile and complex arena of military operations and where the two countries cooperate when others won’t, the special relationship of seven decades and fifteen presidents is doing just fine.