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Poised for a British-U.S. Realignment

Interviewee: Robin Niblett, Director, Chatham House
Interviewer: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor, CFR.org
May 5, 2010

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Britain's intensely fought four-week campaign season has raised speculation about dramatic realignments to the country's politics and policies. The Labour and Conservative parties, represented by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and David Cameron, respectively, have faced an unexpectedly sharp challenge from Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg. Regardless of who wins, or whether the first hung parliament since 1974 is the outcome, the election "may prove to be a hinge point" in the evolving relations between Britain and the United States, says Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House in London, an independent international affairs think tank. Domestic issues--including a budget deficit at a post-war high of 11.8 percent of GDP--will command the new government's attention, he says, and the Tories and Liberal Democrats have "pointed to the need for a more balanced approach" to foreign policy than the Transatlantic-European focus Labour has favored over the past thirteen years that it has held power.

Will the UK's relationship with the United States--always characterized as special, even if a tad less special now than during the Blair/Bush and Blair/Clinton years--be altered by the election outcome?

The election itself is unlikely to have much effect on the UK's day-to-day relationship with the United States. Intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation and regular discussion over operational planning and political strategy in Afghanistan will ensure that officials and political leaders retain elements of the "special relationship" into the next UK government.

In what ways will the interests of the Obama administration and the new government be aligned? What will be the areas of disagreement?

The election may prove to be a hinge point in an ongoing structural shift in the bilateral relationship. The British government has felt itself to be increasingly marginal to America's long-term strategic bilateral relations. Britain is of little relevance to U.S. policy toward China (whether strategically in terms of China's growing political-military presence in East Asia or of its role as an increasingly formidable economic competitor), or toward India, Brazil, or Russia. Each of these countries present important challenges to U.S. political and economic interests, but in ways that do not involve the UK in the way that it was involved in U.S. responses to the Soviet threat during the Cold War or to promoting European security in the post-Cold War period.

A Conservative victory or a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition could lead to an attempt by the new government to demonstrate a greater independence from U.S. foreign policymaking. The economic pressures that the next government will face could play into this dynamic.

Reflecting this sense of UK-U.S. strategic distancing, British Conservative and Liberal-Democratic leaders, more so than Labour, have pointed to the need for a more balanced approach to British foreign policy. The Conservatives remain staunch supporters of NATO for UK security. But they have suggested that Britain needs to build its own close set of bilateral diplomatic relationships, both with big powers such as India and China, and with other medium-sized powers in East Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. The Liberal Democrats have emphasized the need for the UK to commit more clearly to the European Union as the lever for furthering Britain's future international priorities. For their part, Labour leaders have been consistent in pointing to the interlocking value of a close Transatlantic and European set of relationships--the strategy that Tony Blair sought to pursue until it was derailed by the Iraq war.

A Labour victory would likely see little change in UK-U.S. relations, therefore. A Conservative victory or a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, however, could lead to an attempt by the new UK government to demonstrate over time a greater independence from U.S. foreign policymaking. The economic pressures that the next government will face could play into this dynamic.

How will those economic pressures affect the foreign policy agenda of the next government?

Whichever party ends up forming the next British government, it will have to undertake the most painful retrenchment in social spending (as well as raising marginal rates of tax) in a generation. Cuts in defense spending will have to take place in parallel with cuts in social spending, despite the pressing need for Britain to upgrade its defense capabilities and human resources following a punishing seven years of military operations since the Iraq invasion.

A key question will be where to cut. There is only minority public support today for keeping British troops in Afghanistan (a poll for BBC TV's Newsnight ahead of a "defense secretaries debate" a couple of months ago showed nearly two-thirds opposed to retaining British troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2010 and over 60 percent considered the war there "unwinnable"). And the Liberal Democrats have articulated concerns about an open-ended UK commitment to Afghanistan.

A new, untested Conservative or Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government under intense domestic political pressure, as a result of its program of savage spending cuts, could find it difficult to sustain a protractedly high level of troops and operational tempo in Afghanistan, even if this were expected by an Obama administration for which political-military success in Afghanistan will be a key test ahead of the 2012 [U.S.] presidential elections.

Does the British public care much about foreign policy or about how and whether the UK projects itself as a world power?>

Since the end of the Cold War, British citizens have not been asked to consider the significance of the profound changes taking place beyond their borders. If anything, the Iraq War, Afghanistan campaign and terrorist attacks of July 2005 have bred a frustration with and loss of confidence in the government's handling of foreign policy. Domestic policies in areas of policing, migration, or energy are seen as the appropriate defensive answers to many of Britain's new external threats. The idea that Britain can remain a world power in this context has less appeal than in the past.

Would a Conservative win mean a turning away from Europe? Would that be true of a coalition government of some kind as well? And to what degree has the Greek debt crisis affected British attitudes about the European Union?

If the Conservatives were to win power, this would not necessarily involve an explicit swing away from Europe. The Labour government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown spoke warmly about working at the "heart of Europe," but have been lukewarm in following through in this rhetoric. Ministers have been conscious that British public opinion punishes rather than rewards any forward-leaning on European policy. For their part, the Conservatives have talked tough about not relinquishing any further sovereign powers to Brussels, but would likely take a pragmatic approach if in government.

Domestic policies in areas of policing, migration, or energy are seen as the appropriate defensive answers to many of Britain's new external threats. The idea that Britain can remain a world power in this context has less appeal than in the past.

The ratification of the Lisbon Treaty has removed a key stumbling block for the Conservatives. They will also have concluded from the EU response to the Greek debt crisis that prospects for deeper European integration are not likely over the coming years. Conservative politicians have already said that they will work with the new treaty arrangements (including the new External Action Service) and have suggested that in areas such as energy policy and policy toward Russia, British interests could be well served by closer European coordination. It is in the areas of social policy and financial regulatory reform that relations could fray, especially if continental EU governments choose to overrule British objections in an EU-wide vote that would hamstring London's future as one of the world's two leading financial centers.

The main risk for the Conservatives would emerge if they were to win a small overall majority. In this case, anti-European "back-bench" MPs could agitate to block cooperation on EU matters even in areas where the government saw national advantage. A coalition between the Conservatives and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, might mitigate some of these concerns.

Which of the candidates has put forward the soundest foreign policy agenda? What are the gaps?

Foreign policy has not featured much in the electoral campaign, although each of the parties took considerable effort to lay out their vision of where Britain stands in the world in the months leading up to the campaign. The principal points of debate have been over Afghanistan, Britain's relations with the EU, and the modernization of the Trident nuclear system (with the Lib Dems opposed and the others committed to proceeding without further review). Shockingly absent from public debate have been what approach a new British government might take toward Iran should the diplomatic track run into the ground, the implications of the rise of China, and the various parties' attitudes to the apparent stalemate in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Overall, the campaign has shed little light on how the various parties would adapt British foreign policy to a profoundly changing world in the future. Whichever party wins power after the election, it will need to move fast to gain public support for any changes in external policy while grappling with a very difficult domestic policy agenda.

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