The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Special Relationship at the Crossroads

January 26, 2013



That Europe is caught up in a major financial crisis isn’t news to anyone.  Standing right at the crossroads, the Eurozone will either muddle through and risk another crisis onset in the near term or having scraped through its worst crisis in decades take strong steps on the necessary medium and long-term reforms.

But what our British friends may not realize is how the vaunted special relationship is also coming to a crossroads.  Prime Minister David Cameron’s large-sized gamble on the UK’s future European destiny has sent ripples of worry across the West, not least in Washington.  The US’s senior Europe diplomat Philip Gordon made this abundantly clear.  The Obama Administration’s view coalesced in 2011 in the run up to Cameron’s shaky performance at the emergency EU summit in Brussels.

The decision taken then by Prime Minister Cameron began to damage interests in triplicate:  British interests, European interests, and US interests.  His referendum gambit has worsened matters.  The US needs a fully capable Britain playing a lead role at the heart of Europe.  The less capable it is and the less it is a fully contributing member of the EU, the less useful the UK is to the US.

Our long standing historical ties may be more enduring, but the crux of the special relationship may not.  It takes more than personal chemistry between the President and the PM.  For this relationship to be strong both partners need to be able to rely on one another to meet our common interests.

The world has changed.  The unheralded Arab Awakening revolution continues apace, but the wider North Africa Middle East (MENA) region is in turmoil.  Even before this the influence of Europe as a whole had begun to wane, as had America’s.  Yet the global rise of China has been as over predicted as the regional rise of Turkey has been under predicted.  Turkey will have greater influence on the Arab Awakening’s outcome than any of the BRIC countries, not to mention the US and Europe.  And in purely economic terms the region performing best at present is actually Latin America.

When American policymakers size up Britain these days they see a country that is simultaneously shirking its leadership in Europe and cutting its military capabilities at home.  The rest of Europe is doing the same, as is the US.  However, the US will remain the most capable military power in the world for the foreseeable future even after the cuts.  Conversely, the UK is reducing its capabilities to the point of having difficulty being able to act as robustly as France.

British diplomats are well versed in reassuring their American counterparts that the UK is its one true partner that is “always there,” in all regions and all international forums.  But in Washington’s eyes a wide presence coupled with wafer thin capabilities does not cut it.

This would be less worrisome from an American perspective were Britain fully throwing its lot in with the EU—where it is capable of playing a lead role in augmenting Europe’s capabilities as a whole.  If only it were willing.  The costs of not doing so can be counted in how the West is careening toward a joint security trap in which the security of both Europe and the US will be significantly eroded.

If the Arab Awakening were to go awry, and al-Qaeda were to begin training and operating in the MENA region—or Iran and Hezbollah were to succeed in uniting the disparate al-Qaeda affiliates around the region—within a few short years, after the widespread cuts have taken effect, without a European fighting force in place and a reduced American willingness to come to Europe’s aid when its own core interests are less affected, the UK and the rest of Europe will be in a serious lurch.  The current crisis in Mali and the Sahel indicates this is already happening.

American policymakers see Britain as becoming both weaker and less effective as a European leader at the same time.  Its recent performances in Brussels further raised eyebrows.  The UK is now seriously isolated, 26 to 1, and will be less able to influence future EU policies that affect its economic and financial interests.

The bungled diplomacy demonstrates a British unwillingness to look out for the interests of its EU partners, as the British ultimatum is rattling the cages of continental leaders and European bond and securities markets alike.  This affects American interests.  We may have given you the financial crisis in 2008, but now you’re threatening to give it back.  Contagion from a Greek or Italian default would pull the US right back into recession.

Affecting all of this is the UK’s economic performance.  The predilection for ill-conceived austerity across the West is alarming, but especially in the UK where Lord Keynes must be turning over in his grave.  And the evidence is in:  Britain is not growing as Chancellor Osborne predicted and the unemployment numbers remain grave.  The latest indicators regrettably point toward a triple-dip British recession.

It does not have to be this way.  Britain could further stimulate its own economy while being a stabilizing force for the Eurozone, from which it has benefited greatly even while not having adopted the euro itself.  And Britain could spearhead the development of modest but fully expeditional fighting force for Europe as well as cut its own forces less.

The outcome of last year’s Libya operation shows us where things could be, as opposed to where things are going.  For the first time in a Western security operation Europe stepped up.  Without our European allies, Britain and France in particular, the mission would not have been successful.

What American policymakers want to know is, can Europe do it again?  Will Europe be able to handle threats in its own neighborhood?  Can the West avoid entering a joint security trap?  The Obama Doctrine—robust burden sharing—cannot be effective without capable partners, starting with the UK.  France, to its credit, has been mildly reassuring to the US as of late.

That’s the difference.  It used to be that the US wanted the UK and other European partners to make a greater contribution the collective Western defense; now it actually needs Europe to do this.  And when China does eventually rise, we in the West will all need each other.

The UK should take up this mantle with us, and in so doing restore the special relationship to its proper balance.

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Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey is currently Managing Partner of Geopolicity USA, an overseas development firm. Formerly he was Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS, before which he served in the Obama Administration as a State Department official specializing in NATO and EU relations at the Bureau for Conflict Stabilization Operations. At State he founded and managed the International Stabilization and Peacebuilding Initiative (ISPI), which has over 20 government and international organization partners.

Dr. Stacey is the author of "Integrating Europe" by Oxford University Press and is currently working on a follow-up book entitled "End of the West, Rise of the East?" He has been a guest blogger at The Washington Note and Democracy Arsenal, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at Tulane University and Fordham University, a consultant at the Open Society Institute and the U.S. Institute of Peace, and a visiting scholar at George Washington, Georgetown, and the University of California. He received his PhD from Columbia University.