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In the aftermath of the Brexit vote on 23 June, government officials were quick to provide reassurance that there was no need to review UK national security strategy, as set out in detail in last December’s Strategic Defence and Security Review. After all, they rightly argued, defence was primarily a matter for NATO, not the EU.
There can be no such reassurance in relation to the impact of a Donald Trump presidency. It is too early to predict what Trump will do when he assumes office on 20 January. But it is already incumbent upon the British government to begin some serious thinking on the basis of what he might do. Trump’s repeated questioning of the value of America’s military alliances, and his evident sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, cannot be assumed to be passing fancies, likely to evaporate when exposed to the wisdom of Washington’s foreign policy establishment. Rather, like his antipathy to trade liberalisation, they reflect long-held convictions, support for which Trump has maintained throughout his election campaign, even when it was far from clear that there was any electoral advantage in doing so.
So what should the UK do as it prepares for the possibility that Trump might mean what he says?
First, it should be clear-eyed and unsentimental in placing UK national interests at the core of its thinking. There should be no taboos about discussing the possibility of a fundamental divergence of outlook with the US. Prime Minister Theresa May is well-placed to direct such an exercise, given her own approach to security policy. It is clear that the new US administration will soon be conducting its own fundamental review of its alliance relationships. The UK needs to be prepared for that review, and to match it, if necessary, with a review of its own.
Second, it should use the ongoing internal review of how to implement the findings of the Report of the Iraq Inquiry (Chilcot Report) as an opportunity to draw lessons on how to handle an overbearing US administration, determined to get its way and fundamentally disinclined to listen to contrary voices. The inquiry showed that the UK needs to be better prepared to say ‘No’, and to maintain viable options for disengagement from those US actions with which it disagrees. There is a clear read-across to the potential international crises in which the US and UK might find themselves involved over the next four years.
Third, the Ministry of Defence should begin to review areas in which British conventional capabilities are overly reliant on US support. It should also devote more attention to what it might involve – in technical and also doctrinal terms – if the US were to refuse to help in a future military crisis. In some cases, it may be possible to reduce the degree of dependency at relatively modest cost. In other cases, the government might have to contemplate moving to a less ambitious strategic posture in the event of a US retreat from its international commitments.
Fourth, the start of the Trump presidency will coincide with a significant growth in UK dependence on purchases of US weapons systems, including new combat and maritime patrol aircraft, attack helicopters and missiles. The annual financial cost of defence imports is already due to increase by some £700 million, as a result of the depreciation of sterling. Questions must now also be asked about the strategic dependency that reliance on US military systems, including US black-box software, is creating, and whether the consequent risks remain acceptable in the new circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Fifth, the result of the US election points to the need for a review of the UK’s historic scepticism towards EU defence cooperation. Ministers will want to focus primarily on the potential for deepening bilateral defence cooperation, especially with France and Germany. Yet, given the enhanced risk that an unpredictable US president could veto future use of NATO as an organiser of future collective action, the UK may also see a shared interest with its European allies in creating a more credible institutional back-up. In these circumstances, the UK could gain much needed credibility with those allies if it were now to relax its veto on the proposal for an EU operational headquarters, a block which will in any case no longer be useable once Brexit takes effect.
None of these steps can do more than mitigate the risks that would face the UK if Trump were now to deliver on his more radical ideas. But there is a time for diplomatic nicety and a time for frank speaking. Active consideration of the options set out here would make clear that the UK is also prepared to put its national interests first when it comes to security.
Banner image: Arrival of an RAF F-35 at RAF Fairford, 2016. Courtesy of Matthew Hmoud/Wikimedia.