President Trump will be greeted with a torrent of doom-laden criticism when he arrives in the UK on 3 June. Some of this criticism is just wrong, while some simply misses the critical point of this relationship.
A state visit by US President Donald Trump is a chance for media commentators to analyse and dissect the UK–US relationship, looking for every opportunity to pronounce judgement on it, assess that the US does not really care about the UK, and pronounce that the relationship is in steady decline. Is this an accurate assessment, or does the UK matter more to the US than some commentators believe?
To some observers the ‘special relationship’ is the relationship between president and prime minister, analysed by how often they speak or the body language between them. This is the wrong area to focus on to understand why the relationship works. Few heads of government routinely speak to each other on a regular basis. When a prime minister is called in to engage with a peer, it is often because a policy issue needs unblocking, or because the relationship is not resilient enough to work without high level political involvement.
By contrast, the UK–US relationship is far less about the dynamics between two leaders, and far more about daily interactions between thousands of officials and military personnel who work closely together in person or electronically. These close working links insulate the longer-term shared goals against short term distractions or challenges.
The result is a relationship that works because policy practitioners know and trust each other and, in many cases, have spent years working together closely. This is particularly helpful when dealing with a US system where more senior political appointees change from administration to administration, bringing varying views and levels of experience with them.
The integration of UK and US policymakers to discuss and test ideas, and coordinate actions at working level is almost unparalleled, and has been built over 75 years of cooperation and operations. While these dynamics are often looked at in mostly military terms, to focus purely on this would be inaccurate. There are several mutually reinforcing pillars that underpin the relationship and provide its enduring strength.
The UK continues to operate one of the world’s largest and most diverse diplomatic networks, with a global network of embassies and High Commissions, as well as maintaining membership in a large number of international organisations. This provides the UK with influence and access within host states, which is often mutually complementary with the US presence, permitting more effective coordinated diplomatic lobbying by both countries.
The ability of the UK and the US to work effectively across the globe using their diplomatic networks can be a valuable tool in coalition building and lobbying. Being able to influence other states by jointly pushing for diplomatic support enhances the chances of success and makes it easier for Washington to generate international consensus and cooperation.
The presence of UK embassies in cities like Pyongyang and Tehran also allows the UK to serve both as a low-profile influencer and as a messenger between different states. This provides an opportunity for the UK to help set out its policy thinking on some issues based on direct access to certain states, and decision makers, in a way that is denied to US diplomats and attempt to use this to directly influence US policymakers.
Globally, the continued presence of UK military facilities in places such as Ascension Island, Diego Garcia, Cyprus and periodically in places such as Singapore provide a valuable and secure basing hub for US armed forces. The repeated willingness of the UK to host military forces, often on highly sensitive work such as reconnaissance flights, such as regular U2 detachments in Cyprus or using sites like Diego Garcia to host B2 and B52 bombers, facilitating air strikes in areas of strategic interest, is greatly appreciated by the US.
Such access to military facilities cannot always be taken for granted, nor the ease with which the US can secure host state permissions to conduct this sort of mission. The UK has consistently proven itself a reliable partner, unlike other NATO Allies who have, in the eyes of Washington, on occasion proven themselves wanting – for example in 1986 where overflight permissions were refused by some NATO partners for the US airstrikes in Libya.
The UK retains a global military footprint, which – although small in comparison to the US – remains extensive relative to other partners and is of real value. The UK is one of a small group of Allies that can easily integrate with, and comfortably work alongside the US military at all levels of conflict.
The news that HMS Queen Elizabeth will routinely deploy with a squadron of USMC F35 embarked as an integrated part of the airwing is a good example of this, demonstrating both the closeness of the relationship, and the capability that the UK can offer to the US. Relatively few states’ armed forces can work together so easily, except in tightly controlled and highly scripted circumstances.
The UK also provides a wider range of invaluable tools that assist US policy goals. The global reach and capabilities of the UK intelligence community are valuable assets, but so too are less well-known assets such as law enforcement capabilities like the National Crime Agency. More widely, the global reach of UK aid programmes helps maintain stability and provide disaster relief – such as the UK military and aid support to Mozambique following cyclones in early 2019.
A key defining characteristic that differentiates the UK from many Allies is the fundamental willingness of the UK to act in a manner that aligns with US interests and do so in a mutually beneficial way. There is a political willingness to undertake diplomatically risky activity, such as conducting formal cyber-attributions as was done against China in December 2018, and also to retain and use military force as peer partners when required.
Writers often predict the end of the UK’s position, with it being supplanted by another country, possibly France or sometimes Australia, as the US’s ‘closest military ally’. Yet while it is important to be realistic about the limits of the relationship and accept that the US has close and enduring links to other states, for example with Israel and Japan, there is a depth to the UK–US relationship that does not exist elsewhere. There are currently no other states apart from the UK with an equivalent level of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power, genuinely global interests, and a willingness to act in a consistently integrated manner.
There are doubtless risks and challenges ahead. For example, Brexit will likely see the UK lose value in the eyes of US policymakers as it will no longer be able to directly influence the development of EU policy. The ongoing rebalancing of US interests towards the Pacific means the UK will have to take decisions on whether to extend its military presence in the region, and the extent to which it wishes to confront or cooperate with China.
The challenge for Whitehall policymakers will be to strike a balance that looks after wider UK national interests, while also ensuring the UK–US relationship endures even where there are disagreements or differing views. Incidents such as the highly coordinated response to the 2018 attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Sailsbury demonstrates that the two systems continue to work well together, but the UK cannot take this support for granted, nor assume the next generation of policymakers will instinctively look to Europe for advice.
In an era where senior US leaders are focusing, and questioning, the value that allies bring, the UK must be alert to ensuring that it remains credible and valued as a partner, not just at working level but also with politicians and appointees. The challenge is to offer support and value to the US, while also convincing politicians that the UK is not looking for an easy ride, relying on US support to enable it to cut military spending and the volume of its armed forces.
Despite this, for all that the relationship has had its last rites pronounced on many different occasions, it remains in rude health and will continue to flourish, perhaps sometimes despite, and not because of, the relationship between president and prime minister.
'Sir Humphrey' is a former MoD official and reservist Officer, ‘Sir Humphrey’ worked across a range of defence and national security issues during his time with the MoD. He has worked in a variety of roles in MoD Main Building, PJHQ, Front Line Commands and deployed on Ops TELIC, HERRICK and KIPION. He is the author of a blog on defence matters which tries to provide objective analysis and coverage of defence issues in the media and beyond.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.