The UK, France and the US: Still Special Relationships

A yearly gathering of experts and think tanks from the world’s powers reiterates the values, interests and approaches which still bind them together in the nuclear sphere, notwithstanding current political differences.

Nuclear policy experts from France, the UK and US gathered in Paris recently for the first meeting of this year’s Trilateral Nuclear Dialogues, a high-level Track II dialogue between the three countries, run jointly by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in the US, La Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS) in France, and RUSI in the UK. It was a particularly moving time to be reminded of the deep links between us, with commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the D Day landings taking place around 150 miles to the west, in Ver-sur-Mer, as we began our second day of discussion and debate. But it was also an important time to come together for frank and open exchange, with cracks between our governments having emerged on several important nuclear files in recent months.

Some of these developing fissures – hairline now, perhaps, but widening – were signposted in the Consensus Statement of last year’s round of the dialogues. This statement, to which all attendees at the dialogues contribute and to which most have put their name, is the only public output of what is otherwise a very private set of discussions, and it addresses too broad a range of nuclear challenges to cover here in depth. RUSI’s Deputy Director-General, Malcolm Chalmers, and I recorded a substantial discussion of the contents of the statement earlier this year, and it is there, and in the statement itself, that interested readers should look for these details.

With the benefits of a few months of reflection, however, for me a central theme emerges: an appreciation of the alignment of fundamental interests and, in general, attitudes between our three countries, and a repeated call for unity on each of the challenging issues that it addresses. In normal times such emphasis might be unnecessary, or worthy at most of a passing acknowledgement. But these are not normal times, and, as the statement lays out, we have over the few years been offered a taste of what harvest disunity might reap, in the shape of the ultimate collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Washington’s confused approach to rolling out its policy on withdrawal from the INF Treaty served as an appropriate but unfortunate capstone to the last five years of communications on this issue. Since 2014 when the US first briefed NATO allies on its concerns about Russian compliance with the INF Treaty, it took the four subsequent years for allies to publicly support the US position. We are now faced with the overwhelming likelihood of US withdrawal, in response to longstanding Russian violations, and hence treaty collapse on 2 August this year.

There are clearly lessons here for the US. Washington was reticent to share with allies sensitive information that might have substantiated its concerns, and, as our statement lays out, perhaps did not consult or involve them as substantially as it might have done. But there are also lessons for European allies, for they were, arguably, less receptive to US concerns than they might have been, and less willing to trust the US. While nobody could sensibly argue for their country to place blind faith in the assessments of other powers, it is reasonable to consider the possibility that information provided in good faith by a major ally is more likely than not to be the genuinely held basis of that ally’s decision-making, and that any consequent concerns are similarly genuine.

In this case, disunity had real consequence. How much more powerful might the Alliance have been, and how much stronger the US negotiating position on the INF Treaty, if the US had been able to provide more detailed information on Russian violations to partners in Europe earlier in the process? And how much stronger would that position have been, to Europe’s benefit, if those partners had been more predisposed to trust their ally, and to state that trust publicly? Perhaps nothing could have saved the INF Treaty, but at least it would have been clear to Moscow that the issue would driven NATO together, not apart.

Unfortunately, history appears to be repeating itself, with recent US claims that Russia has violated the so-called ‘zero-yield’ standard of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The zero-yield criterion prohibits all explosions that produce a self-sustaining supercritical chain reaction, a prohibition that encompasses some nuclear weapon-related experiments that do not reach the scale of full nuclear weapons tests. These claims are plausible and technically feasible, but no substantiating information has been provided publicly, and there is no clear sense of what the US might be trying to achieve by putting this assessment into the public domain. Neither is there any evidence that Washington has considered how its alliance network could be used to achieve the outcome it seeks, whatever that might be. Neither is it obvious that Washington has considered how pursuit of those goals might damage its alliance network if, as it seems might be the case, it seeks to use this issue as a justification for walking away from the CTBT.

Last year’s Consensus Statement from our group is silent on this particular issue, but it does remind us of the positive values of effective arms control – such as ‘enhanced transparency, predictability, and co-operation’ – and, in the context of New START and the group’s support for its extension or replacement before 2021, of the importance of maintaining the mechanisms we have today while simultaneously working to improve them for tomorrow. Perhaps here, too, there is a lesson for approaches to the CTBT: if there are deficiencies, then the priority should be to work to improve them, rather than to undermine the architecture. And conversely, US allies should proceed on the basis that, whatever their worries about the end goal of the administration’s policy for the CTBT, Washington’s concerns are far more likely than not to be genuine.

As another Commentary author on this website has recently noted, relations between the US and UK in particular run deep and are reflexively collaborative in a way that transcends the politics of the respective leaderships of the day. And, while this level of habitual cooperation does not yet exist in the Anglo-French or US-French bilateral relationships, the inclination on both sides of the Channel and of the Atlantic is to work together on nuclear policy issues, and to find ways to deepen and strengthen our partnerships. President Donald Trump’s approach to nuclear diplomacy will no doubt continue to exacerbate some of the challenges we face – it may be too much to hope that it resolves at least one of them – and so in the meantime it is important to find institutional means to sustain our relationships.

The Trilateral Nuclear Dialogues, as one of the few places where the three bilateral relationships resolve into a single point, is a clear example of one such means.

Tom Plant is Director of the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy programme at RUSI.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Tom Plant

Director, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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