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UK's 'special relationship' with US heads under water

Britain may be shifting its strategic emphasis in the North Atlantic from its 'special relationship' with the United States to joint operations with France.
Protesters hold banners up during an anti-Trident missile replacement demonstration at the Faslane Naval base near Glasgow, Scotland.
Protesters hold banners up during an anti-Trident missile replacement demonstration at the Faslane Naval base near Glasgow, Scotland.

It is a phrase more often heard in London than Washington, but one that has driven British defence policy since the end of the Suez crisis in 1956. It is that Britain enjoys a "special relationship" with the United States.

While the "special relationship" is officially rooted in shared values, in practice it means shared intelligence, the maintenance of key strategic bases on Cyprus in the Mediterranean and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and a nuclear deterrent, which from Polaris through to the present-day Trident nuclear submarines, is not only acquired from the Americans, its guidance systems remain in US hands.

The "special relationship also explains how Britain so readily followed the United States into war both in Afghanistan and Iraq, and arguably how British governments have frequently toned down their criticism of Israel concerning the Palestinian territories. It is a relationship that has severely tarnished Britain's standing throughout the Middle East. 

But astonishingly, that relationship - which for some critics is based around British dependency on the Americans - is beginning to fracture, and even more remarkably it is happening under a Conservative-led coalition government. 

Faced with a burgeoning deficit, even Britain's sacred defence budget will not be exempt when in a few weeks time the British chancellor, George Osborne, announces swingeing cuts in public - and defence - expenditures. 

The budget for the upkeep and maintenance - and ultimately the replacement - of Britain's four ageing Trident nuclear submarines was recently lumped in with the defence budget as a whole, making it easier to either cut or simply delay making any decision on their replacement. The longer any delay, the easier it becomes to argue for cheaper, cruise missile-based replacement systems. This decision has already created waves of discontent among those on the right of the Conservative Party, including its standard bearer, Liam Fox, Britain's defence minister. 

A week ago, with a former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, present, Mr Fox spoke out at a private meeting of a new right-wing splinter group calling itself "New Directions", and some believe he could yet resign in protest if the Trident replacement programme is mothballed. Their suspicions that David Cameron, the prime minister, is set on re-drawing the "special relationship" have been further fuelled by discussions that have been taking place with France's president, Nikolas Sarkozy, about a future Franco-British nuclear deterrent - talks that have not necessarily been driven by any desire of warming the historic entente cordiale, but by the simple expedient that neither country can any longer afford to maintain their "independent" nuclear deterrents. Mr Cameron met with Mr Sarkozy in May, when the idea of joint nuclear submarine patrols was first discussed, and Mr Sarkozy is due in London on November 5 - following the government's budget decisions - to discuss and take the idea further forward.

Even a year ago the idea that France and Britain could seriously be discussing merging their nuclear operations would have been unthinkable. In practice, Britain wouldn't have to renew its four Trident submarines, and neither would France, if they settled on joint patrols. Both countries could share patrolling, therefore needing only two submarines each. 

Some pro-Europeans, including a former Conservative member of the European Parliament, John Stevens, believe the French and British should go further and develop their own new generation of nuclear missiles. "Not only would it all be cheaper", says Mr Stevens, "it would end the practice of having to send Britain's Trident-based missiles over to the United States every 18 months for maintenance."

A German academic, Henning Meyer, a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics' School of Governance, goes further: "Not only is it a very good idea, and a step in the right direction, any joint British French co-operation could be the first step in extending it in Europe". 

Mr Henning argues that Germany is a direct beneficiary of the British and French nuclear deterrents, "and don't forget", he adds "in Europe we are continuing to double up defence capabilities. It doesn't make sense".

The message this would send to the wider world goes far beyond the budgetary difficulties driving France and Britain together. France took an opposite path following the Suez war, deliberately distancing itself from Nato's command and control structure, maintaining an independent foreign policy that in its most recent manifestation saw France opposing the Iraq War, and, of course, operating an independent nuclear deterrent, the so-called Force de Frappe. And though France has since moved closer to Nato, it has not lost any of that famous independence of spirit. 

The French may be lovers of poodles, but never have they been accused of acting like poodles of the Americans - unlike the British. But what infuriates some sections of Conservative opinion in Britain, including Norman Tebbit, a former minister, who believes that "David Cameron in his speech to his conference this week left his audience believing that there is a cast-iron guarantee that the Trident nuclear deterrent will be renewed", are the wider political and strategic ramifications that could very well follow from the new Franco-British "nuclear cordiale". 

It is no secret that the European Union, looking forward to the next two decades, is planning for a new combined European defence force, and in this has the tacit support of big players such as Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries. The Franco-British nuclear alliance will be seen by many in Europe as just the first step in this direction.

And the Europeans, in looking forward, also see a more isolationist United States beginning to emerge, giving them hope that a more independent European foreign and defence policy can begin to form as part of that process. All of this is almost designed to send the anti-European, pro-American British right into the stratosphere. 

Already, siren voices behind the scenes are urging Mr Fox, the defence secretary, to go to the political wire and threaten resignation should the Trident renewal programme be put on hold or watered down. Others argue that this would further isolate them at a time when most budgets are about to be savagely trimmed, and that if the public is presented with a choice of cutting the Royal Air Force and army, or Trident, it would opt for the latter. And there can be little doubt that there will be some alarm bells ringing in Washington, too. 

For the best part of half a century, Britain has been the most loyal of US allies, its political influence among international institutions such as the United Nations of great use at times of potential conflict. Practically, however, Britain's armed forces are possibly of more use to the Americans politically than militarily, their size shrunken and their ability, as the recent experience in Basra and Helmand have proved, somewhat limited.

But in the end it always was the British who talked most fondly of a "special relationship", while most American politicians paid lip service to it in order to keep the Brits happy. The election of Barack Obama, the president, did not, of course, presage a weakening in the very real and practical links between the two countries, but right from the word go he seemed to make it clear that Britain was no more special to America than Germany or France.

* The National

Published: October 9, 2010 04:00 AM

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