The world’s majority is shifting the global agenda away from hard security to pragmatic issues — economic rebalancing and development, climate change, migration, health and eradicating terrorism. Where does Britain stand on this? asks JENNY CLEGG
AS Donald Trump threatens to unleash the dogs of war around the world, the spotlight shines more sharply than ever on Britain’s special relationship with the US.
But what exactly is the special relationship, and what’s so special about it? Beneath rhetoric about shared values and Churchill-like images of standing “shoulder to shoulder” lies a hard core of militarism.
More than an alliance, the relationship is rooted in a military bargain forged 70 years ago between the declining and the newly hegemonic imperialist powers.
After 1945, the WWII partnership morphed into a cold war front to counter the Soviet Union. Then in 1958, the Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) — in full, the Mutual Agreement for Co-operation on the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defence Purposes — was signed. This agreement marked the most critical turning point for the British state as it faced the disappearing base of its empire to cling to global power as an auxiliary of the US.
For Britain, the agreement maintains its leading international role by ensuring an influence in the shaping of US foreign policy. It provides the cornerstone of our nuclear weapons programme, giving access to US nuclear technology — warhead and submarine design as well as missiles — which would otherwise be unaffordable. Britain also gets to trade favourably with the world’s largest military market. As the largest foreign investor in the US defence industry, it is its biggest foreign supplier.
But all this at what price? The Tory government’s 2015 Strategic Security and Defence Review (SDSR), published following the renewal of the MDA, sets out very clearly Britain’s value to the US: our global reach and influence, the strategic location of our Overseas Territories, and “our ability to undertake war-fighting independently or as a lead nation in a coalition.”
For a say then in US foreign policy with the privilege of official recognition as one of the permanent five nuclear weapons states, we must pay the costs of supporting an effective war-fighting capacity, including enough military personnel, operations, intelligence resources and cutting edge military equipment for global power projection, as well as maintaining a network of 16 overseas bases — the largest number outside the US — and a large military industry.
Since the end of the Cold War, Britain has been the staunchest ally supporting US wars in Europe and the Middle East. But the 2015 SDSR marked a new level in the “amplification” of global power projection and of integration into US war plans.
As well as leading Europe in Nato’s global orientation, Britain now, more than four decades after the military withdrawal from “east of Suez,” is scaling up defence engagement in the Gulf and Asia.
Along with a range of militarised partnerships not only in Europe but also across the Middle East and East Asia (including Poland, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Japan), Britain is enhancing the five power military alliance with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore & Malaysia.
In addition to important facilities for US military operations at Lakenheath, Croughton, Fairford and Menwith Hill, two British overseas bases — Ascension Island and Diego Garcia — also serve as US bases, playing a major role in the wars in the Middle East. Both Fairford and Diego Garcia can be used by US nuclear B-2 Stealth bombers.
US bases in Britain have reduced in numbers, but Britain’s new naval base in Bahrain will house two new “floating bases,” the Queen Elizabethclass aircraft carriers, to be used by the US to fly F-35 fighter jets under new “interoperability” arrangements. Test flights will take place in 2018.
The Bahrain base and an existing base in Brunei guarantee a permanent British military presence in both the Gulf and the South China Sea, whilst the new aircraft carriers will also “be seen in the Pacific.”
Britain’s defence spending, already the highest in Europe, is to be increased by 0.5 per cent above inflation for the remainder of this parliament. This includes plans for £178bn to be spent by 2025 — nearly £18bn per year — on military equipment, including the Trident replacement submarines, 138 F35s and significant funds for missile defence. Much of this will be purchased from the US.
Britain only benefits from access to the US defence market and advanced military technologies so long as it maintains its own substantial military industrial base. Companies such a BAE Systems make huge profits from the US defence sector.
Meanwhile the Tories are committed to 50,000 new defence sector apprenticeships and £11.9bn in defence and security exports.
According to the SDSR “half of all firms in defence and security industries expect to grow by at least 10 per cent over the next year,” that is, far outpacing overall growth to form an ever more important economic pillar. Manufacturing and R&D — research and development — are increasingly enmeshed with military requirements, not least with the steel industry currently re-orienting towards the defence and nuclear sectors.
Theresa May sees Brexit as a historic opportunity to “forge a bold new role for ourselves in the world.” But this role become will more and more defined by militarism as the government seeks to make up for loss of trade with Europe through increased arms sales, whilst using high defence spending to compensate for economic decline. Trident replacement means Britain will remain a nuclear weapons state until around 2060. But this swollen militarism will become more starkly contrasted with a waning economic influence: within the next 20 to 30 years, Britain is forecast to drop out of the top 10 largest world economies to a size comparable with Turkey.
Of course the Tories’ SDSR was in place long before Trump’s victory but his blatant and unpredictable provocations and May’s subservience makes it all the more urgent to expose the extent and degree of Britain’s incorporation into US preparations for war.
The “bargain argument” of maintaining global military power projection alongside the US as the guarantee of continuing international influence has never been weaker. The word “consultation” is not in the lexicon of Trump’s “America First.” So, for all the enormous costs at the expense of public-sector cuts, what is there to count in return?
Yet politicians have made a habit of resistance to public debate about the special relationship which goes largely unquestioned. The Labour Party still seems to cling to Atlanticism, constraining discussion for fear of being seen to jeopardise global status. Meanwhile the image of Britain as a bridge between the US and Europe is left hanging by a thread by Brexit.
Beyond Trump and the Pentagon, the world’s majority is shifting the global agenda away from hard security to pragmatic issues - economic rebalancing and development, climate change, migration, health and eradicating terrorism. Where does Britain stand on this? The claim to play a distinctive role in the global police is hardly relevant. Politics needs to bring into focus Britain’s increasingly militarised future in all its dimensions.
A rethink of the nation’s strategic interests, its alliances and partnerships, its approach to security, given the changing international environment, is long overdue.
The need to create a new self-image is perhaps our greatest challenge.