Parliament’s foreign affairs committee pronounced last week on the state of US-UK relations, and — after extensive fact-finding missions to Boston, New York, Rhode Island and Washington — it found them to be in “good health”.
Fears that the Commons vote against military action in Syria last year would cause the death of the so-called special relationship had proved greatly exaggerated, the committee found. Indeed, MPs pronounced quite the opposite: they decided that the vote had shown Britain’s power “to influence US policy” for the better and proved that London and Washington could take different paths and still remain friends. While we should never be surprised at the capacity of MPs for self-congratulation, their analysis of the impact of their decision not to punish Bashar Al Assad for gassing his own people is shot through with the kind of dangerous wishful thinking that now defines Britain abroad. It is true that the White House — initially furious — calmed down after encountering similarly unforeseen opposition in the Senate, but it is naive to think that because Barack Obama is no longer spitting tacks the Syria vote did not dent Britain’s reputation in Washington.
Those who truly understand the transatlantic relationship also understand the threat posed by years of defence cuts and — in Britain’s case —growing uncertainty over its ability to influence outcomes in a future Europe. So we should be under no illusion that the Syria vote, while not rupturing relations narrowly defined, played directly into the broader sense of weakness and uncertainty that was only deepened by Prime Minister David Cameron’s dithering over sanctioning Russian President Vladimir Putin. These events feed into what Fran Burwell at the Atlantic Council calls the “drip-drip” perception in Washington that Europe, including Britain, is no longer capable and willing. As for the committee’s findings, she was polite enough to call them “rather optimistic”.
Up on Capitol Hill, one aide agreed that Anglo-American relations had survived the Syria “no” vote, but also noted that “it did catch many here by surprise”, unlike the supportive statements by the French that had been “especially well received”. Not, apparently, that our MPs appeared to detect any such misgivings, or the corrosive effect on the strategic relationship from defence cuts that see Britain being downgraded to what some in the US military describe as “niche status”. Even on intelligence matters, Britain’s worth has shrunk since the Cameron government told Scotland Yard to investigate MI6’s role in the CIA’s kidnap and torture programme — a move that has curtailed cooperation and spooked the spooks at Langley.
When Hugh Robertson, the minister of state with responsibility for the Anglo-American relationship, was asked for his opinion, he blithely told the committee that it was “’so well embedded’ that he struggled to identify anything that could be added that was not already happening”. Nothing? It makes you want to scream. The world is changing as we watch and as American foreign policy retrenches, countries such as Britain are going to have scrap like never before for their place at the top table. Just look at France. It is through this prism, rather than delusions of grandeur, that Britain needs to consider urgently the importance of its future defence spending and its membership of the EU. Now is not the time for a nostalgic pat on the back, but the moment to be ruthless in formulating a strategic game-plan, because America will be friends with Britain tomorrow for the same reason it was friends in the past — because we brought important assets to the table. It is usefulness that keeps you on Obama’s speed-dial, not sentiment or nostalgia or empty pronouncements.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2014