The Not-So-Special Relationship

No matter who prevails in Britain’s election, the defense alliance with the United States is in trouble

Ed Miliband
Ed Miliband / AP

The leaders of both major political parties in the British general election on Thursday have indicated that they would shirk an active role in addressing international security issues, marking a further decline in a once robust defense alliance with the United States, analysts say.

In a rare foreign policy speech last month, Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, criticized David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, for having "presided over the biggest loss of influence for our country in a generation." Cameron is perceived as having largely focused on domestic issues as prime minister while subordinating the world’s pressing security crises. He accepted cuts to Britain’s defense budget in order to lower the deficit, was absent from the Minsk negotiations in February regarding Ukraine’s conflict with Russia, and was slow to support the United States in striking the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq.

Yet Miliband himself is unlikely to be more assertive on foreign affairs if Labour is able to form a ruling coalition. When asked earlier this year whether he would be tough enough to pressure President Vladimir Putin of Russia on the Kremlin’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, he responded "Hell, yes" and cited his resistance to another world leader—President Barack Obama. He helped sink a 2013 proposal in Parliament to launch airstrikes in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the United States, which also backed out after congressional opposition.

Analysts in Washington say they are pessimistic that either Cameron or Miliband will recommit to what was formerly known as Britain’s "special relationship" with the United States.

"The real danger is both are likely to not put a priority on keeping the special relationship all that special," said Gary Schmitt, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who researches Europe and security issues. "The cuts in Britain’s military have left its conventional forces in such a small state that they are no longer thought to be, sort of, your natural partner."

Britain has joined most other NATO countries in reducing its defense spending over recent years. While it currently meets the NATO target of spending 2 percent of its GDP on the military, that might not last for long. The Royal United Services Institute projects that Britain could spend just 1.7 percent of its GDP on defense by 2020. Such a low figure would hamper Britain’s ability to continue the close military ties it has had with the United States since World War II, Schmitt said.

Russia, by contrast, has boosted its defense expenditures to more than 4 percent of GDP, according to World Bank data. Putin appears intent on using that military advantage to serve his interests. The Kremlin illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine in March 2014 and has since supported an insurgency in the eastern part of the country, sparking a war that has claimed more than 6,000 lives.

Neither Britain nor the European Union (EU) are prepared to take a harder line against Russia for its destabilization of Ukraine, said Tom Rogan, a Washington-based writer for London’s Daily Telegraph. EU officials, including representatives from London, recently urged Ukraine to uphold its commitments in the Minsk ceasefire agreement and to avoid giving Russia an excuse to escalate its support for the separatists. However, the officials admit that the Kremlin has committed more blatant violations of the Minsk accord than Ukraine.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top commander, said last month that the Russian-backed separatists appear to preparing for a new offensive in eastern Ukraine.

Rogan said Britain and the EU have been "very selfish" in their lack of efforts to aid Ukraine and deter Russia.

"The Europeans have become accustomed to the United States subsidizing their social welfare states by taking the role as guarantor of their security," he said. He added that Britain has been reluctant to challenge Russian elites who hold significant assets in London and provide capital to the British economy.

Other domestic issues could prompt Britain’s next prime minister to turn his focus inward. Cameron has promised to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU by the end of 2017 if his party wins. The referendum fight could occupy a large portion of Cameron’s time in the next two years should he prevail.

Neither the Conservative Party nor the Labour Party is expected to attain more than a third of votes on Thursday, making protracted negotiations to form a governing coalition likely.

If Miliband gains the upper hand, he might have to partner with the Scottish National Party (SNP) to form a ruling coalition. The SNP favors breaking Scotland apart from the United Kingdom and scrapping Britain’s nuclear defense program—divisive issues that would further divert the prime minister’s attention from foreign affairs and alienate Britain from the United States.

Miliband has also expressed support for recognizing a Palestine state—another position at odds with longstanding U.S. policy.

Schmitt said the United States also deserves some blame for its growing detachment from Britain on defense issues. Obama signaled early in his presidency that "these transatlantic ties are probably less important than in the past" when he returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the British ambassador to the United States, Schmitt said.

"It’s somewhat of a pox on both houses," he said. "Europe isn’t doing enough and the Obama administration doesn’t seem to care."