20 April 2016
But increased British leadership, in Europe and beyond, could reverse the decline of US–UK ties.
Xenia Wickett

Xenia Wickett

Former Head, US and the Americas Programme; Former Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs


Barack Obama and David Cameron at the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit on 1 April 2016 in Washington. Photo by Getty Images.
Barack Obama and David Cameron at the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit on 1 April 2016 in Washington. Photo by Getty Images.


The US−UK ‘Special Relationship’ is in decline, and a British decision to leave the EU would hasten its demise. As Great Britain increasingly becomes just one of America’s many strategic relationships, Brexit would speed the transfer of US attention and energy from the UK to the continent. This, however, does not need to be inevitable. The necessary ingredient to reverse this decline is stronger British leadership internationally.

The US government has made it abundantly clear that its preference is to see the UK remain in the European Union. In January 2013, when David Cameron had not yet committed to a referendum, Phil Gordon, the US assistant secretary of state for European affairs bluntly stated that it is in the American interest for the US ‘to see a strong British voice in that European Union.’ The fact that a senior US official would go so far – to be seen to intervene so early in a divisive domestic political issue – spoke volumes about how important this is to America. This week, President Obama will visit the UK to send an equally firm, if polite, message to the British public.

Why does the US want the UK to remain in Europe?

From the US perspective, there are three principal elements that the UK brings to the table in the bilateral relationship. The first stems from Britain’s capabilities, particularly in the military and intelligence arenas. US−UK intelligence sharing, the closest for both countries, has a long history dating back to the Second World War. For good or ill the UK has been among America’s leading allies in every major conflict the US has been involved in for the last quarter of a century – in the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo, Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, the interventions in Libya as well as current operations against ISIS in Iraq and, belatedly, Syria.

The second relates to the political value of having a reliable partner in international engagements – and thereby avoiding the perception of acting unilaterally. Shared history and values, and thus often perspectives (as well as capabilities) have ensured that the UK has long been the first port of call for the US when seeking to solve international problems or build coalitions. At the same time, Britain’s historical global reach and diplomatic experience around the world (not least in areas of current concern such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, and Iraq) have provided American policy-makers with valuable input on foreign policy issues that has contributed to their own internal decision making.

The third area of added value for the US is Britain’s place in the EU. While British and US policy preferences may at times diverge, as they have recently on the Israel−Palestine issue, for example, their common outlooks and interests mean that Britain is the closest thing that the United States has to having a voice in the EU. At the same time, the US also sees the UK as the country most likely to support an open trade and investment agenda and a more proactive approach to dealing with the challenges in Europe’s neighbourhood, policies that leaders in both countries agree are necessary to make the EU a more effective actor and better partner to the US on the international scene.

The transition from US−UK ties to US−European ties

In recent years, however, the US has begun to diversify its relationships within Europe, in part as the UK has become unable or unwilling to step up and fulfil these three elements of paramount importance to the US.

Defence and intelligence

With regards to defence capabilities, it is no longer the UK that the United States inevitably looks to first. In Libya, the operation that started with the defence of Benghazi from Gaddafi’s forces in March 2012 (that eventually came to remove Gaddafi himself) was jointly led by the French and the British, although then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy appeared to be the driving force. More recently, it was the French with whom the US partnered in responding to the terrorist activities in Mali and who were first to support the US in action in Syria (following a UK parliamentary vote to stay out in August 2013 and a belated vote to act in December 2015). But in recent years others have worked more closely with the United States militarily as well, including in particular Poland and Denmark (although with the new government in Poland, the relationship might wither again).

This trend towards more diversified military engagement with other European states looks set to continue in the near term. Despite taking a tough position in the 2014 NATO Summit to reinforce the NATO commitment of two per cent of GDP spending on defence, the Cameron government came very close to falling below this line in 2015 (after five years of real defence cuts). The eventual decision to commit to meet this target, along with the newly released Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), have somewhat reassured American policy-makers of the UK’s continued ambition and capabilities. But there remains a lack of US confidence that this is only a temporary uptick in UK attention on defence. Meanwhile, America will continue to expand its horizons.

The story on intelligence sharing is slightly different, but here too obstacles have arisen in the close US-UK exchange of information. Since the end of the Second World War, the US and UK have been part of the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance – with Australia, New Zealand and Canada – that allows the close sharing of intelligence. And arguably, within the Five Eyes, the links between the US and UK are the closest of all. However, more recently, tensions have emerged. Over the past five or so years, the British judicial system in particular has pushed back on US confidentiality rules in ways that make the US intelligence services nervous of continuing to share information; given the current close relationship, this could be more of an obstacle than it is for other countries sharing intel with the US.

At the same time, with the ISIS-inspired resurgence in the terrorist threat in both Europe and the US, it is becoming increasingly clear that the close intelligence sharing between the US and UK must take place much more widely. The current systems – through NATO or INTERPOL – have proven too slow and ineffective, as the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels have made clear. Sharing among the US and UK, or even among the Five Eyes, is insufficient – increasingly the relationships will have to be broadened.


The US is also looking elsewhere for partnership in its international engagements, including on some of the issues that are at the top of the inbox for the American president.

On responding to Russian actions in Ukraine, it is clear that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in the lead, both in corralling Europeans to maintain the sanctions but also in negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was highlighted in the creation of the Normandy format in the summer of 2014, a group encompassing Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine (but not the UK or the US), to resolve the situation in the east of Ukraine. On another issue of significant import to the United States, European economic prosperity and stability, Merkel is again the leading actor in Europe.

In the case of targeted bombing in Syria, it was not the British that were first to join the United States in the offensive against ISIS, but instead the French. President Francois Hollande also proved far more proactive after Syrian President Assad crossed the chemical weapons ‘redline’ in 2013, although in the end France was left hanging when President Obama decided to step back from military action after the failure of the British parliamentary vote to authorize UK involvement.

Finally, on at least one issue of great import to the US – China – the UK appears to be diverging meaningfully. The most recent case – the UK decision to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in March 2015 – is perhaps the starkest example of such differing policy positions that have caused significant frustration in the US.

Influence in the European Union

With regards to Europe, even before the referendum was formally announced, it was increasingly clear that the UK was less inclined to engage proactively in the EU. A number of factors have ensured that, particularly since 2010, the UK has become less influential there.

British influence has been diminished through actions by the Cameron government that have, perhaps unnecessarily, antagonized many across the Channel. Many European conservatives became frustrated early in Cameron’s tenure when he decided to take the Conservative Party out of the principal conservative group in the European parliament, the European People’s Party. This sentiment only worsened in recent years as, albeit for perhaps understandable domestic political reasons, Cameron conducted an adversarial negotiation with his European partners in an effort to secure reforms to the EU and changes in Britain’s terms of membership.

The UK also no longer sends its best and brightest to EU institutions. Many of the leading British officials who once occupied high offices there have left and been replaced by other continental Europeans. This deprives Britain of an important source of influence within the EU.

It is clear that if the US wants influence in the EU, it needs more partners there than just the UK. Britain is still important, and would be a strong driver to make the institution more efficient, but as its influence declines it is no longer sufficient. A Leave vote would immediately dispose of that influence entirely.

The UK is ‘one among many’ for the US

What is clear is that increasingly the UK is not ‘first among equals’ in Europe but ‘one among many’ for the United States. America is diversifying its relationships. More and more the US can find other allies and friends to fulfil the needs in which the UK no longer has interest.

If the UK leaves the European Union, the pace of this trend will only quicken. In addition to needing to find alternative partners to address these policy gaps, the UK will likely no longer have the time to devote to the United States that it does today. If Brexit takes place, Whitehall will find itself inundated with issues which had previously been managed by the EU, from trade deals with third parties to negotiating constant market access adjustments with the EU. Thus, very quickly, British resources are likely to be pulled from the US portfolio, and issues of common concern will get drowned out by other agendas. At least for a while, the US will likely get short shrift.

America’s response then can only be to hasten its search for other partners both in Europe and beyond. And there lies an inevitable negative spiral for the Special Relationship.

Can anything be done to save the Special Relationship?

There is no question that the US and UK will continue to have a strong and positive relationship, but it is clear that, without action, either in or out of Europe, its ‘specialness’ will decline. As the arguments above lay out, the only question is how fast this demise takes place. But there is something that could not only halt, but also reverse this trend.

As President Obama made starkly clear in his interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, what he wants most from partners and allies is for them to step up – to show more leadership (a sentiment that the Republican candidates for president would push even further). With the perceived failure of interventions over the last 15 years – from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya –many politicians and publics have become wary of foreign military intervention. This is true in Europe and the US; but Americans have often felt that they have been left holding both the bag and the blame.  

It should be noted that more leadership does not necessarily mean more military engagement. Or even, necessarily, more spending on foreign policy tools (whether diplomatic, military or development). But it does mean a willingness to step up and take responsibility for trying to guide international events and for promoting common interests.

In the UK’s SDSR released towards the end of 2015, the government stated its intention to remain fully engaged globally; however, its actions belie this. Where Asia is concerned – an issue that is front and centre for the US – the UK joins other European powers in arguing that its lack of resources in the region makes it unable to contribute meaningfully to maintaining stability. Even closer to home, in the Middle East, the UK has been wary of leading.

It is understandable why the UK is hesitant to take such a leadership role, even as part of a coalition, in some of the larger strategic challenges the world faces. There are few benefits. Merely finding the human capital to coordinate an international response is difficult. The complexity of these problems ensures they rarely work out as hoped, and more often lead to international contempt rather than approbation. Thus it is no great surprise that the UK, along with much of the rest of the world, resists the temptation to be out in front. But there are opportunities – two issues that the US would likely welcome greater British leadership on would be building support in Europe for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and taking a more active role in maintaining stability in Asia. Further, having a stronger European partner on issues in the Middle East (from Yemen to Syria) – Europe’s near abroad – is something that many American policy-makers have suggested. 

But the UK would not have to stand alone. With a little leadership from the UK, the US would provide support, as would many others currently loath to take the lead but with very strong interests in the outcomes. But someone has to start; as Obama made clear, there needs to be less ‘free riding’.

If the UK wants to reverse the decline of the Special Relationship, it will need to show more leadership internationally. This should not be as hard as it might seem. Not only does it conform to the government’s own strategy (as laid out in the SDSR) but public concern over further interventions is weaker than one might imagine. Such a leadership role would once again show to the United States the value of the Special Relationship.

This article has also been published by Real Clear World.

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