Cyprus Mail
Guest Columnist Opinion

Just how special is the US-Britain ‘special relationship’?

By Michael O’Hanlon

In the wake of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s resounding re-election victory, some Americans are worrying about the future of the “special relationship” – the more than century-long partnership between Britain and United States that helped get both nations through two world wars, the Cold War, and a host of lesser conflicts, crises and challenges.

The specific concern is that Cameron might seek to weaken Britain’s bonds with Europe, which could, in turn, lead the pro-European Scots to demand another referendum on independence. Especially because the election that returned Cameron to power gave a huge boost to the Scottish National Party. The ultimate outcome could be the partial dismembering of Britain and a greater distance between London and the rest of the European Union.
These fears should not be overblown, however. There is no serious geostrategic reason to worry about even the most extreme of these possible outcomes. And several reasons why it is unlikely.

First, the secession of Scotland, though hardly desirable from Washington’s perspective, would not dramatically weaken Britain. While punching above its weight in castles, culture, history, beautiful cities, historic golf courses, single-malt whiskey, bagpipes, mythical monsters and national pride, Scotland is nonetheless a land of only 5.5 million people – roughly 10 per cent of Britain’s total demographic and economic strength. To be sure, it is a 10 per cent that Britain would like to retain. But the possible independence of Scotland would not be a strategic game changer. Britain possesses the fifth-largest economy in the world with Scotland, according to 2015 data. It would remain the fifth largest without it.

Second, many of the specific military capabilities associated with Scotland may well continue even in the aftermath of independence. The Scots might be able to muster an impressive infantry brigade or two that they could deploy to key global operations. They might also continue to collaborate with the United States, and Britain, on intelligence-sharing operations. After all, the realistic extreme case here is Scottish independence – not Scottish defection to the Chinese or Russian spheres of influence.

Moreover, even if lost, many of the military facilities in Scotland are replaceable. This is surely the case for US intelligence capabilities that use Scotland’s northern locations, but could be just as effective, for example, in parts of Scandinavia. While it is always inconvenient and moderately expensive to replace such facilities, they are not Washington’s only options.

The British nuclear deterrent could be disrupted by Scottish independence, however. All four of Britain’s ballistic-missile submarines are now based at the Clydeport in western Scotland. If necessary, of course, those facilities could be replaced. Yet, London might be wiser not to replace them. Global security hardly depends in any measurable way on the British deterrent. London might be well advised to reassess if the nuclear force is really worth its cost. Scottish independence might therefore be a useful catalyst to an overdue debate.

Third, Britain’s power is already only a modest factor on the global chessboard. Like Scotland within the United Kingdom, Britain itself punches above its weight. Beyond nuclear weapons, it has permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council, a key strategic position within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the European Union.

It is playing a critical role on matters such as the Iran nuclear negotiations. London remains closely associated, through history and commonwealth, with many nations, including India, Nigeria, Canada and Australia. In the Iraq invasion of 2003, as well as the Afghanistan surge of 2009, Britain was easily Washington’s most important Western partner in terms of the size and fighting capabilities of its combat forces.

But again, beyond the fact that Britain’s economic power would only decline about 10 per cent if Scotland did someday secede, London’s sway in overall geostrategic terms should not be exaggerated. British defence spending may be marginally the greatest of any European country, at about $60 billion a year in US dollars. But it is just one of five key US allies – including Japan, Germany, France and Saudi Arabia – that spend in the range of $40 billion to $80 billion annually.

Nations like South Korea, Italy, Israel, Brazil and Australia occupy a third tier, in the range of $20 billion to $35 billion each. Closer to home, Canada and Colombia are not far behind. India, not quite an ally but increasingly an important partner, clocks in at around $50 billion a year. (By comparison, China spends around $150 billion and Russia about half that.)

Of course, dollars don’t tell it all. Besides the United States, Britain remains the only country able to project on short notice nearly a division of ground power to distant theatres. In light of budget pressures, though, it is cutting its army, which will wind up less than half the size of the US Marine Corps. With a population almost a fifth of the United States’, Britain will now have only about one-tenth as much ground power. Yet this would still leave London with the world’s second-most-powerful deployable ground force.

For most key regions, however, Britain is no longer the predominant US ally, in either military or diplomatic terms. Japan and South Korea, followed by Australia, matter more in terms of the Korean peninsula and Western Pacific more generally. Saudi Arabia and Turkey matter at least as much in the Middle East. Colombia is probably the key player in the Central America and Caribbean region. Germany has a lead role in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Looking back in history, moreover, the US-Britain collaboration is rooted in a shared history, values and sense of purpose. Yet, it has its limits.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, was hardly a popular global cause just because British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave President George W. Bush strategic cover.
The partnership has been, for some years, a notch below the unique special relationship it is often depicted as. Not because it is unimportant, but because other relationships now matter just as much. It is still one of Washington’s key five or six strategic partnerships – but not necessarily more than that. Most of all, it is dubious that the strength and value of the relationship would suffer greatly even if Scotland were to indulge its inner Braveheart and go its own way.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is author of Healing the Wounded Giant: Maintaining Military Preeminence While Cutting the Defence Budget and co-author, with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal, of Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

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