“Britain has always had an independent ability to express itself and always punch above its weight. I’d hate to see that go away . . . ”
— Defense Secretary Ash Carter, June 1st
The Anglo-American special relationship is in trouble.
On paper, everything looks good. Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama have a close professional relationship. They’re cooperating on significant issues like the looming U.S.-EU free-trade pact. Mr. Cameron’s decisive election victory last month gives him more confidence to support Obama going forward.
But beyond the PR pretense, Mr. Cameron is about to throw a wrench into the special relationship. Cameron is hinting that, come this fall, he’ll cut U.K. defense spending below NATO’s 2 percent GDP target.
Recognizing its symbolic commitment to the special relationship, successive British governments — including Cameron’s first-term government — have met the 2 percent target. Ironically, at last September’s NATO summit, Cameron praised himself for gaining a “pledge” from other leaders that “every NATO member not spending 2 percent of [GDP] will halt any decline on defense spending and aim to increase it in real terms as GDP grows, and to move towards 2 percent.”
But that was months ago. Now, Mr. Cameron is reneging on his once sacred pledge. And since winning reelection last month, he and his ministers have doubled down on equivocating on the 2 percent target. It’s about priorities. Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne (the equivalent of our Treasury secretary), are determined to shrink the U.K.’s budget deficit as quickly as they can. And having campaigned on the promise that they won’t cut spending on health, education, and foreign aid, they’re unwilling to rule out cuts to other government departments. Yet Mr. Cameron’s implicit assertion — that the money to meet the 2 percent GDP target doesn’t exist — is unequivocally untrue. Cameron now has a Conservative majority in the British Parliament — he does not need left-wing opposition support (even then, some Labour leaders are calling on Cameron to meet the 2 percent target). This political power gives Cameron room to cut deeper into Britain’s incredibly bloated welfare budget. Or to divert development-budget funds into military operations. Or to reform Britain’s stagnant social-security system and use the savings to bolster Britain’s defense.
So why is he making this choice?
In part, it’s due to his lack of background in military affairs, which leads him to disregard the strategic merits of deterrence via strength. But it’s also due to arrogance. Cameron seems to believe that his British-establishment credentials — as an eloquent, pro-American graduate of Britain’s elite private school, Eton, and Oxford University, — are alone sufficient to maintain the special relationship. Moreover, by sending U.K. forces on limited military operations alongside America — such as against the Islamic State — Cameron believes his tacit contributions win him breathing room to gut Britain’s own physical military capabilities. A good example of this strategy came this week, when Cameron’s foreign minister suggested the U.S. could be allowed to re-station nuclear missiles in Britain.
In short, Cameron believes he can throw an occasional bone to the special relationship, while simultaneously picking that bone dry of meat.
Cameron seems to believe that his British-establishment credentials are alone sufficient to maintain the special relationship.
Still, President Obama has also likely played a role in fostering Cameron’s belief in defense cuts without consequence. Witnessing the president’s delusional non-strategies against Russia in Ukraine and against the Islamic State, Cameron has little incentive to support U.S. leadership. And Obama’s own budget antics on U.S. defense spending don’t exactly inspire confidence.
Nevertheless, Cameron’s cuts are utterly inexcusable. The special relationship isn’t special because of British class and American power. It’s special because, since 1941, British military personnel have bled alongside Americans in service of a noble cause. Since 9/11, over 630 British military personnel have died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many thousands more have been seriously wounded. It is these personnel — these American allies — that define the moral foundations of the special relationship.
But the special relationship is also about the capacity of the alliance to effect outcomes in a dangerous world. British defense cuts are smashing that unified capability. Today, even before this fall’s looming cuts, the scars of earlier cuts to the British military are obvious.
Consider that today, U.K. naval vessels routinely deploy with insufficient capability and deteriorating equipment. What was once the greatest navy in history is now a shrinking fleet of vessels held together by skilled crews and patched-up parts. The British Army has just one tank regiment and suffers from plummeting morale. Cuts to the Royal Air Force have slashed pilot flight hours and pummeled Britain’s ability to defeat a foreign attack.
All in all, this renders Cameron’s looming cuts a truly special absurdity. And that absurdity would demand American response. Last May, I argued that the U.S. should consider moving bases out of Germany in light of that nation’s pathetic defense spending (1.3 percent of GDP). If Cameron makes his cuts, President Obama should consider scaling back the U.S. military basing presence in Britain.
An alliance, after all, is built on mutual sacrifice. Both human and financial.