Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt began it; David Cameron and Barack Obama may have ended it. I am speaking of the “special relationship” that sustained and supported both countries through World War II, the Cold War and the past 20 years of growing global violence. When Great Britain gave up on Greece and Turkey in the late 1940s and withdrew all its forward deployed forces from positions east of Suez in 1972, the United States moved in to fill the voids. The two nations shared sensitive intelligence, nuclear weapons secrets and the risks associated with multiple conflicts in Asia and the Middle East. It was a little more than two years ago that the Obama Administration came to the rescue of a coalition of nations including Great Britain that was attempting to intervene in Libya for the purpose of protecting the lives of innocent civilians.
The special relationship is ending. Last night the British Parliament voted 285-272 in opposition to Prime Minister Cameron’s proposal to take military action against Syria for its use of chemical weapons. The debate that preceded the vote was a wonderful example of the “mother of parliaments” at its best. Although the vote was not binding on the government, Cameron said he would abide by this expression of the will of the British people.
The unique relationship between our two countries was based, at its core, on shared national security interests. These included: protecting and, if possible extending, the family of democratic nations, ensuring the stability of the international system, maintaining free use of the global commons and preventing the rise of hegemonic powers on the Eurasian landmass. This informal pact was sealed by the willingness of both sides, in most instances, to go in harm’s way shoulder-to-shoulder. Even when they were not in combat together, as in Vietnam, both countries continued to man the ramparts in Central Europe to protect the Free World from Soviet aggression.
In the face of large budget deficits, a weak economy and a divided electorate, it has become increasingly difficult for the Obama Administration to make the case at home for maintaining U.S. involvement in the world and its commitments to the security of long-time allies and friends. Perhaps even more challenging has been to justify our security relationship with Europe in the absence of a clear threat to that continent and in light of the Asia-Pacific Pivot. Yesterday’s vote by Parliament will make convincing Congress and the American people that it is worth retaining military forces and bases in Europe all the more problematic.
Parliament’s action also could signal the beginning of the end for NATO. One of the factors that helped maintain the U.S. connection to NATO was the special relationship with Great Britain. Since the end of the Cold War, both sides of the trans-Atlantic alliance have been struggling to avoid the natural tendency to turn inward in the aftermath of the Cold War and find a new defining purpose. 9/11 seemed to affirm the value of NATO in the 21st century as that organization invoked Article 5 for the first time and Alliance surveillance aircraft helped provide security for the U.S. homeland. Yet, progressively, over the past decade, the will and the military strength of the Alliance have ebbed. It has proven increasingly difficult even to organize so-called coalitions of the willing. NATO’s military strength looks impressive on paper but belies the declining ability of its members actually to deploy and employ effective forces beyond national borders. That might have been tolerable in Washington given the erstwhile strength of the special relationship, but no longer.
It is remarkable that Parliament should vote against taking action in response to the use of chemical weapons so close to Europe’s borders. It reminds me a bit of the famous “King and Country” debate at the Oxford Union on 9 February 1933 when the motion, “that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country,” was affirmed by 275 votes to 153. This is the way the special relationship ends, not with a bang but a whimper.
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