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British-American relations beyond Ukraine

On the 4th of July the United States (US) celebrated its 246th year of independence from Britain. As part of the celebrations, the Embassy of the United Kingdom (UK) in Washington tweeted[↗] out a mock playlist curated by ‘KingGeorge1776’ of nothing but ‘Baby Come Back’ by Player. A delightfully tongue-in-cheek joke, it is all the more ironic as the relationship between the UK and US is perhaps now more important than at any point since the Second World War. 

To be sure, London and Washington have stood side-by-side on countless occasions during the Cold War and the period that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The UK suffered more killed and wounded soldiers than any other country besides the US in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and they are now each other’s largest[↗] source of foreign direct investment. 

Yet, the partnership today is about far more than operational considerations and capital. It is about defining the future strategic direction of both countries. It is also about preserving the open international system that open societies fought to secure in the 1930s and 1940s. The rules and norms that define this order have underpinned global stability ever since – and must continue to in the years to come. 

In this era of ‘strategic competition’ – one widely taken to mean wide-ranging, multi-dimensional contest with Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – Britain and America will need to reassess how they are to divide resources between the Euro-Atlantic region, where Russia wages war against Ukraine, and the Indo-Pacific, where the PRC is challenging established norms and conventions. Indeed, the US wants to ‘pivot’ to the Indo-Pacific and has wanted to do so since George W. Bush’s presidency. Few remember that prior to 9/11, the PRC was his primary focus – albeit a PRC that had a decidedly smaller global presence and less nationalist and confrontational worldview than today. 

Equally, until recently, successive UK governments sought[↗] closer relations with Beijing and did not share Washington’s fears of the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitions. As outlined in the Integrated Review[↗], however, the UK now views the PRC as a ‘strategic competitor’, which is in line with Washington’s view[↗]. Both the UK and the US also acknowledge an ‘acute threat’ stemming from Russia.

Russia’s reinvasion of Ukraine has vindicated both the view from Washington and London. Russia is an acute threat to the open international system, and we have seen both governments mobilise to resist the Kremlin and aid Ukraine. Britain’s leadership[↗] in delivering aid and weapons to Kyiv was and remains critically important to Ukraine’s defence. Beyond the tactical benefits of such support, it signals to Russia and the world that free and open nations will not sit idly by as a democratic partner is under threat. The UK may no longer be part of the European Union (EU), but it is still an integral part of European continental security and stability – a key weight on the balance of power in a post-Ukraine world. 

Russia’s invasion demonstrated to Washington that as much as it assumed that conventional continental war in Europe was unlikely (focusing instead on the ‘hybrid’ or ‘grey zone’ threat posed by Moscow) and wanted to disconnect from the Middle East and focus solely on the Indo-Pacific and competition with the PRC there, its global economic and military influence remained indispensable. Yet, it remains constrained by finite resources, as well as limited domestic and foreign political capital. As such Washington cannot (and could never really) act alone regionally or globally. As a result, the global strategic interests of Britain and the US are inextricably intertwined and the bilateral relationship of the utmost importance to one another.

For the US to successfully pivot to the Indo-Pacific, it will need a strategic security anchor in the Euro-Atlantic. Britain’s deeper involvement in Euro-Atlantic security will allow America to reduce its political and military capital expenditure there and prioritise using resources in the Indo-Pacific. 

The UK can and should play an expanded role in European security. In many ways it is already doing so. Its deployment[↗] of forces to the Baltics, sustainment of arms and assistance to Kyiv, and expanding bi- and tri-lateral security arrangements ensure that Britain is well embedded within Europe’s security architecture. This necessitates expanded defence spending[↗] and somewhat of a refocusing of the British Army’s attention on land warfare in Europe – something General Sir Patrick Sanders, the Chief of the General Staff of the British Army, recognised and committed[↗] to address. A post-Ukraine Russia will be a markedly weakened power, but not wholly toothless, and both the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation must remain on guard. 

Washington’s increasing focus on the Indo-Pacific is more than just kit and basing – though both are critically important. Indeed, the recently signed AUKUS agreement[↗] builds off of existing multilateral engagement, but serves as an example of much deeper and focused cooperation in critical security areas. More importantly, though, it serves as a signal of the importance of values in this present competition. Russia’s revanchist worldview and the PRC’s model of state capitalism and authoritarian behaviour – different challenges in both scale and scope – represent an effort to undermine the open international system. That this order has lasted so long and continues to be so successful is down to the strategic, diplomatic, and economic leadership of both London and Washington. This leadership is critical if this system is to continue in the years to come. 

For America, this means not taking Britain for granted. Here, comments[↗] by Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defence, that the UK would be ‘more helpful’ in Europe rather than Asia are deeply unhelpful. Britain is, of course, critical for European security, but it retains its own interests in the Indo-Pacific region, and has deep historical connections and a capacity to forward deploy military assets there. Moreover, the critical signal that open nations are working together is invaluable in strategic competition. Washington must find ways for the armed forces of the UK to support its security efforts in the Indo-Pacific, just as Britain must look to deepen and enhance already rich bilateral relations with the US.

Joshua Huminski is the Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.

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