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The UK-US relationship in 2023

This year was a far more dynamic year for Euro-Atlantic security than many perhaps expected, particularly given the return of full-scale war to the European continent. Geopolitical tensions will certainly persist into 2023, as will Russian aggression against Ukraine, leaving the United Kingdom (UK)-United States (US) bilateral relationship of continued importance to the security of the Euro-Atlantic and beyond. It is a relationship that has proven its ability to take decisive action against revisionist actors and influence facts on the ground.

Politically, while the much anticipated and feared ‘red wave’ in America’s midterm election turned out to be closer to a gentle lapping, Britain (along with others) will continue to watch the US’ political winds rather closely. Will Kevin McCarthy, the frontrunner to become speaker of the House, be able to control his fractious Republican Party? Or will the more populist voices dominate discussions related to national security and international relations? Moreover, while thus far the re-election campaign of Donald Trump, the former president, has faltered (and his chosen midterm candidates mostly lost), the prospect of him – or a Trump-like figure – occupying the White House will weigh heavily on Rishi Sunak, the British Prime Minister, and His Majesty’s (HM) Government more broadly. 

At its core, the UK-US relationship remains strong. Shared interests and a dedication to democratic, transparent institutions underpins it, far more than trite references to shared history and language (important though those are). However, the relationship can be seen as an unequal one, with the US often assuming that Britain needs America more than America needs Britain. This imbalance is not fundamentally new, but this year’s political turmoil within the Conservative Party did create some, perhaps new concerns within the US about the UK’s political stability. 

Both Britain and the US must reinvest in this relationship at a political level while supporting operational level activities, ensuring they continue uninterrupted.

For Joe Biden, the US President, Britain’s resolution of the Northern Ireland Protocol certainly carries a personal connection due to his Irish heritage, but the administration recognises the political importance of the accord above all else. Indeed, Biden is slated to travel to Northern Ireland next Spring on the anniversary of the Good Friday accord. In a phone call between himself and Sunak, the president urged the new prime minister to ‘maintain momentum toward reaching a negotiated agreement’. The Protocol is a critical, if somewhat under-appreciated, element of the bilateral relationship. The Protocol affects Britain’s unity, European unity, the UK-European Union (EU) relationship, and more – something Washington certainly values. 

On trade, the UK will certainly have concerns that the provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act and other legislation (along with increased demands for ‘re-shoring’) that encourage if not require US companies and its citizens to ‘buy American’ may be a slippery slope toward protectionism. This is a fear evident in other free and open nations; Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, firmly raised this issue with Biden during his state visit. In 2023 the UK should want a more favorable trade relationship with the US to help offset any negative effects stemming from Brexit and its as of yet unresolved relationship with the EU. There is, however, little likelihood of a UK-US free trade agreement (FTA) if Britain does not resolve the Protocol, further highlighting the importance of this issue. A third trade pact was signed at the beginning of December between the UK and US, but a bilateral FTA is yet to be. 

Despite the small Republican majority in the House of Representatives and the parity in the Senate, America’s support to Ukraine and leadership in this regard should continue. There could, however, be increased Republican demands for greater accountability of the aid going to Ukraine – especially if domestic economic forecasts look to worsen. Talk of a negotiated settlement between Kyiv and Moscow, some of which is already appearing, will likely increase in volume. Calls for such a settlement could well increase over the course of the year, not just in the US, but also in Europe, as the economic and political effects of what is turning into a protracted war are increasingly felt. Yet, the support of free and open nations is unlikely to waver, particularly as Putin shows signs of weakness. In the near-term the UK-US relationship will focus on maintaining support to Ukraine whilst seeking to avoid overt schisms over the resolution of Russia’s illegal war. How Washington and London balance domestic calls for a resolution, restrained aid to Kyiv, and the need to continue support to Ukraine’s military whilst also looking to the long-term reconstruction of the country, remains an open question. 

The bilateral relationship will also be critical as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) looks to reevaluate its structure and purpose in light of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the accession of Sweden and Finland to the alliance. There are ongoing discussions as to NATO’s future role, as well as the division of labor between it and the EU when it comes to continental security, issues that have been accentuated by Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine. Focusing on collective security and deterrence in Europe is critical if the US is to best commit to the Indo-Pacific. 

Getting the relationship right in 2023 is critical to not just Euro-Atlantic security, but Indo-Pacific security as well.

It seems that the UK will support America’s policy on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) where appropriate whilst also charting its own path. Sunak appears to be taking a harder but more measured line on Beijing than Boris Johnson, former British Prime Minister, but he is not as ‘hawkish’ as Liz Truss, Sunak’s predecessor. Sunak recently said that the so-called ‘golden era’ of relations is now over and in November labeled the PRC a ‘systemic challenge’ during a speech to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. Sunak and the Conservative Party are now more aligned with Washington on the threat the PRC poses than the David Cameron government was, but there will almost certainly be disagreements in the new year as to how this is translated into substantive action. 

The AUKUS partnership will continue to be of critical importance to the relationship in 2023. In early December, Rob Wittman, an influential American Congressional representative, warned off suggestions that the US would build submarines for Australia. Rather, he suggested that Washington take a Virginia-class submarine and dual-crew it with American and Australian sailors – something the UK is already doing with its Australian counterparts. More recently, Lloyd Austin, America’s Secretary of Defence, said the US would ‘not allow Australia to have a capability gap’ when it came to submarines. Regardless, the agreement is not all about equipping Australia with nuclear submarines and demonstrates the alignment in worldviews of the UK, US and Australia and trust they place within one another. 2023 will likely see concrete developments made toward better fleshing out the agreement and Australia’s submarine program, as well as potentially the addition of new partners.

That there are few major disagreements or substantive differences on key issues between the US and the UK reflects the underlying strength of the relationship. Yet, there is a risk that that very strength is taken for granted, particularly in view of the open question of the resolution of the Northern Ireland Protocol. While the working and operational level aspects of the relationship – such as military-to-military exchange and intelligence sharing – should remain unaffected by the political machinations occurring between the high offices, Britain failing Northern Ireland in its agreement with the EU leaves the possibility of a UK-US rift as very real. Both Britain and the US must reinvest in this relationship at a political level while supporting the aforementioned operational level activities, ensuring they continue uninterrupted. Getting the relationship right in 2023 is critical to not just Euro-Atlantic security, but Indo-Pacific security as well.

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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