Gareth Nellis: What's so special between the UK and the US?

By Gizem Ozturk Erdem | 30 November 2010

To quote this document: Gizem Ozturk Erdem, “Gareth Nellis: What's so special between the UK and the US?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 30 November 2010,, displayed on 28 September 2022


Many argue nowadays that the importance of the United Kingdom/United States relationship has lessened with the end of the Cold War. On 26th June 2010, Damon Wilson, President of the Atlantic Council and Director of the International Security Program, claimed that “following 60 years of cooperation and success, the political, economic and military pillars of the special relationship are stressed today”. We therefore need to examine how the special relationship can adapt to new challenges. Will there even be an indispensable relationship in the 21st century?

How would you describe the new UK Government’s relationship with the USA?

The so-called “special relationship” between the UK and the US remains intact. The Anglo-American engagement is too deep and too long-standing to be vulnerable to changes in government. The relationship comprises two parts. The first involves recognition by the British government of its subservient position vis-à-vis the United States – America calls the main shots. But the second facet of the relationship grants Britain enhanced standing in the world, allowing it to punch above its weight internationally. For the UK continues to have considerable diplomatic value for the United States. Britain can be counted on to support America’s message in international forums, and so helps to boost the credibility and legitimacy of actions against aggressor states when they are taken. In return, the UK is given a seat at the decision-making table. The two states remain strategically and culturally intertwined, even if their power asymmetry is now well accepted.

David Cameron’s administration has certainly been more reflective about its global influence than its predecessors. The Prime Minister spoke early on about the need to root the American partnership in an understanding of its mutual benefits – not bleary-eyed nostalgia. Just before the election, a House of Commons committee lamented that the perception of the British government as a “poodle” to the US has proven “deeply damaging to the reputation and interests of the UK.” The unusual degree of self-awareness about Britain’s role in the world stems from the invasion of Iraq and its aftershocks.

Where else might Britain look to build alliances to complement that with the US? In a July speech, Foreign Secretary William Hague provided an intriguing answer to this question. He wants to turn the UK toward the emerging powers of Asia. As if to press the point, Cameron paid his first international visit as premier to Turkey and India. In November he toured China, accompanied by a delegation of business leaders. The message he sought to convey was straightforward: in future there will be more emphasis on trade, and less on flexing the UK’s military muscles abroad.

While apparently a far-sighted shift in British foreign policy, there are reasons to be skeptical about its likely impact. Most obviously, Britain remains entangled in Afghanistan as America’s lead-partner in the NATO expedition at least until 2014. The specter of mounting terrorist activity in other corners of the Middle East – Yemen and Somalia – demands cooperation. The core security concerns of the last decade, which served to revivify the special relationship to some extent, show no signs of abating. Further, the ability to forge firmer economic ties with the “rising giants” of the likes of China and India is conditioned by these states’ internal politics: their willingness to liberalize, their perceived stability (including lack of corruption), and their commitment to international norms and agreements. India’s slowness to free up its markets and China’s undervalued currency are impediments to forward movement on this score. For the time being, any dramatic reorientation in UK foreign policy is unfeasible.

Looking at today’s political conditions, conservative thinking dominates governmental issues especially in the world's most powerful countries such as the United Kingdom, France and very recently the US. How do you think the conservative ideas will impact International Relations in the near future?

That’s a fascinating question. But my answer would be that the impact has been only moderate. To begin with the United States, Republican gains in November’s midterm elections did not deliver the GOP (Grand Old Party, the nickname of the Republican party) control over the Senate; and the presidency remains in Democratic hands until 2012 and perhaps beyond. Bear in mind that the president traditionally has much more autonomy in the making of foreign, as opposed to domestic, policy. It is true that conservatives can now make life hard for Obama – whether in the House, by holding up appropriations, or in the Senate, through vetoing treaties (which require a two-thirds supermajority to pass). Recent Senate wrangling over the New START deal for a bilateral reduction of Russian and American nuclear arsenals may be a worrying portent of partisan bickering to come. Cap and trade measures for cutting carbon emissions are a dead letter. Most of all, though, Obama wants time to take stock, reinvigorate a flailing Democratic party, and resuscitate the American economy by creating jobs. International affairs are not uppermost on his agenda right now.

Looking to the British side of the equation, it must be recognized that today’s government is not a fully-fledged “conservative” one – either in the literal or ideological sense. Tories comprise four fifths of the governing coalition. Liberal Democrats make up the rest. The Liberal Democrats are considered security doves. They argued vigorously against the Iraq war, are ardent proponents of the multilateral institutions, and evince a mistrust of America’s global position. In general, the current government is adopting a rather benign foreign-policy stance. The UK has reaffirmed its aid obligations: spending on international development will rise from £7bn to 11.5bn over next four years. This assertion of soft power is part and parcel of the more thoughtful outlook on foreign affairs noted above. Like Obama, Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Clegg ultimately hope for a subdued international scene over the coming years so that they can pursue domestic policy objectives without the distractions abroad that beset Blair and Brown. The radical nature of fiscal retrenchment in the UK and the political complications this presents make their wariness unsurprising.

It is less clear how France affects the global story. Sarkozy is no Gaullist. He has pursued a range of smaller initiatives, most of which have been directed toward, or channeled through, the EU. It will be interesting to see whether Kouchner’s ouster as Foreign Minister will herald a change in tack. Michele Alliot-Marie is understood to be more hawkish. France’s image has been dealt a significant blow by its attempt to expel the Roma minority. The downward slope toward increasing irrelevance in the international arena that France has been moving along might potentially be tilted back. Sarkozy’s stint as president of the G20 (and the G8 from next year) may help matters.

The overall pattern of conservative gains is, then, a patchy one. We are certainly not witnessing a united front of the sort Reagan and Thatcher assembled in the early 1980s – far from it. Addressing serious problems at home is the order of the day as states recuperate from the financial crisis. Remember that citizens generally care little about foreign policy. Only rarely does it decide elections. What we are seeing is a return to the normal run of events.



Tory leader David Cameron plans to tighten the immigration policies of the UK to lower the current population to that of the mid-1990s. What are your views regarding the current immigration policy of the United Kingdom?

On immigration, David Cameron talked tough during the run-up to the 2010 general election. Conservatives promised to place a cap on the number of migrants entering Britain each year. Over the course of this parliament, the government has pledged to scale-back immigration from “hundreds to tens of thousands” of new entrants. Net immigration to the UK in 2009 totaled 196,000 people. This figure will need to be halved over the next five years if that pledge is to be met – a giant task in itself, but even harder when we contemplate the very few options available to Whitehall policy-makers. Migration within the EU is guaranteed by treaty, and so cannot be touched. Similarly, legitimate asylum seekers must be assured safe-haven. This leaves just three possibilities: reducing the number of skilled economic immigrants (unskilled ones are already excluded), foreign students, or those coming to join family-members already resident in the UK. Since skilled migration contributes to economic growth, attempts to curb this are irrational and encounter hot resistance from business. Foreign students, meanwhile, pay full university tuition fees up front; the imposition of limits may hurt universities already in dire financial straits. Family reunions, which are subject to various human rights laws, make up just one-fifth of non-EU migration to the UK.

In view of these realities, the government has watered-down its manifesto commitments of late. A temporary cap has existed since July. In deciding how to place this on a permanent footing from next April, the Home Secretary Theresa May has indicated plenty of room for bureaucratic maneuver. David Cameron himself said that intra-company transfers of highly skilled workers would be protected. Moreover, the cap will be adjusted yearly – capable of being raised as well as lowered – and thus function more as a target. There will, however, be important new restrictions. Temporary migrants will not be eligible to apply for settlement once their visas expire, and foreign students taking non-degree-level programs will no longer be welcome. Additionally, ministers have spoken about the need for a crackdown on illegal immigration. This bromide tends to play well with the public, but is of dubious usefulness. Even the most stringent checks – tighter border controls, stopping sham marriages, or screening for fake higher-education colleges – can affect aggregate figures only marginally.

Like the rest of Europe, Britain faces pressures from immigrants already living in the UK. Assimilation is a vexing problem. In my view, it is in this sphere that the government should concentrate its energies. The often-poisonous immigration rhetoric employed on the continent from time to time endangers the quality and openness of democratic debate. Britain has done better than most countries in containing anti-immigrant prejudice. The issue has not yet engendered polarization of the kind that surfaced during France’s 2002 presidential election, for instance. Yet challenges persist, not least in Britain’s ghettoized cities. Inventing a civic nationalism of the American or French varieties is not on the cards. At the other extreme, I think that Angela Merkel’s denouncement of multiculturalism as having “utterly failed” is wrongheaded. Instead, a blend of minimal requirements – competence in English, first and foremost – and the enforcement of an open, pluralist culture in Britain that weakly acknowledges group rights is the best way to proceed. This must go hand in hand with a better appreciation that immigrants are an indispensable part of the British economy.

How could you describe the role of the European Union in influencing the evolution of US-UK relations, including regarding security issues?

The British Tory party campaigned on a Euro-skeptic platform. Prior to the election, the Conservative Party defected from the center-right grouping in the European parliament – an act that put several European leaders’ noses out of joint. Since then, and partly under the sway of the Liberal Democrats (Nick Clegg is a Europhile and polyglot), the British government has softened its language. Cameron has been a vocal supporter of EU enlargement and has spoken in favor of Turkey’s accession to the Union. He has also been understandably keen to ensure the stability of the Eurozone during the recent fiscal crises on the periphery. In sum, the UK government participates actively in the EU. Whatever antipathy the members of the leading party in Britain privately harbor toward the organization, realignment away from Europe – predicted by some – has not materialized.

In security terms, the 50-year Anglo-French defense accord is the most striking development of the past months. This is an agreement to pool a host of military materiel between the two countries, including tankers, aircraft carriers, and escort vehicles, in addition to jointly advancing satellite and submarine technologies. The accord creates a joint expeditionary taskforce. Most significantly, the UK and France will collaborate on new nuclear defenses, apportioning R&D and the testing of warheads between them. Britain has been reliant on American nuclear know-how historically; in some sense the French deal lessens this dependence. Leaders were adamant that these projected changes do not represent anything akin to the formation of a European army, even if France and Britain combined make up a preponderance of the EU’s military spending and manpower. It does somewhat move the focus of attention eastward from the UK’s perspective. I doubt the US has any real complaint. NATO trumps any bilateral pacts. Interestingly, though, Washington was anxious about the UK decision to slash its defense budget by 8 percent, or 7,000 troops, over the next four years – something that received much coverage in the American press.

The chief question is whether Britain has to choose between Europe and America. I would argue that this is a false dichotomy. On the salient issues of the day – winning in Afghanistan, terrorism, brokering a two-state solution in Israel, and preventing Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons – the UK, EU, and US are in agreement.

Gareth Nellis is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University, USA. His work focuses on comparative politics and international political economy. He is the co-author of a report on the use of information technology by the British government, Installing New Drivers. He graduated from Cambridge University.


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