There is something keeping Ben Wallace “awake at night”, in his own words. As the Defence Secretary, one can imagine any number of things but, here, he is referring to something quite specific — that, under President Trump, the US is stepping back from its international leadership role. This would mean, contrary to half a century of British defence planning assumptions, that the UK will have to fight wars without US support. It hasn’t done this — apart from a tiny intervention in Sierra Leone in 2001 — since the Biafra War in Nigeria over 50 years ago. Whatever one thinks of the so-called special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, the reality is that it has enabled Britain to maintain a larger global role than it otherwise would have. Falklands campaign? Forget it without American fuel, weapons delivery and satellite intelligence. What about Libya in 2011? Not a chance without American logistical support to the air campaign. (That this support was required even when Libya is approximately 1000 km from our airbase in Cyprus demonstrates how necessary it is). That is not to say that Great Britain has been a wholly dependent partner. Particularly in the world of signals intelligence, the UK is genuinely world class, and useful to its ally. And in other areas too — the military, for instance — the UK has been able to provide genuinely useful contributions to American foreign policy actions where it counts: at the sharp end. In the world of diplomacy, the UK had deep and overlapping networks of influence that helped America create political solutions to problems. This, of course, was nowhere more true than between the US and the EU. Yes, the UK was a junior partner, but it was not completely without merit.
This is also probably not just a Trump blip, such that normal service will be resumed once he leaves office. The US has been trying to rebalance itself away from Europe, and towards Asia, for a decade if not longer. But in terms of the UK-US relationship, this geopolitical shift has been compounded by two further factors. Firstly, very, very poor British performance in the Iraq and Afghan wars, where US troops had to deploy to both Basra and Helmand — the operational areas the UK was responsible for — in order to bolster British forces. And secondly Brexit, which inevitably weakens the UK’s relationships with European nations, and thus makes the UK less useful to America. It is against this background that some of the recent actions of the Trump administration have played out: withdrawing from Syria via tweet, and the assassination of General Soleimani. Both actions — done without warning any allies, let alone close ones like the UK — were perceived to have increased the danger to UK troops who are deployed in both theatres, and in many cases co-located with US troops. Now, it is not completely clear whether Ben Wallace’s worst nightmares will come true but let us, for the sake of argument, say that the British government can no longer assume US military support in the execution of its foreign policy goals. What are the UK’s geopolitical options going forward over, say, the next twenty years? Firstly, this means that the UK will not be able to project power globally. Maintaining a full spectrum of capabilities that can be used around the world is horrendously expensive. The US is the only nation able to do this currently, and their defence budget is approximately $700 billion (compared to $53 billion for the UK). Thus, Britain will have to limit itself to a regional role in an area centred on the British Isles.
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