A briefing note for POTUS: time to review the UK’s ‘closest ally’ status?

Eric Gates imagines a very necessary briefing for President Biden in the wake of developments on the UK side of the pond…

Mr President; you were briefed after your election about the United Kingdom’s  request to acquire the next generation nuclear deterrent from us.

Since then, the UK Government has published a policy paper entitled Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy which begins to flesh out the vision of the “Global Britain” slogan, on which the current Government was elected.

You will be pleased to note the emphasis placed on the relationship with the United States

“The United States will remain our most important bilateral relationship, essential to key alliances and groups such as NATO and the Five Eyes, and our largest bilateral trading partner and inward investor. We will reinforce our cooperation in traditional policy areas such as security and intelligence and seek to bolster it in areas where together we can have greater impact, such as in tackling illicit finance.”

The White Paper develops the interest in the Indo-Pacific region and, as a tangible first step, the UK proposes to send its new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, and its associated strike group to the region. Whilst this is an impressive sign of renewed interest in the area, from which the UK essentially withdrew some 50 years ago, it does leave a worrying gap.

The UK normally provides a major presence in the Atlantic but the deployment of the carrier strike group takes not only the carrier itself, but also two destroyers, two frigates, a submarine and various support ships (the US Navy is also contributing an Arleigh Burke class destroyer). This will severely stretch a fleet that has currently 19 destroyers and frigates in total, of which a proportion will always be at reduced readiness for training and maintenance. The current review will reduce that number by a further two hulls in the near future. Our Atlantic fleet and our European allies will need to make good the gap while the deployment lasts and whenever a carrier strike group is deployed out of area in the future. 

Another aspect of the review is the intent to acquire additional nuclear warheads, increasing the inventory from 180 to 260. This comes in a slightly curious context of the emphasis on threats that are “below the traditional threshold of war”, suggesting a willingness to resort to a tripwire strategy, rather than a more graduated response. Given the UK’s dependency on the US for delivery systems for nuclear weapons, you will need to consider whether such a strategy is one that we can support. An increase in the number of nuclear warheads runs against efforts to reduce nuclear weapons over many years and it may be in our interests to use the UK as an example to deter further proliferation.

Your recent St Patrick’s Day discussion with the Taoiseach will have highlighted the issues in Northern Ireland, which have flowed from Brexit. As a Guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, we have an obligation to protect the progress that has been made in community relations over the years. The Johnson government’s decision to negotiate an “Irish Sea border” has predictably inflamed Unionist groups, with a real danger of reduced food supplies reaching the province. For the time being, this is being mitigated by the UK unilaterally declining to enforce the terms of the agreement that it has just reached with the EU.

In the absence of an obvious resolution to the issue, we cannot discount the possibility that the UK intends to suspend application of the terms of the agreement indefinitely. And it is possible that there has never been any serious intention to enforce the Irish Sea border, ignoring the treaty commitment so recently signed and thereby putting the onus on the EU to manage an open land border in Ireland. This must send a warning signal about the confidence that we can place in UK treaty commitments under the present Government.

It also raises a further conundrum for the United States. The UK government has set great significance on achieving a trade deal with the US as a symbol of its renewed worldwide ambitions. If we work with the UK to agree any such deal, this will inevitably require the UK to diverge from EU standards, particularly for food. This in turn will exacerbate the issue of the border in Ireland, given the significance of agricultural trade between the north and south, and the fundamental problems caused by empty supermarket shelves in the north. We need to consider very carefully whether the size of the UK market is actually worth the effort and the risks that it entails. Finding areas of agreement with the much larger EU market may be much more rewarding.

You will also have noted in the statement above the comment about tackling illicit finance. We remain concerned about the UK’s exposure to Russian influence. The publication of ‘The Russia Report’ exposed the extent to which the UK has become subject to Russian influence and, with the continuing loss of business in European funds to the City of London, we have increasing concerns about the extent to which London may need to replace this business with funds of more questionable origin. 

In short, Mr President, while the UK may see the US as its most important bilateral relationship, we may need to downgrade the UK’s status on the list of our closest allies.