Glen Ruffle: America: still Britain’s best buddy

Recent releases of secret files by the Wikileaks website brought hysterics from the British media about the state of the UK’s relationship with the United States. Accusations that the US was spying on the UK, using the UK as a pawn in negotiations, and generally treating London as an inferior sideshow abounded. Yet as the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee reported, in their 6th report of the session in 2010 on the state of the UK’s relationship with America, the British media loves to “indulge in speculation” on this issue and this can not always be helpful, especially when one considers the other alternatives, such as further European integration.

The flame behind the smoke: There is, of course, cause for concern. United States military personnel have for a long time been disappointed in the inabilities of their allies to keep pace and with the lack of political will to give the required financial commitments. Despite treaty obligations, NATO members have consistently failed to match the 2 per cent of GDP spending commitment required, resulting in an ever deepening gulf between US capabilities, and European ones.

However, the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and United States is strongest behind the scenes, in the field of intelligence. Here, the UK offers the US a partner par excellence and one that Brussels is jealous of – the European Parliament has already investigated the relationship in 2001, with suspicions that the UK is helping the US spy on Europe, and that this undermined the UK’s Treaty commitments in relation to Articles 11 and 12 of the (then) Treaty on European Union, to enhance political solidarity. The amusing thing about this is the comparison with the views of Dr Robert Niblett, who gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs committee, who argued that, once the US did indeed fear a united Europe could undermine the United States, but, having seen how Europe runs, now has no such fears!

Digging for the truth: Closer analysis of the files released by Wikileaks shows that the real subject of investigation should be the quality of the journalism, and not the quality of the UK’s relationship with the US.

Regarding allegations of the US spying on the Foreign Office, closer examination reveals that actually the US officials simply reported that Ivan Lewis, Junior Foreign Office Minister in 2009, was a bully with tendencies to be happy one day, and depressed the next. Such information is undoubtedly useful when working with a partner, because you can understand more about where they are coming from, why they do certain things, and not to be offended when someone’s mood changes suddenly. And the information was gathered from chatting with FCO officials, not by spying on people in undercover operations.

And when it comes to the ‘shocking’ news that the US is using British nuclear secrets to bargain with the Russians, again closer examination blows a hole through any doubts that the US and UK don’t work well together.

Some defence analysts were drafted in to comment on the story, claiming that with the US transferring serial numbers of missiles to the Russians, over time, the Russians could understand the size of the British nuclear arsenal, and that of course would undermine official policy of not stating exactly how large it is.

A number of points quickly arise here: firstly, William Hague himself publicly stated we have “up to 160” nuclear missiles. Secondly, if the Russian intelligence agencies don’t already know that information, then they are really doing a poor job. Thirdly, we should look at what Washington originally asked, and how they responded to Whitehall’s refusal. The original request was to give Russia much more detailed information, and when London refused, Washington did not betray us, but rather obeyed and did not hand over the information. Only serial numbers of missiles manufactured in the US were given.

And why were these given? Because missiles manufactured in the US can have a dual purpose – they can go to allies, like the United Kingdom, or for US-national security uses. So in the interest of transparency with Russia, and in the interests of moving towards a nuclear free world, the US was obliged to give notification of where missiles it was making were going. Refusing this would leave Russia wondering if the missile was being secretly deployed in the US, or being sold abroad.

And finally, if the UK really does not want to be in such a position, then the UK should stop buying American. That would leave us with the option of doing it ourselves, doing it in collaboration with the EU, or buying Russian or Chinese.

The last two options are obviously non-starters, and when one considers the technological inferiority, the economic problems and political opposition that an EU nuclear weapons project would meet, the European option also becomes a non-starter.

Where do our interests lie? The UK should re-evaluate carefully our obligations and where our interest does lie. Being part of an integrating Europe that has ambitions to rival the United States can not sit happily with deeply integrated UK-US intelligence networks. And let us remember what our obligations, under the Lisbon Treaty’s ‘Treaty on European Union’, are.

The UK is committed to taking no actions that could hinder the EU’s attainment of its objectives (Title 1, Article 4). Under Articles 24 and 32, Member States are to converge their actions and support the European Union’s actions, and are under instruction to show mutual political solidarity and refrain from anything that is contrary to the EU’s interests.

If the UK believes it can walk the thin line and be best friends of the United States and of Europe, then the Treaty says otherwise.Member States are to aim for a convergence of policies (Article 24.2), because the EU is 100% aiming for a common defence (when the European Council decides unanimously (article 42.2). And Member States are also to make their military capabilities available for EU usage (42.3), meaning the dissemination of secrets and technology across Europe.

The EU is committed to developing a secure area and can make deals with third, neighbouring, states, that the UK would have to acknowledge (Article 8). This could see deals made with Russia, for example, that contradict and compromise US aims.

Essentially, the EU’s competences cover all areas of Foreign and Security Policy now (Article 24) and as such the UK finds itself increasingly compromised as a trustworthy and solidly staunch ally of the United States. Leaving things as they are, the UK will find that the US has no choice other than to walk away, because of the baggage our European ‘family’ will be bringing. That day will be a great loss for the UK, the US and for the world.

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