When George W. Bush formed his 2003 “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq, the president turned to Britain's Tony Blair – not only because the prime minister was one of the few “willing” world leaders, but also because the British military remained a robust defense force with global capabilities.
The British government’s announcement this week of a review that calls for the biggest cuts in British defense spending since the end of the cold war is raising questions about Britain’s ability to remain a global security player in coming years.
Another hot topic accompanying Tuesday’s announcement of an 8 percent cut in military spending over the next four years: the impact a retrenched British military will have on the Anglo-American “special relationship.”
The British defense cuts “will significantly weaken British military power and reduce the long-term ability to fight alongside the US,” says Nile Gardiner, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in Washington.
With no other Western power stepping in to fill Britain’s shrinking boots, however, “At the end of the day Britain will remain America’s most reliable ally as well as America’s only first-rate military ally,” he says.
Still a reliable partner?
In announcing a recalibrated military posture Tuesday, Prime Minister David Cameron emphasized that Britain will maintain its commitments to NATO operations in Afghanistan and will remain capable of launching and participating in global security operations “as needs be.”
But a planned reduction in total military personnel of at least 7,000 soldiers – from a total force of around 100,000, or smaller than the US Marines alone – could leave Britain a less reliable partner for the US in the future, some military experts say.
In Britain the new military posture may be widely viewed as a “balancing” of military commitments and financial means, but “for senior US officials, however, the bigger concern is that America’s most militarily capable and politically willing partner now joins the ranks of many of its NATO brethren in reducing its share of the burden of maintaining mutual security,” says Stephen Flanagan, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in comments on the CSIS website.
The concern in Washington, he adds, is “that the gap between American and European defense spending and military capabilities will yawn even wider.”
The defense cuts were at one point expected to be even “more draconian” – as much as 20 percent, something he says would have portended “a catastrophic scenario for Britain as a world power,” says Heritage’s Mr. Gardiner. But the intervention of US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates with their British counterparts played a significant role in the government’s final decision to reduce the planned cuts, he adds.
President Obama spoke with Mr. Cameron by telephone Monday about the strategic review and the planned defense cuts. In a subsequent statement, the White House said that in the conversation Mr. Obama “emphasized how much the United States values the United Kingdom’s contributions to global security.”
It said he told Cameron “that in the context of our special relationship and shared commitment as NATO allies, he appreciates the Cameron government’s commitment to retain the full spectrum of military capabilities that permits our forces to partner effectively together around the world.”
The cuts will inevitably lead to closer cooperation between the British and the French militaries in matters of hardware, Gardner says. But he does not see the cuts reinvigorating the idea of a European defense posture, something he says Cameron and his conservative government do not favor.
Still, a Nov. 2 Anglo-French summit is set to focus on opportunities for developing “joint defense efficiencies” such as joint carrier operations, notes Mr. Flanagan of CSIS. Over the long term, he adds, such closer coordination between the two strongest European defenses could end up “making way for a new kind of ‘special’ relationship.”