international analysis and commentary

US-UK: The Special Relationship, Limited


The first congratulatory phone call David Cameron took from a foreign leader upon entering 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister was from Barack Obama. Foreign Secretary William Hague’s first trip abroad was his December 14 visit to Washington. So far, so good for the Special Relationship. 

On most issues on a day-to-day basis relations between the UK and US should stay the same, or even improve. The relevant cabinet posts have gone to Conservatives with solid Atlanticist credentials: William Hague as Foreign Secretary and Liam Fox as Defense Secretary. While the Conservatives have said that they will not be “slavish” toward the US, they perceive a much greater symmetry of interest with Washington and a greater agreement over the best means to solve international problems than their coalition partners or Labour. Therefore, the Liberal Democrats’ more skeptical stance toward the United States should not be a factor on a daily basis.
It is likely, however, that the UK-US “Special Relationship” will be limited in a significant way on an issue that in the past has been at the core of the bond between London and Washington – the threat and use of force. Being in coalition with the Liberal Democrats means that the Cameron government will almost certainly not be able to credibly support a US threat or use of force against Iran over its nuclear program.

The Liberal Democrats have made clear that they will not support military action against Iran. Their 2010 election manifesto stated “…we oppose military action against Iran and believe those calling for such action undermine the growing reform movement in Iran.” Their opposition to the use of force is not new and is not restricted to Iran. The Liberal Democrats took a firm and popular public stance against the 2003 Iraq War. The British electorate rewarded them for their opposition to the Iraq War in the 2005 general election where they garnered 22% of the vote (up from 18% in 2001) and 62 seats (v. 52 seats in 2001).

The opposition to the use of force against Iran is, thus, not a minor point in the party’s manifesto. Knowing that this issue has won his party votes in the past, it would be foolish for Nick Clegg to support war with Iran. Even if Clegg were to pledge his party’s support out of a desire to remain in power, it is unlikely that he would get his party to vote with the government in the House of Commons. Liberal Democratic Members of Parliament would most certainly follow their conscience and their constituency and vote against the use of force (while a Commons vote is not required, it is increasingly seen as a political necessity).

Some might argue that this is a non-issue as the Obama administration has already ruled out military action against Iran. Neoconservative William Kristol, for example, has argued that the Obama administration has accepted Iran’s nuclear program like the Western democracies accepted the Nazi occupation of the Rhineland in 1936. It is true that the administration is currently pursuing harsher sanctions and it is true that the use of force against Iran would be problematic in a number of ways.

There is no evidence, however, that the Obama administration has ruled out the use of force as a last resort means to address the Iranian nuclear problem. The evidence suggests that the administration is very much keeping the use of force on the table. In December 2009 Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff put increasing pressure on those working on contingency planning for a war with Iran, arguing that “[s]hould the President call for military options, we must have them ready.” In March 2010 Secretary of State Clinton said “…a nuclear-armed Iran would embolden its terrorist clientele and would spark an arms race that could destabilize the region… So let me be very clear: The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” James Jones, Obama’s National Security Adviser, noted in April 2010 that “[t]he President has made it clear from the beginning of this administration that we need to be prepared for every possible contingency.”

While we cannot know for sure, it is possible that Obama and his advisers have privately decided against military means to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem. It still makes the most strategic sense to be able to keep the threat of the use of force alive (unless one believes that Iran’s nuclear program is primarily intended to deter an American attack). Doing so reminds Iranian officials  that their nuclear efforts may result in a devastating war with the US. The fact that the Cameron government would almost certainly not support the use of force means that the credibility of an American threat to use force will ring hollow in Tehran.

The Cameron government clearly understands that the Obama administration has fears about whether Britain would support a potential threat or use of force against Iran. According to a May 14 UPI report, Foreign Secretary Hague’s visit to Washington was designed to assuage American concerns about the Liberal Democrats’ foreign policy positions; specifically, their impact on the British commitment to Afghanistan and its willingness to support military action or the threat of it against Iran.

One might ask whether the Brown government was much different – was it ever likely to support a US war against Iran? Brown’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, always said that while military action against Iran was an option of last resort, it was an option. In addition, recall that Gordon Brown supported the 2003 Iraq War and, thus, had far less of an anti-war history than the Liberal Democrats. Finally, we should recall that until a few months ago a majority Conservative government was seen as the most likely outcome at this point, so the Cameron coalition government is a worsening of the Special Relationship in terms of relative expectations.

What are the consequences of this limited Special Relationship? First, the lack of support from America’s most loyal ally is likely to induce greater caution in Washington with regard to the use of force. Tough sanctions have just become even more important. If sanctions fail, the administration will now be more likely to accept a nuclear Iran than they were before. Second, we can expect a hardening of positions in the Middle East. It will be more likely for Israel to take unilateral military action against Iran as it will see no other realistic solution to the problem. Those in the Iranian government who might have backed down in the face of a credible American threat to use force will now be more likely to refuse concessions. Moreover, if they anticipate Israel’s reaction, they will have a greater motive to develop nuclear weapons than before.

It is not clear how long the Cameron coalition government will survive, despite the pledge to serve a full five-year term. In the meantime, we can expect relations between the UK and US to continue to be special, with the important exception of the threat and use of force against Iran. The UK-US relationship will continue to be special – both countries get too much out of it for that to change – but it will be less special than it might have been had the Conservatives won a parliamentary majority.