Afghanistan, the Conservatives and the Special Relationship

Posted on January 26, 2011


Why does David Cameron support the war in Afghanistan? I have touched on this here and here, but one reason not yet addressed is the importance of the United States. Though not crucial to them, the Special Relationship is vital for us; and Hew Strachan believes this is the reason for our involvement in the war. ‘Britain is in Afghanistan for the same reason that it took part in the invasion of Iraq: the Anglo-American alliance is the cornerstone of British foreign and defence policy.’ If we agree with Strachan, then it creates problems for Britain and the Conservative Party. Not only problems of grand strategy for the former, but also in the identity of the latter.

I bumped into one of these grand strategy problems in October, when I expressed concern that the SDSR might be built around Afghanistan. We should not be building our military around the war, but asking if the war fits into our broader foreign policy. Of course, this presumed we were free to make this choice and not dependent on the ally doing all the fighting. From this perspective, it is obvious why we should build our armed forces around Afghanistan. We need to be useful to the Americans if we are to achieve our broader foreign policy goals. As the great Christopher Coker put it recently:

Being useful to the United States…is not in itself a strategic objective; it’s a tactical instrument to follow a larger strategy – that of the national interest.

But this is where everything starts to get messy. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the focus of the United States is shifting to the Far East. People like Tom Donilon want to ‘get out’ of places like Afghanistan. So if one role for our armed forces is to be useful to the Americans, what use will they have with an army trained in counterinsurgency when it comes to securing the Pacific Ocean? David Cameron is in danger of over-committing to a war to help an ally who is eager to leave. Not over-committing in terms of numbers, but in the structure of our military. As unlike the United States, we can’t be a maritime power and a land one.

How else can the United Kingdom be useful to the United States, if we cannot be useful militarily? One of the few options open to us might be Europe. I don’t mean choosing one over the other, but that American and European interests will come together in the next decade and both would expect us to be in the heart of Europe. Professor Coker suggests this will be an opportunity for the United Kingdom, at least when it comes to European security. NATO and the EU ‘have got to work out a working relationship, and the British, I think, can be absolutely instrumental in that – provided we are seen to be a useful European ally to our European friends.’ This will create a problem for the transatlantic and Eurosceptic identities of the Conservative Party. As one paper argued recently, the former is in many ways a reaction to the latter:

Part of being a British Conservative today is to be Eurosceptic and this is directly related to how Conservatives…understand Britain’s place in the world. Given their lack of affinity for the European Union – a supranational, intergovernmental, political, economic and diplomatic power bloc – they are compelled to steer Britain into the sphere of influence of the United States.

How would the Party handle transatlanticism and Euroscepticism beginning to overlap?

These scenarios are not guaranteed, of course. American policymakers might want to focus on the Far East and not the Middle East, but it is folly to think they can be so easily divorced. It also isn’t clear if the European Union has a future, let alone NATO. ‘Every single instrument of this country’s influence is in crisis’, Professor Julian Lindley-French has warned. The events described above are not impossible, however – they are not even unlikely, and it is frustrating that many Conservatives have given them no thought. We have to start thinking about them; thinking about how we reshape the instruments of our influence to pursue our broader foreign policy. A little strategic thinking on the Special Relationship might help; as would a more constructive approach to Europe, like ones suggested here and here. Otherwise, Britain and the Conservative Party risk living with outcomes they hate.