Argument

The Special Relationship Under Austerity

The Special Relationship Under Austerity

I arrived in Washington this week with the U.S. challenge to European NATO partners to increase their share of the burden of collective defense ringing in my ears. It is a point that was well made by Secretary Gates, faithfully reiterated by Secretary Panetta, and was delivered with renewed urgency by Secretary Hagel, in the face of the challenge of sequestration.

We, in the U.K. government, want to work with the U.S. to address the challenges of defense in an age of austerity — and in doing so, to strengthen the Atlantic Alliance. I said here in Washington last year, and repeated in Berlin, that we accept the challenge. I agree that European NATO must up its game. We cannot expect America to lead every operation in every circumstance; European NATO must in the future expect to do more. But talk of American disengagement is disingenuous; a strong NATO is in Europe’s vital interest, but it is also in America’s vital interest.

Western democracies, on both sides of the Atlantic, are going to have to learn to live with tighter defense resources for the foreseeable future. We must be realistic about the fiscal pressures — but that does not mean all is lost. We can deliver far greater effective capability in Europe, even within current budgets. Because the problem is not just that too many allies are not spending enough; too often, what they are spending is not delivering proper, deployable capability and is not backed by the political will to deploy. In the short-term, increasing the deployable bang European NATO generates for each buck of defense spending is the best way to achieve a more equitable burden sharing; in the longer-term, as growth resumes, we have to press those partners whose contributions have dropped below what is acceptable to recognize that collective security is not a free lunch.

I am clear that NATO must remain the cornerstone of our defense. Not the NATO of our parents’ generation, but an outward-looking NATO, ready to deal with a diverse range of threats emanating from beyond its borders. Collective action is the only realistic response to the challenges we face. Today, in Afghanistan, NATO continues to prove itself as the most effective military alliance the world has ever seen and a force multiplier for all of us.  For a decade, 10,000 British troops have fought alongside Americans as part of a wider coalition of 50 nations, under a NATO umbrella, but embracing new partners, all in a common cause. No other organization could have made that happen.  Our challenge is to ensure that NATO retains that unique capability as we end our combat mission in Afghanistan. 

The United Kingdom is committed to remaining America’s most capable ally and the leading force in Europe. We have taken some tough decisions to deal with our own budget challenges, but will continue to field a broad spectrum force, supported by the world’s fourth-largest defense budget, ready for the next set of security challenges.  The U.K. Future Force 2020 will be adaptable for the range of missions we will face in the future and interoperable with the United States and other allies. Our new aircraft carriers are under construction, and a new generation of highly capable destroyers and attack submarines are coming into service now. We will soon add the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to our fast jet force. Our regular army will be smaller, yes, but better equipped and able to call on a larger reserve component. We are investing in our world-classs special forces and the whole force will be supported by the air transport, air-to-air refuelling, cyber and intelligence and surveillance capabilities that are vital to today’s operations.

We will retain and renew our continuously-deployed submarine-based nuclear deterrent and will continue working closely with the United States on the next generation of ballistic missile submarines. This capability gives us in Britain the ultimate safeguard of our security in an uncertain world, adds maximum value to the alliance, and provides NATO with a second deterrent force.

In a world where new powers are emerging, our two nations share values and strategic interests, a critical reason why we will remain the closest of partners. A strong transatlantic defense relationship will serve both of our countries well in this uncertain future. And key to delivering it with a shrinking budget is the close cooperation and the advanced interoperability between our armed forces. But as the security challenges change, so must our defense relationships.  Future U.K.-U.S. defense cooperation will be as much about remotely piloted air systems and cyber operations as it is about American and British boots working together on the ground. And developing the same levels of cooperation and interoperability between the European allies holds out the prospect of enhancing the Alliance’s military capability — even in the face of austerity.