Britain in the world: Beyond Europe versus America

It is increasingly likely that the British people will be given a say on membership of the European Union by the end of the next Parliament. Although it remains to be seen whether this will take the form of an “in-out” referendum or a more limited “renegotiation” of the relationship between London and Brussels, the scene is set for a meaningful debate over Britain’s place in Europe and its role in the wider world. The stylized battle lines already can be imagined: should Britain commit (submit) to ever closer union with its European counterparts or instead forge (succumb to) an independent path on the world stage?

Nuclear weapons issues are bound to feature prominently in this national conversation, at times explicitly but also implicitly whenever the discussion turns to military matters or Britain’s so-called “special relationship” with the United States. Indeed, the conundrum of whether Britain should cooperate with Europe or America on nuclear issues can be considered a microcosm of the broader debate on Britain’s place in the world.

Britain has longstanding ties with both the United States and Europe when it comes to nuclear weapons. The 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement between London and Washington forms the basis of the Anglo-American relationship, providing an architecture by which the two sides share scientific data, technological expertise and intelligence on an unsurpassed scale. Since the 1960s, Britain also has been permitted to purchase or lease nuclear weapons delivery systems—originally Polaris and later Trident—from the United States. There is no doubt that the Anglo-American partnership cheapened Britain’s entry into the nuclear weapons club and many argue that the transatlantic relationship continues to buttress Britain’s waning status as a great power.

Yet Britain also cooperates on nuclear weapons issues with France, continental Europe’s only nuclear weapons state. As recently as 2010, the so-called Lancaster House Treaties between London and Paris—derided in some corners of the British establishment as an entente frugale designed to cover for economies in the armed services—included important provisions regarding nuclear weapons technology. Specifically, the Teutates agreement demarcated a new era of Anglo-French collaboration on nuclear weapons research and development and even provided for joint testing facilities to be operated on French soil.

It is axiomatic among the Eurosceptic right that such closeness with the continent must mean diminution of Britain’s relationship with the United States. In order to assuage such concerns over Teutates, then Defence Secretary Liam Fox was at pains to stress that the treaty would not infringe upon Anglo-American cooperation over nuclear issues. Washington had been assured of this fact, the minister insisted. Indeed, Dr. Fox was quick to point out that the United States itself engages in nuclear cooperation with France. What Teutates did was put in place the final leg of a triangular nuclear-strategic relationship: Anglo-American, Franco-American and Anglo-French. Although not fully trilateral, this three-sided arrangement does blunt the suggestion that British involvement in European partnerships must necessarily be detrimental to its friendship with the United States.

Ironically, Europhiles make the same zero-sum association between Anglo-American cooperation and Britain’s relationship with Europe as do the Eurosceptics but with an inverted emphasis. Cozying up with the Americans, the Europhiles argue, inevitably means forgoing Britain’s rightful place at the heart of Europe. How can London be a full partner in the European project if its loyalties are divided?

For these critics of the special relationship, British dependence upon the United States for the upkeep of Trident is emblematic of the way that, over the course of several generations, Britain’s Atlanticist leadership has relegated the country to the role of junior partner—or poodle—in the Anglo-American firm, ostracizing European partners who understandably question Britain’s autonomy from Washington. Because Whitehall has postponed the decision to renew Trident until 2016—that is, until the next Parliament—the ostensibly separate issues of Britain’s nuclear deterrent and Britain’s membership of the European Union could well become conflated during any contemporaneous referendum debate.

Yet this commonplace distinction between Europe and America is a false dichotomy when it comes to discussing Britain’s role in the world. The truth is that Britain does not have to choose between strong transatlantic ties and the benefits of European integration. Britain can—and probably should—have its cake and eat it too.

Take Eurosceptic scaremongering first. Is it really so that European integration means a weakening of transatlantic ties? As is cogently argued by informed students of American foreign policy, the answer on a very general level is no. On the contrary, the United States has sought to foster European unity ever since World War II, the only objections coming from hysterical right-wing commentators fearful that the EU will one day morph into a geopolitical powerhouse to rival American hegemony. President Obama cautioned Britain against leaving the EU as recently as January 2013.

Washington supports European integration for several reasons—military-security, economic and diplomatic. During the Cold War, a united Europe represented a more formidable bulwark against Soviet expansionism than did a fragmented continent. Going forward, the United States looks to Europe to share the burdens of international leadership. The integration of European economies helped to revive global commerce in the 1940s and 1950s and still offers new ways of stimulating growth in the North Atlantic. With illiberal states like Russia and China wielding ever more clout in world politics, a confident and competent Europe has the potential to buttress the American-made liberal world order.

If European initiatives like Teutates make it more likely that Britain and France (although anti-nuclear sentiment is less marked in France) will retain their independent capacities for sharing nuclear technology and expertise then this is good news from Washington’s perspective. The benefits in terms of research and development are legion.

So too are the military-strategic advantages. In the 1960s, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations lobbied vociferously for European nations to join the United States in pooling their military (particularly naval) hardware and nuclear capabilities to create a multilateral force for the defence of Europe. The MLF proposal was intended to give European capitals a greater stake in their own security, freeing them from complete dependence upon Washington’s nuclear umbrella, and to lessen some of the burdens being carried by the United States. Yet it was also designed as a commitment device to encourage Bonn, London and Paris to adopt a common strategic outlook, a way of guaranteeing a single centre of gravity for Europe.

To be sure, nobody today is suggesting an integrated Anglo-French-American nuclear force. Yet the attractiveness of quasi-trilateral nuclear cooperation is as clear today in a world in which power and influence rapidly are migrating in a southern and eastward direction as they were in the 1960s when the Soviet Union served as a lodestone to congeal western security policy. Eurosceptics often overlook, perhaps deliberately, this point that transatlantic ties can exist in the form of a strong US-European partnership as well as in bilateral US-UK relations.

Europhiles are also guilty of propagating bunkum, however. Their charge that strong ties with the United States mean a loss of British sovereignty over its own foreign policy is misleading and blatantly hypocritical. In a globalized world, working collaboratively with allies—American and European alike—to reach shared foreign policies should be taken as a given. Undertaking joint decision-making with Washington is no different than making joint decisions in Brussels; pooling military capabilities with France is no worse than nuclear interdependence with the United States. Indeed, it makes eminent sense for many of the most serious global issues facing Britain and its allies to be dealt with in a common manner and for Whitehall to pursue cost-saving measures wherever these prove to be feasible. As already noted, Paris has been sharing nuclear secrets with the Americans since 1996.

On the diplomatic stage, the choice is not so much between Europe and America as it is between Europe with America and geopolitical insignificance without either. Nuclear non-proliferation, for example, has long been a shared goal of the United States and Europe. Indeed, frustrated by the United States and Soviet Union’s inability to control the spread of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, it was European nations that played a decisive role in pushing for the contemporary international legal regime that governs nuclear non-proliferation. Today, the so-called EU3 (Britain, France and Germany) are integral to the ongoing diplomatic offensive aimed at curtailing Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. But most commentators agree that the non-proliferation efforts that Europe pours millions of Euros into funding cannot succeed without American hard power to back them up.

Britain’s place in Europe—and even the hypothetical integration of Britain into a common European security policy—need not unduly damage Britain’s tried and tested relationship with the United States. Likewise, cooperation with the United States will not lead to Britain being shunted from the top tables in Brussels. Insofar as these two stylized futures are intertwined in any way, they should be seen as synergetic and mutually reinforcing instead of antithetical to one another, including in the realm of nuclear weapons technology.

The real choice for Britain in the twenty-first century is between an internationalist foreign policy that embraces both the country’s friendship with the United States and its position in Europe and the kind of “splendid isolationism” propagated by the UK Independence Party and others. Choosing the former will mean fostering both transatlantic and European partnerships, not picking between them.

These are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of BASIC.

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