DDURING THE DEBATE in Parliament and in unassigned briefings, the British deputys, ministers and officials used language to describe America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the American leader rarely heard such mouths. The withdrawal was “shameful”, “dishonorable” and “catastrophic”. President Joe Biden was “gaga” and “doolally”. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister who sent British forces to Afghanistan at the behest of the United States in 2001, wrote an article calling the withdrawal “foolish.” Other information, soon denied, claimed that the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had referred to Mr. Biden by the pejorative invented by his predecessor, Donald Trump: “Sleepy Joe”.
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Britain’s “special relationship” with America has gone through many difficult times over the years – and Britain was hardly the only American ally to complain. However, today’s breakdown suggests the tension is as severe as it has ever been. This in part reflects the chaos of the withdrawal and America’s failure to keep its allies informed. He also alludes to problems with the British rule of government which are more serious than a transatlantic tiff. To resolve them, Britain must mend a relationship that has frayed through its own neglect: that with its European neighbors.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan was part of a shift in America’s plans to project its might into a rising China. It means focusing on the Indo-Pacific region, where Britain also expects to be active – a recent foreign and security policy review has said so. Even as politicians ranted at Mr Biden, a British aircraft carrier loaded with American jets was sailing around Asia, soon perhaps to perform the kind of “freedom of navigation” maneuver that American warships have made. used to counter Chinese influence.
But America’s focus also means asking Europeans to shoulder a greater share of the security burden in their own neighborhood. One threat is Russian expansionism on the eastern flank of Europe. Others include the civil wars in North Africa which bring refugees across the Mediterranean and a Middle East further destabilized by the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. These burdens are also those of Great Britain.
After decades of hiding behind American power, Europeans will have to spend more on defense, as well as strengthening their military capabilities and improving planning and cooperation. But even as they take hesitant steps in that direction, Britain is standing on the sidelines. A European Union strategy to improve military mobilization across borders signed America, Canada and Norway, but Britain did not ask to join. As NATOEuropean members are starting to discuss taking more initiative within the alliance on issues where America’s interests are not engaged, and the fall of Kabul reignites calls for a EU the army, Great Britain is silent.
This is insane. Without Britain’s weight as a nuclear power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a relatively big spending spender on defense, European security will be weakened. It’s also mean. Britain’s disengagement is driven by Brexiteers in government, including Mr Johnson, who are banking on disputes with Europe as sure winners of the votes. But the interests of the Conservative Party run counter to the national interest. Britain cannot be safe if Europe is in peril, and a Europe-shaped hole in Britain’s foreign and defense policy will complicate negotiations with the EU on other matters.
For everything Brexiteers see the future of Britain outside of the EU as being closer to America, this approach of endangering one’s neighbor is not even to America’s liking. He wants his transatlantic allies to work together to defend their own interests, allowing him to do more elsewhere. Relaunching the special relationship will first require continental cooperation. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the title “A rock in a hard place”