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Trump, NATO and Anglo-American Relations

If Donald Trump is elected for a second time as US president, the UK will need to draw on the skill of not only its diplomats but also its armed services to maintain the durability of the transatlantic relationship.

Saluting the guard: former US President Donald Trump disembarks from Air Force One on a visit to the UK in 2019

Trump the ‘Great Disrupter’! Donald Trump has long revelled in his reputation for making contentious remarks. The fact that he is doing so in the run-up to NATO’s 75th anniversary meeting in July is causing predictable consternation among the US’s European allies. One country that will be watching this issue with particular nervousness will be the UK due to the importance it attaches to both the US’s leadership role within the Alliance and its ‘special relationship’ with Washington. If Trump is successful in being re-elected as president in November, the UK will have to use all of its skill and experience within the relationship – for its own sake and that of Europe’s. This will require the work not only of its politicians and diplomats, but also of its armed services.

Challenging the orthodoxy has been characteristic of Trump. In advance of NATO’s celebrations in Washington he has warned that the US should only be prepared to help defend members of the Alliance that spend 2% of their GDP on defence. This warning is consistent with his long-standing complaint that allies have freeridden on US defence guarantees. But this time it coincides with a febrile threat environment in which a war is raging between Russia and Ukraine. Republicans in the House of Representatives have just released a $61 billion support plan for Ukraine, without which Kyiv faced the prospect of losing territory. Trump has made plain that he does not regard support to Ukraine as a priority.

Any signs of lukewarm US attitudes towards transatlantic allies send shivers down their spines. This is particularly the case in the UK. Its special relationship with the US suffered during the Trump years when Theresa May’s efforts to get her Brexit bill through the House of Commons were scorned and the UK’s ambassador in Washington was declared persona non grata. The UK has always supported US leadership in Europe, believing that US military power is vital within the Alliance. No European ally possesses the US’s strengths in satellite reconnaissance and electronic warfare assets, precision strike and stealth capabilities, command and control resources, or the deterrent power to face down Russia. No country, other than the US, has the authority to weld fractious European allies together.

The UK has also benefitted as the US’s loyal lieutenant within the Alliance and from its bilateral relationship with Washington. At a moment when the UK has cast off its EU moorings and the continent is experiencing a major land war, this has never seemed more important. According to the Integrated Review Refresh of 2023, ‘The depth of the UK’s relationship with the US – from intelligence to military and diplomatic coordination – remains an absolutely essential pillar of our security’.

The UK military has always wanted to be the US’s partner of choice, the country to whom it turns in matters of defence cooperation

So, in the face of Trump sowing doubts about the US’s commitment to NATO, the UK will strive to be the ‘bridge’ between the US and Europe. It will deploy its political and diplomatic elite to curtail France’s ideas of European ‘strategic autonomy’ and convince the US that the continent is worth defending. The UK foreign secretary, Lord Cameron, was recently despatched to Washington to convince wavering Republicans to release the aid package to Ukraine, while Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visited Poland and Germany. Sunak has committed a further £3 billion to supporting Ukraine since the start of the year. The UK already demonstrates its commitment to NATO burden-sharing by basing a battlegroup in Estonia and conducting air policing over the Baltic, and this issue will be a major portfolio for a possible incoming Labour government.

As well as the political and diplomatic elite mobilised to preserve the US’s commitment to the Euro-Atlantic area, the UK’s armed services will play an important role. As my new book on the Anglo-American military relationship explains, the part played by the armed services in preserving cooperation with the US has all too often been neglected.

The UK military has always wanted to be the US’s partner of choice, the country to whom it turns in matters of defence cooperation. Because of the US’s unparalleled capabilities and leadership within the West, as well as the congruence of values and strategic outlook, the UK has wanted to maintain a close alignment with the US. In this way, the UK has sought to ensure that its own interests are taken into account at the earliest possible stage in US plans. In order to access US thinking and planning, the UK has believed it necessary to make a material contribution that the US takes seriously. In the two post-Cold War conflicts against Iraq, for example, the UK contributed an armoured division as the force that would secure it the position of second in command.

The UK’s armed forces have actively cultivated cooperation with the US military. Because of the inequality in power between them, the UK military has never taken cooperation with the US for granted. Personnel have been embedded in US defence structures, and a constant dialogue has been conducted with the US military in order to better understand the US’s direction of travel. The UK’s armed services have striven to be institutionally ‘plugged in’ to their opposite numbers. Achieving this in peacetime is seen as a pre-requisite to be able to transition to war.

The current squeeze on the armed forces comes at the very time when the UK military wants to convince its US counterparts of its steadfastness

This interaction between the UK military and the US armed services has been composed of a patchwork of different relationships, conducted between several specialised communities. The Royal Navy, for example, has interacted closely with its counterparts in the US Navy, while the relationship between the special forces of both countries has been particularly significant. These relationships have ebbed and flowed according to the threat environment that both countries have faced.

The future challenge facing the UK military in preserving the US role in NATO as well as the special relationship is considerable. In recent years, the British Army has been cut, the size of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet reduced, and the number of RAF squadrons decreased. The footprint of the UK’s armed services has been shrinking. Trying to sustain a collaborative military relationship with a superpower, in the face of a diminishing resource base, has been difficult. This has been exacerbated by the programme to renew the UK’s fleet of four strategic nuclear submarines. At the height of its spending, the Dreadnought programme is set to absorb up to 19% of the defence budget, before the vessels replace the Vanguard submarines in the early 2030s.

Sunak’s pledge to increase UK defence spending from 2.3% to 2.5% of GDP by the end of the decade is a welcome boost, although it will probably be for a Labour government to enact this target. The current squeeze on the armed forces comes at the very time when the UK military wants to convince its US counterparts of its steadfastness. The UK military may have to choose between competing military roles in order to make ends meet.

The UK military has a vital role to play in convincing the US that it is pulling its weight in the Alliance. Bilaterally, it wants to show that the UK is willing to shoulder its portion of the Western defence burden. The military has cultivated a close relationship with its US counterpart and demonstrated its commitment as an ally. It has fostered both reciprocity and trust with the US armed services. The UK military will seek to leverage its institutional linkages with US forces so as to perpetuate cooperation in the future. It is hoped that the qualities it has shown to the US will outlast the vagaries of a single presidential term and maintain the durability of the transatlantic relationship in a volatile world.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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