Will Cameron’s new ‘special relationship’ with India replace the UK’s old one with the US?
David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, is in India this week and he has brought along with him the biggest group of British Cabinet ministers (six of them in total, including the foreign secretary, William Hague, and the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne) and business leaders (close to 100) to visit India on an official delegation since the end of the Raj. The reason for this barnstorming tour of India is the launch of what Cameron is calling a new “enhanced relationship” between the UK and India. In its party manifesto, Cameron’s Conservative Party had initially called for a “special relationship” with India, but this was modified once they were in power because someone pointed out that Britain thus far has only one “special relationship” — and that one is very special, indeed. It is with the United States and it was forged during World War II, when Britain and America fought shoulder-to-shoulder to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. (Some would say it goes back even further than that to when the United States entered World War I on the side of Britain and her allies.) But now some are wondering if this new “special relationship” with India will replace — or at least eclipse — the one with the United States?
That’s because special relationship with America has been looking a little worn of late. A lot of Brits feel that Tony Blair foolishly threw in with George W. Bush for two poorly conceived and poorly executed wars — in Iraq and Afghanistan — but has received little, either internationally or from the U.S., in return for its sacrifice. In fact, quite the opposite. Many feel Britain’s alliance with the U.S., particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, has only damaged its standing in the world and moved the country higher up the target list for Islamic terrorists. And the U.S. hardly seemed appreciative of British efforts — U.S. military commanders complained that the British mishandled their area of operations in the southern Iraqi city of Basra and similar complaints are surfacing now from U.S. Marine commanders who have taken over from the British military in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. The relationship between Bush and Blair seemed so close, and yet so one-sided, that the British press began to refer to Blair as “Bush’s poodle” — and by extension Britain began to wonder if America simply thought of it as a lap-dog to be ordered about and kicked aside whenever it suited. The BBC quoted Kendall Myers, a State Department analyst, as saying he felt “a little ashamed” of Bush’s treatment of Blair. Myers also said that Britain’s ability to help shape American policy — one of the alleged benefits of Britain’s “special relationship” with the world’s sole superpower — was actually next to nil. Speaking of Iraq, Myers said: “It was a done deal from the beginning, it was a one-sided relationship that was entered into with open eyes… There was nothing, no payback, no sense of reciprocity.” There were other problems as well: for instance, the U.S. refused to share critical technology with Britain on the joint strike fighter they were supposed to be building together.
Then came the Obama Administration and things seemed to go from bad to worse, especially after the BP spill. Britain-bashing was suddenly the rage — literally. And as pressure mounted on Obama to “get angry” with BP, Cameron was forced to intervene to ensure the U.S. did not force the company into bankruptcy. BP escaped that fate, but London was not happy that Obama strong-armed BP into suspending its quarterly dividend payments, thus cutting off money that British retirees and pension-funds were counting on. British officials were also suddenly being asked to testify before Congress on whether the decision to release a Libyan man convicted of plotting to blow up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, had been motivated by pressure from BP on the British government (allegedly because in exchange for the convict’s release, the Libyan government was offering BP preferential rights to newly-opened oil fields.) Add to this, a general sense around the world that America is a power in decline and it is understandable for a lot of Brits to be wondering, who needs “the special relationship”?
Now take India, the country with which Cameron wants a new “enhanced relationship.” India and Britain share a lot of history. And while Indians might resent much about their colonial past, most Indians are happy for at least some of its legacy — namely, democracy, the rule of law, the English language, cricket and a taste for Scoth (not necessarily in that order). India too has had a significant impact on Britain. It is not for nothing that chicken tikka masala is now considered Britain’s “national dish.” There is a large and vibrant Indian diaspora in Britain. Beyond that, India is clearly a rising power. In every way — economically, politically, militarily and even culturally — it is poised to play a much larger role in Asia, and in the world, than it ever has before. Britain can help India achieve some of these goals, particularly through partnerships in education, commerce, sales of military hardware and closer coordination on defense, intelligence and counter-terrorism. And unlike its relationship with the U.S., this can be a reciprocal friendship: Indian companies, like Tata Motors and Arcelor Mittal, already have major investments in the UK. More are certain to follow. India also looks like a potentially fertile investment environment for UK firms — provided India could ease some of its barriers on foreign direct investment in service industries. That is one of the reasons Cameron has been trumpeting the commercial potential of UK-India ties during his visit. It is hoped that Indian investment in Britain — as well as the growth opportunities for British companies in India — will help lift Britain out of its present economic funk.
But this relationship may also turn out to be a bit more one-sided than it first appears: India dwarfs Britain in terms of its size and may, within the next 25 years, pass it economically as well, at least in terms of total GDP (India is currently the world’s 11th largest economy while the UK is the sixth). On both trade and on helping to bolster India’s military and diplomatic power, is there anything the UK is offering India that it can’t also get from the U.S., or from other Western nations that have been lining up to do business with New Delhi? One Indian diplomat told me last week that India already had a “strategic partnerships” of one kind or another with 26 nations. Will its relationship with Britain really stand out as “first among equals” — or will it just be another country with which India has friendly ties?
Now, what about the idea that Britain’s special relationship with India will become more important than — or even equally important as — its special relationship with the U.S.? I think that’s unlikely for the following reasons:
Britain is a nation that punches above its weight in diplomatic affairs. Why is that? Well, Britain has a skilled diplomats, but that isn’t the reason. Some of it has to do with Britain’s status as a nuclear weapons state and its place among the Big Five on the UN Security Council. Some of it also has to do with the fact that Britain, unlike many other countries its size, has — at least for the time being — a blue water Navy and a truly expeditionary military. Some of it has to do with Britain’s former Empire — which means that it has close historical ties to many countries in Asia and Africa dating back to its “the sun never sets” days. But I would argue that much of Britain’s enhanced power in world affairs has to do with its “special relationship” with the United States. Because of that relationship, many nations have come to regard Britain as a kind of proxy for America. And while that assumption is often incorrect and has at times hurt Britain’s reputation (see: poodle), I would argue that it has generally improved Britain’s stature in world affairs. By coordinating much of what it does on the really big international issues with America, Britain has multiplied its own force in international affairs many times over. And the perception that Britain can influence U.S. thinking and policy– even when it proves not to be the case — still gives the UK increased diplomatic standing with other nations.
Thanks to the special relationship, Britain has positioned itself as an essential nation — the one country that can serve as an “Atlantic bridge,” interpreting America to Europe and Europe to America. The Americans count on the British to help nudge Europe in their direction, and the Europeans count on the British to help pull the Americans a few steps in their’s. This honest broker role is important — again, even when in cases where it turns out not to, in fact, be true. The enduring perception that the UK can play this role, has made Britain a very important player in European affairs.
For both of these reasons, I was not at all surprised by Tony Blair’s decision to back the U.S. in the Iraq War. In fact, I don’t think he had any real choice from a geopolitical standpoint. After all, if Britain defied the U.S., what would it be? Just another European country. Britain did not go to war in Iraq because of WMD. Britain went to war in Iraq to preserve the special relationship.
And, while American power may be declining to some degree, the U.S. remains, in the words of former U.S. secretary of state Madeline Albright, the world’s “indispensable nation.” While the U.S. cannot do everything on its own, neither can very much be done in the world without American involvement. And while that is also increasingly true of the big emerging market powers — China and India, and to some extent Brazil and Russia (thanks to what Fareed Zakaria terms “The Rise of the Rest”), America still enjoys greater freedom of unilateral action than most other nations on the planet. In other words, for Britain, it is probably worth it still be BFF with the US of A.
Now does Britain get any of these benefits from its “enhanced relationship” with India? I don’t think so. While having Britain’s backing in world affairs might enhance India’s diplomatic stature, what does India’s support do for Britain? Not all that much. It certainly doesn’t logarithmically enhance Britain’s role in the world — which is what I would argue the special relationship with the U.S. does for the UK. And while Britain may need India for economic reasons, on what issue is the UK essential to India? There is also, despite all the happy talk about cultural harmony, quite a big gap between India’s thinking on a lot of international issues and the melding of the minds that has often characterized Anglo-US relations.
So maybe this “special relationship” with India won’t be so special after all. To which, Indians and Britons can console themselves: at least we’ll always have chicken tikka masala.
*Full Disclosure and Safe Harbor Clause: My wife is a British diplomat but the views expressed here — both brilliant and stupid — are entirely my own.
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