UK Can’t Have Two Best Friends

Former UN Ambassador John Bolton writes an open letter to the Brits telling them, essentially, that they must choose between the United States and the European Union.

[S]aying that the UK’s “single most important bilateral relationship” is with America, but is not comparable with UK membership of the EU, is a clever but ultimately meaningless dodge. Drop the word “bilateral”. What is Britain’s most important “relationship”? Does Mr Brown regard the EU as a “state under construction”, as some EU supporters proclaim, or not?

The answers to these questions are what Washington really needs to know. What London needs to know is that its answer will have consequences.

For example, why does a “union” with a common foreign and security policy, and with the prospect of a real “foreign minister” have two permanent seats on the UN Security Council and often as many as three non-permanent seats out of a total of 15 council members? France and Britain may not relish the prospect of giving up their unique status, but what is it that makes them different — as members of the “Union” — from Luxembourg or Malta? One Union, one seat.

Mr Brown cannot have it both ways (nor will President Nicolas Sarkozy), in part because many other EU members will not let the matter rest. Of course, the Security Council permanent seat itself is not the real issue — it is the question of whether Britain still has sovereignty over its foreign policy or whether it has simply taken its assigned place in the EU food chain.

Consider also the US-UK intelligence relationship. Fundamental to that relationship is that pooled intelligence is not shared with others without mutual consent. Tension immediately arises in EU circles, however, when Britain advocates policies based on intelligence that other EU members do not have. How tempting it must already be for British diplomats to “very privately” reveal what they know to European colleagues. How does Mr Brown feel about sharing US intelligence with other Europeans?

States have multiple alliances and overlapping interests. To the extent the EU is a free trade zone, the UK’s membership no more impinges on its “special relationship” with the US than our membership in NAFTA harms the UK. But, yes, if the EU becomes something like “The United States of Europe,” with the UK a mere semi-autonomous region within a federal collective, Bolton’s concerns are justified.

There are some on the Continent who would like to see that happen. The UK, historically, has been perhaps the most sovereignty conscious state in Europe. Indeed, it was very late addition to the predecessor European Economic Community and has been dragged kicking and screaming to most expansions. It still hasn’t adopted the Euro, preferring control over its own currency. One can scarcely imagine, then, that they will suddenly let their foreign policy be dominated by Europe to the detriment of their relationship with the US.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    But consider what is at play here. The non-elected organs of government (aka the career bureaucrats) may see themselves as moving towards the historically inevitable US of E while the voters see themselves as truly independent country. And just as a US of A president can have only so much success imposing his policy on the bureaucrats in foggy bottom, so to can the UK find itself with official and unofficial policies.

  2. Anderson says:

    One can scarcely imagine, then, that they will suddenly let their foreign policy be dominated by Europe to the detriment of their relationship with the US.

    That is going to depend, surely, on the net balance of pros and cons in that relationship.

  3. Anthony C says:

    I think Bolton does raise legitimate questions. Not only is intel an issue, but there have also been concerns regarding transfer of military technology (partly with regard to other EU states and partly with regard to those other EU states then being quite happy to pass it on to the PRC). And I think it’s fair to say that a large majority of Brits would like a straight answer as to whether the US is a “state under construction”.

    That said, I alsways find it amusing when people like Bolton set themselves up as concerned friends of independent British sovereignty. Bolton doesn’t want an independent sovereign Britain, he wants a Britain that will basically farm out its foreign policy to the USA. And frankly he, along with some of his mates, has done quite a lot to make some usually Eurosceptic Brits start to think that the EU looks like a more attractive alternative.

    I say this as a Eurosceptic who is strongly supportive of Britain’s continued association with the USA (and strongly antagonistic toward further EU integration).