Opinion Articles

Suez, Brexit, and the Future of the Special Relationship

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“We don’t have a closer ally than Great Britain” said President Joe Biden to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a press conference on 8 June 2023. Delivered just before an important bilateral meeting, Biden’s words were warmly received by Sunak, a man clearly keen to sure-up the transatlantic alliance given the stresses and strains imposed by recent US and UK political turmoil, a diplomatic spat linked to the Good Friday Agreement, and the profound geopolitical consequences of Brexit. Indeed, the latter has occasioned the most significant reappraisal of US-UK relations for several decades, with some commentators suggesting that the 2016 referendum bears comparison to the Suez Crisis of 1956 as a resounding error, one that simply demonstrates Britain’s need to accept its place in Europe, with the failure of the Truss administration providing further evidence of the dangers of Suez-like hubris. But how valid is this parallel, and to what extent does it help us to understand the changing nature of the contemporary US-UK ‘special relationship’?


The Suez Crisis

The details of the Suez Crisis need no substantive reiteration here. Suffice to say that the Crisis was precipitated by two acts. First, by the decision of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to nationalise the canal zone in the face of British and French opposition. Second, by the Anglo-French-Israeli response which saw the UK government of Prime Minister Anthony Eden muster the largest British amphibious force since D-Day. Eden’s crucial error, however, was to misread the likely reaction of the man who had commanded that operation twelve years before, Dwight. D. Eisenhower, now President. Infuriated by the Anglo-French failure to consult with Washington, Eisenhower threatened dire economic consequences for Britain if it failed to withdraw its forces. Out of options and out of influence, Eden agreed, and the British operation was ended. He resigned from office in early 1957.

The impact, though, rippled through the foreign policy establishment in the years to come, with the Suez Crisis finally exposing an indisputable reality of the era: that British power relative to the United States had declined significantly since its heyday during the Second World War.


British Power and Policy Post-Suez

One key consequence of the Suez Crisis was thus a long-term shift in British assumptions about exactly where its military, naval, and diplomatic power might be applied, at least independent of the United States. As a result, the two decades after Suez would see a clear strategic refocus around Europe, leading to British entry into the European Economic Community in 1973. In military and naval terms, this same geo-political refocus is suggested by the crucial Cold War role played by British forces in defence of NATO’s Northern Flank (the North Sea and North Atlantic region).

Naval assets provide a useful marker. In 1979, HMS Ark Royal, an Audacious-class aircraft carrier with catapult-launched fixed-wing aircraft was decommissioned. It was replaced by the Invincible-class of light aircraft carrier specifically designed as a helicopter anti-submarine warfare platform for service in the North Atlantic. An underlying assumption is clearly detectable here (as well as in the 1981 Defence White Paper): Britain no longer required – or could afford – global power projection and thus should focus instead on deploying its fleet closer to home.

From Washington’s perspective, British acceptance of a reduced global role was much preferable to the quasi-imperial sabre rattling of Suez in 1956. After all, with British naval power deployed in ‘home’ waters in defence of NATO, and with British political leadership firmly committed to Europe, Washington could leverage the ‘special relationship’ to ensure the continent remained firmly orientated towards the Atlantic. It was a role certainly identified by French President Charles de Gaulle – he twice vetoed British entry to the EEC in the 1960s on the grounds that it represented an American Trojan Horse.


The Impact of Brexit and the Future of the Special Relationship

Today, Britain retains a key role guarding NATO’s Northern Flank (as seen in the Joint Expeditionary Force established in 2014 with Baltic and Scandinavian partners). But like Suez before it, Brexit has also produced a broader strategic recalibration, in large part because the absence of UK ministers from the periodic gatherings of EU counterparts has compromised London’s utility to Washington. If Britain isn’t ‘in’ Europe keeping it aligned with the United States, what strategic role can it usefully perform for an American president? Herein is the geo-political context to the most recent round of obituaries declaring the end of the ‘special relationship’. 

Yet this relationship – always grounded on close military cooperation – does still seem to have a future, one hinted at by Britain’s recent Indo-Pacific tilt. This is a tilt centred on, once again, naval assets, specifically the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth-class of aircraft carrier. For London, this is a class of vessel which re-establishes Britain’s commitment to overseas power projection.

But, crucially, it also offers the ability to support the United States – meaningfully – in a region of key strategic importance to Washington, and in a manner unavailable to any other NATO partner.  Take, for instance, the recent overseas tour of HMS Queen Elizabeth, which saw the embarking of US Marine Corps F-35s. Take, too, the announcing in September 2021 of the AUKUS Pact. For Washington, locked in a naval arms race with Beijing, a renewed British naval presence in the region, especially involving flat-tops, is eminently useful.

From a historical perspective, meanwhile, there is a revealing symbolism to this development, one which suggests that when it comes to US-UK relations the Brexit-Suez parallel does indeed offer something of analytical interest, though not in quite the way some recent commentators have implied. Put simply, when the Queen Elizabeth sailed through the canal in July 2021 with American F-35s onboard it implicitly signalled that the future of US-UK relations now lay east of Suez just as much as on NATO’s Northern Flank. Such is the distance travelled from the Crisis of 1956 to the Referendum of 2016, and such too, therefore, is the post-Brexit geo-political reorientation of the ‘special relationship’.    

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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