Sunday, 26 October 2014

Balancing Power: The Consequences of the United Kingdom’s Actions in the Middle East within Europe and America

Rebecca Howard discusses the consequences of UK military engagement in the Middle East.

The United Kingdom continuously performs a balancing act between remaining a European power and fostering a strong transatlantic bond. Often torn between two sides on key issues, such as military intervention, the UK benefits from its multilateral tactics by attempting to balance relations. The United States and the United Kingdom have a unique relationship. While there are many benefits to this bilateral relationship, the two countries have faced criticism at times for the use of military power that some countries find avoidable or inappropriate, particularly from Britain’s European neighbors. Anglo-American intervention in the Middle East is one such area where this military action has come in to question, specifically in regard to the 2003 Iraq War and the 2013 debate over Syrian intervention. Interventions in this region provide a glimpse of the dynamic between Britain and the US in the special relationship, as well as the larger European response.

The use of power is a key area where fault lines occur.  The United States continues to rely on its military power and tends to veer towards hard power whereas most European nations prefer soft power. However, the United Kingdom is an example of a country in the European Union that tends to align with American definitions of power.

Following the terrorist attacks against America on September 11, 2001, and the CIA confirmation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, the United States along with four other nations invaded Iraq in 2003. Although several Member States within Europe backed America’s invasion, two of the largest powers, France and Germany, strongly opposed such actions. At the time of the invasion, France was vocal about their disapproval of top-down democracy that was taking place. Further, the former German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, expressed similar qualms with the Anglo-American led intervention. He was neither persuaded nor satisfied with America’s claims of WMDs and frustrated that no other diplomatic options had been used. [1] The lack of clear evidence of WMDs became the key argument against intervention by Germany and France. It demonstrated to France and Germany that this type of power being wielded could potentially be “justified in cases other than Iraq.” [2] 

The debate over intervention in Syria similarly demonstrates Britain’s tenable role between the US and Europe as a foreign policy actor. Once intelligence reports confirmed that forces within Syria had violated the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on its citizens, the immediate reaction from the world community was astonishment. British Prime Minister David Cameron advocated for intervention in conjunction with the Joint Intelligence Committee amid reports that Assad had used chemical weapons. However, the UK House of Commons’ ultimately did not support Cameron’s recommendation falling short by just 13 votes. The legacy of Iraq was a key determinant in this outcome. [3] Defense Secretary Philip Hammond was swift to comment that this decision by Parliament would put a definite strain on the special relationship. [4] The special relationship was not the only concern for the British upon this vote to not intervene in Syria. It left questions to be answered regarding the UK’s overall position within global politics and power. Furthermore, the countries of Europe, like France, who once rejected the idea of engagement in Iraq and highly criticized those actions, became the countries that were in favor involvement in Syria. The House of Commons vote strained the special relationship, as the US sought to rally allies around intervention in the conflict. British leaders were quick to convey that the special relationship did not mean that Britain had to follow America into every battle. 

Britain’s critical alliances placing them between Europe and the United States put them in a unique negotiating position within the global foreign policy arena. The UK has the chance to bridge the gap between Europe and America, but they do not quite have the leverage to create balance. Straddling these two allegiances along with the UK’s own domestic policy challenges raises the question of where they stand as a world power. 

Rebecca Howard. Read the extended paper delivered at the 2014 APSA conference in Washington DC.

[1] Bernstein, R. (2004). “The German Question,” The New York Times, Retrieved from:
[2] Carpenter, T.D. (2006). “After Iraq: Permanent Transatlantic Tensions,” Kotzias, N. and Liacouras, P. (Eds.) EU-US Relations: Repairing the Transatlantic Rift, Palgrave Macmillan: Houndsmills, 146.
[3] Osborn, A. (2013). “Analysis: Syria vote humiliates UK's Cameron, strains special relationship,” Reuters. Retrieved from:
[4] Watt, N., Mason, R., and Hopkins, N. (2013). “Blow to Cameron’s Authority as MPs Rule Out British Assault on Syria,” The Guardian. Retrieved from:


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