Yet Obama arrives as Britain is attempting to balance financial constraints against a still ample desire for global influence — an influence bought in large part through its strategic and military alliance with the United States. Perhaps foreshadowing an election season debate in the United States about the cost of America’s own projections of power overseas, the British are wondering whether their deeply indebted nation can maintain its substantial international role.
“The British problem isn’t a lack of ambition, but to be blunt, it’s that we’ve run out of cash,” said Nick Kitchen, a professor of international affairs at the London School of Economics.
Since Britain lost its superpower status in the first half of the 20th century, its global footprint has remained remarkable for a nation its size. But bowing to fiscal pressures, Britain is already shrinking that footprint, making cuts, for instance, in the BBC World Service that once stood as a prime example of Britain’s global soft power.
More important for the U.S. alliance, British Prime Minister David Cameron is pushing for tough cuts in military spending that critics say could jeopardize Britain’s role as a long-term, frontline partner in future conflicts. The plan includes putting this nation’s lone aircraft carrier into early retirement, slashing 42,000 troops and civilian defense jobs as well as mothballing its fleet of Harrier fighter jets, a stalwart of the skies for 40 years.
The moves are set to further test the limits of British forces, which some now believe are already stretched to their limits in Afghanistan and in the NATO-led air campaign in Libya.
Earlier this month, the heads of the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force told a parliamentary committee here that in the face of the proposed cuts, Britain could no longer expect to maintain the “full spectrum” of its military capabilities. At stake is whether Britain can remain as effective a U.S. ally as it has been in the past.
The question is not just if “we have a willing accomplice in global affairs, but also a capable one,” said Nick Burns, former U.S. undersecretary of state and a professor at Harvard.
The American need for a robust British ally is felt with particular intensity in Afghanistan: Next to the United States, no ally has committed more troops — or has lost more — than Britain.
Cameron’s year-old coalition government has publicly said it wants to avoid having a “slavish” relationship with the United States, a stinging reference to Tony Blair, who as prime minister during the Iraq war years fought being labeled as President George W. Bush’s “poodle.”