What We’ve Learned About Strengthening Allied Relationships

By Nick Fishwick, former Senior Member of the British Foreign Office

Nick Fishwick CMG retired after nearly thirty years in the British Foreign Service. His postings included Lagos, Istanbul and Kabul. His responsibilities in London included director of security and, after returning from Afghanistan in 2007, he served as director for counter-terrorism. His final role was as director general for international operations.

Cipher Brief Expert Nick Fishwick CMG retired in 2012 after nearly thirty years in the British Foreign Service. He did postings in Lagos, Istanbul and Kabul. His responsibilities in London included director of security and, after returning from Afghanistan in 2007, director for counterterrorism. His final role was as director general for international operations. 

One of the most provoking things anyone ever said to me in my last job in government, was “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

The phrase was intended to address the tendency of bureaucracies to spend much time fiddling around with bits of the machinery that work perfectly well, whilst neglecting the more daunting job of fixing those bits that clearly don’t work. We have all seen this tendency in large organisations. But the day leaders don’t keep looking for ways to improve their organisations is the day they fall asleep at the wheel.

I don’t believe that international security relationships in the past four years have been broken, or anything like it. We only have to remind ourselves of the Skripal case when the US, European countries and other friends responded to the enormity of what Russia had attempted by booting large numbers of Russian spies out of their countries. Over the past four years, as for the previous several decades, allies will have been sharing intelligence and collaborating on projects designed to keep their countries safe.

Still, the change in leadership in the US brings an opportunity to improve the way security relationships work across the globe. We need to approach this realistically and learn from the recent past.

What or whom do I mean by allies? Security relationships work at different levels around the world even where there is considerable distrust between the respective countries. If the US, for example, knew of an imminent terrorist threat to Russia, it would let the Russians know. But I would not expect the US-Russia security relationship to be terribly intimate just now. Intelligence may be shared by countries who have very different values. But when we talk of allies, we mean those countries that enjoy not purely transactional but trusting relationships based on years of deeply shared values and interests. That would embrace NATO, the 5 Eyes (the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and New Zealand), the EU, Japan and South Korea and other democratic countries.

I am also assuming that new leadership in the US means a greater willingness to provide leadership globally. Under President Trump, we have got used to hearing western securocrats calling for more American leadership. I have done it myself. Why isn’t the US providing more leadership in, say, Syria or Belarus? Fine, as long as we remember that many of the same people were moaning a few years ago that there was too much US leadership when the US was trying to bully the UK into the Iraq war, or GWOT, for example. American leadership per se is not necessarily what allies are looking for. But we will get it anyway and it won’t always be comfortable.

Nor is it very helpful to try and draw up an arbitrary list of issues of regions and issues where we want US leadership and those where, thanks anyway, we don’t.

Nor finally is it worthwhile for allies to try and set up an ambitious new system of (values based) security architecture that could come crumbling down after just another four years. What we are seeing in the US is an election, not regime change. Any improvements to global security arrangements have to factor in the increasing polarity and volatility of politics – in the US, and also across other democracies. And we all know that there is nothing that some of our authoritarian competitors enjoy more than seeing the democracies in confusion: including a change of government that leads to strategic setbacks in allied cooperation. So, learning the lessons, we need to ensure as much as we can that in future, one won’t lead to the other.

It seems to me that the best thing the allies can do is not treat the past four years as some ghastly aberration to be put behind us. Instead we should do some hard thinking about what worked rather than what didn’t, and what conclusions we can draw. Here are a few themes that might be worth focusing on:

  1. Personal relationships. We all know the benefits of good personal relationships between securocrats. When John Scarlett talks of his friendship with Mike Hayden, we know that both their organisations were getting leadership about the value of deep and trusting cooperation. Conversely when the British ambassador is treated grotesquely, the signals play a bit less well. Over the past four years, as before, we have needed people at the top of security agencies, embassies and militaries who are going to be good at getting on with each other, and whose examples inspire the people beneath them. A lesson for the future.
  2. If there is no basic predictability in the way allies respond to issues, then their sharing of values cannot amount to much. Close friends need to be able to assume that they see most things in similar ways. That includes the way they react to an immediate problem: see Skripal again. Bad things happen when one ally is surprised by another. Some western securocrats look back fondly on the great days of Reagan and Thatcher. They did not feel so great in London in 1983 when the US suddenly invaded Grenada.
  3. But it also means the ability to cooperate longer term. The allies have to identify long term areas of cooperation that will continue whoever gets elected in the US – or the UK, Germany, France, Hungary… There will be challenges over China and even Russia. There are significant differences in the way even close allies see these countries: think of Huawei, and Nord Stream. But close military, intelligence and diplomatic cooperation still worked. Build on that. Similarly, allied countries need to identify the key areas of long-term technological cooperation, underpinned by western values, that will not be disrupted by changing political winds. Or by geo-political climate change.

Not every ally found the Trump presidency particularly comfortable. But we should remember that the different visions of Presidents Obama and Bush also presented real challenges to the assumptions of many Europeans. A change of US leadership is not the time to recast global security relationships fundamentally, and for Europe it will bring new challenges of its own. We should identify what has worked, even in uncomfortable times, and agree what should work in the future.

The Cipher Brief is a non-political media outlet focused on publishing experience-driven, expert perspectives on national security issues. 

Read more expert-driven national security perspective, analysis and opinion in The Cipher Brief