As we noted on Friday, America’s closest ally on the world stage went completely rogue last week when the UK made the highly questionable decision to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank without getting the all clear from Washington first. In fact, US officials say the move was made “with virtually no consultation in the US.” The news has the White House frustrated, and understandably so. Ever since the idea of a sinocentric rival to the Japanese/US sponsored Asian Development Bank was floated last year, US officials have campaigned against it, patiently explaining to anyone for whom it wasn’t obvious that without the guidance of the G-7, such an institution couldn’t be counted on to uphold the proper “standards.” Unfortunately, a few of America’s allies didn’t get the message and the US ended up having to “appeal” to Australia and South Korea to refrain from joining.
As far as the UK’s decision goes, Washington has adopted a kind of “I guess that’s fine if you want to promote global instability” approach, wondering aloud if “a trend toward constant accommodation of China [is the] best way to engage a rising power” (the latter is an actual quote from US officials). While we understand the White House’s reluctance to concede that China will eventually adopt its own version of the Monroe Doctrine, explicitly discouraging the creation of an institution aimed at helping to develop underdeveloped parts of the world seems a bit much. That is until you understand the context. You see, Washington is just looking out for the UK’s safety because as it turns out, Britain and the entire rest of the Western world (other than the US that is) apparently don’t see the need to participate in an arms race with Russia and China.
Here’s The Washington Post:
With Europe facing its shakiest security environment in a generation, Britain has slipped into a familiar role: Washington’s tough-talking wingman.
British leaders have led the rhetorical charge against the twin menaces of Russia and the Islamic State while browbeating reluctant European governments to wake up to the reality of a newly unstable continent.
But behind the flinty facade lies an unmistakable erosion in British power, one that has reduced Washington’s indispensable ally to a position that U.K. officials, military leaders and analysts acknowledge could leave the United States without a credible partner in taking on the greatest threats to global security…
A study by the London-based European Leadership Network recently found that at least six countries are trimming their military budgets this year, despite a promise at last year’s summit to halt a decline that has been felt across much of the West while military spending in Russia and China surges ahead.
So you can see from the above that when the US warns its allies against the “constant accommodation of rising powers,” it’s really just well-meaning paternalism. That is, starting an infrastructure development bank may not be an overt act of aggression, but if you just sit idly by and let a rising superpower build stuff, it sends the wrong message, especially if you aren’t willing to spend at least 4% of your GDP on your military.
Here’s more from The Post:
“If the U.K. can’t do it, who else is the U.S. going to turn to in Europe?” said Gen. Richard Dannatt, a retired British army chief. “There’s no one else.”
“The concern is that we’re going to fall from being a significant player to a bit-part player,” Dannatt said. “The U.K. isn’t of much use to the U.S. if we don’t have a worthwhile military force behind us. Anybody can talk tough. But if you don’t back it up, everyone just laughs at you.”
This assessment seems to assume that the utility of political alliances should be measured solely by the number of things that can be blown up and by that measure, some US and UK officials believe their collective power may be slipping just as “menaces” like Russia threaten Western hegemony. In this environment, every little diplomatic slight helps, which is why Washington would have appreciated it if the UK refrained from joining the AII bank, but as one Asian Development Bank official so eloquently put it, “that horse has already left the barn.”
We’ll leave you with the following quote from John Baron, a member of parliament and a former British soldier who longs for the days when heads of state commanded military regiments and rode horses into battle:
“I’m not an interventionist. What I see is a need to talk softly and carry a big stick.”