The Special Relationship - a boon or a burden? with Sir Rodric Braithwaite

Britain in 2020: Will we still count in the world?

Does the 'special relationship’ prevent us from having a foreign policy?

From our Ambassador to Moscow during the fall of the Soviet Union


The Ebenezer is delighted to welcome back Sir Rodric Braithwaite.

By 2020 Britain may no longer have a serious defence or foreign policy. Scotland may have left the Union, Britain may have left the EU. Britain then would be a very different country.

Our leaders talk a lot about ‘the national interest’. It’s not clear that they know how to define it. They tried to clarify their thinking in the National Security Review of 2009. But The Review merely demonstrated a glaring inconsistency between their determination to retain Britain’s world wide influence, and the reality of our economic prospects.

They have imposed swingeing cuts on our armed services. Our navy is lumbered with two large aircraft carriers and missile submarines whose purpose is unclear. Our army has been cut to the bone and its reserve force is currently in a muddle. The RAF is banking on an expensive re-equipment programme.

There is unlikely to be sufficient money to remedy all this, even if the economy recovers. Our influence is diminishing for other reasons as well. We boast that we ‘punch above our weight’ in world affairs. That was partly because we profited from our ‘special relationship’ with the Americans. But the Americans are increasingly turning their attention to the Pacific, and in Europe to the Germans and the French.

The Review talks of our ‘sense of national identity’. That sense is increasingly confused by social change at home, trouble with the rest of Europe, and the prospect of becoming a thoroughly dis-United Kingdom. By 2020 all our efforts may have to go on sorting out our relations with our nearest neighbours.

The alternative involves abandoning illusions. Our leaders want us to stay in ‘the first division of global military powers’. We can’t do that in any case. Nor do we have to remain a satellite of the Americans. We could stay in the EU and return to doing proper diplomacy with our neighbours. We would no longer punch above our weight. But we could match the French and the Germans, have a sustainable foreign and defence policy, and back it with redesigned armed forces adapted to our real needs.

Alas, we may well fail to rise to that challenge. Our traditions, our politics, our industrial structures are against it. Meanwhile Germany, France, and Poland have been actively involved in managing the Ukrainian crisis while, as the Financial Times recently put it, 'Britain [is] slowly moving to the sidelines'.

That is not an outcome of which any British patriot could be proud.

So, does the Special Relationship prevent us from having a proper foreign policy?


Rodric Braithwaite

Rodric was born in London in 1932: his father Warwick was then a conductor at Sadler’s Wells Opera. He was educated at Bedales, served in military intelligence in Vienna in 1951 and 1952, studied French and Russian at Cambridge, and joined the Diplomatic Service in 1955. He had postings in Jakarta, Warsaw, Moscow, Rome, Brussels (British delegation to the European Community) and Washington. He was a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford in 1972-3. He was a member of the Sherpa team for the G7 Economic Summits (1984-8), British ambassador in Moscow (1988-1992), and Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister Major and Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (1992-3).

Since leaving government service, Rodric Braithwaite has been a Governor of the English National Opera, Chairman of the Royal Academy of Music, Senior Adviser to Deutsche Bank, and has had a number of other business and not-for-profit appointments. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington for April-June 2005. He is currently Chairman of the International Advisory Council of the Moscow School of Political Studies. He is on the governing body of the Ditchley Foundation, an Honorary Fellow of Christ’s College Cambridge, and an Honorary Doctor and Professor of Birmingham University.

He regularly speaks and writes on Russia and other matters. He has written two books on Russian affairs: ”Across the Moscow River” (2002), about the collapse of the Soviet Union; and “Moscow 1941: A City and its People at War” (2006), which has appeared in eighteen languages. He is currently a member of the International Advisory Council of the Moscow School of Civic Education. His latest book Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989 was published by Profile Books in March 2011 and has been translated into Russian, Polish, Ukrainian and Japanese.

In 1961 he married Jill (Gillian Robinson), an archaeologist and former diplomat, who died in November 2008. They have five children (one deceased).


See Rodric's books

His latest book Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989 see Guardian review) was published by Profile Books in March 2011 and has been translated into Russian, Polish, Ukrainian and Japanese.

2014Martin Keeley