How Do UK Defence Experts View US Foreign Relations After Four Years of Obama?
Taking stock of US foreign policy after four years of the Obama Presidency, YouGov recently surveyed a special ‘defence panel’ of nearly 1,500 professionals from the UK defence and security community, including the armed forces, defence industry, Westminster and diplomatic ranks, in partnership with the Royal United Services Institute on Whitehall.
According to a majority of these practitioners, President Obama’s Afghan and counter-terrorism policies are broadly on the right track, while popular perceptions of US decline, diminishing European importance and Chinese supremacy are overstated. However, the Obama administration is also seen as having failed to improve US foreign relations in most key areas, particularly with regards to Russia and the Middle East.
Defence experts are less convinced than the wider public of US decline and long-term Chinese pre-eminence
In positive news for US strategists, experts were notably more convinced of America’s continued primacy than wider public opinion, and less convinced about elements of the infallible ‘China Rising’.
When asked to say which country would be the world’s leading power at the end of the next US presidential term in 2016, 84% chose the United States from a list of seven powerful countries, while only 11% said China.
By comparison, YouGov also recently conducted a major cross-country study including nationally representative samples in the United States, Britain, France and Germany, plus a pan-regional sample of the Middle East and North Africa (the MENA), and samples of the online populations in Pakistan and China. In every case, a much smaller proportion of people surveyed across Britain (49%), the United States (55%), Germany (49%), France (34%), the MENA (54%), Pakistan (36%) and China (62%) believed the United States is currently the world’s leading power, and significantly more said that China has already overtaken America’s leading status. (Accordingly: 25% in Britain; 21% in both the United States and Germany; 37% in France; 16% in the MENA; 55% in Pakistan and 29% in China)
The defence panel also showed its reservations about Chinese pre-eminence in other ways:
- 69% agreed that China’s economic growth model is unsustainable over the long term, versus 18% who disagreed
- 60% also agreed that China’s political model is unsustainable over the long term, versus 23% who disagreed.
Experts put more faith in the ‘special relationship’
There was little doubt among our surveyed defence experts that the US-UK alliance remains a keystone of UK foreign relations:
- 80% agreed that the United States is “the United Kingdom’s most important ally”.
- 85% described the US-UK relationship as either “fairly” or “very” close, while only 15% described it as “not very” or “not at all” close.
- 88% agreed that it’s important for the United Kingdom “to have a close relationship with the United States”.
Here again we see significant differences between expert views and wider public opinion. YouGov surveyed a nationally representative sample of the adult British population earlier this year and found both less enthusiasm and less faith towards the notion of a special US-UK relationship.
By comparison in the wider British sample:
- Just 56% of British adults surveyed agreed that the United States is “the United Kingdom’s most important ally”.
- 64% of British adults surveyed described the US-UK relationship as either “fairly” or “very” close, while nearly a third (29%) described it as “not very” or “not at all” close.
For the defence and security specialists, however, the perceived importance of the US alliance also comes with two caveats.
First, in contrast to the high number of defence panellists who emphasised the importance of US-UK intimacy, only 42% further agreed that the success of the UK economy depends on good relations with the United States (versus 30% who disagreed and 28% who neither agreed nor disagreed).
In other words, America’s importance is no longer synonymous with being the centre of economic gravity.
A second caveat reflects the majority view that US-UK relations are imbalanced. Next to the 80% of respondents from the defence panel who see the United States as the United Kingdom’s most important ally, 57% also agreed that the United States generally does not consider the United Kingdom’s interests, compared with only 26% who disagreed.
A gap in the BRICs
In other results, the experts’ panel showed recognition of the new US ‘pivot towards Asia’, but also substantial faith in the continued stability of US-old world relations, and a sense of diminishing geopolitical reach for Russia.
When asked if they believed various countries and organisations would become more or less important to the United States over the next four years, large majorities of respondents unsurprisingly predicted that China (85%), India (68%) and Brazil (65%) would grow more important.
But there’s also a schism in the BRIC story, at least according to these experts.
Russia is hardly alone among emerging markets in having suffered from serious economic slowdown and burgeoning domestic resentment since 2008. But as survey results imply, Russia’s claim to be a rising or resurgent power has been more diminished than that of China, India or Brazil, with only 27% of respondents predicting it will become more important to the United States during the next Presidential term.
Meanwhile, various fixtures of transatlantic power retain an overall perception of stability in their importance to US foreign policy, according to majorities or pluralities of respondents from the defence panel. 66% predict the United Kingdom will retain its current level of importance to the United States over the next four years. 56% say the same for Germany, 55% for France, and 49% for the European Union, versus 14%, 39% and 31% respectively who say these actors will lose importance. Similarly, 51% predict the chief collective security organisation of Western power, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), will stay the same in its importance to Washington, versus 37% saying it will become less important.
Experts say Obama has changed little in US foreign relations
As this survey further implied, President Obama has largely overseen a period in which few fundamentals of US foreign relations have changed their status.
Respondents were asked if they believed Obama has improved, worsened, or made no difference to US relations with a number of countries, regions and organisations.
In every case but one, the majority or plurality view was that the US president has made little or no difference to relations with the subject in question.
For example, despite the Obama administration’s optimistic declarations of pressing the ‘re-set’ button in relations with Russia shortly after entering the White House, 54% of respondents from the defence panel said “Obama has made little or no difference” to relations with Russia, versus 18% saying he has improved and 21% saying he has worsened relations.
In similar patterns:
- 62% said “little or no difference” to relations with the European Union, versus 19% saying “improved” and 13% saying “worsened”.
- 63% said “little or no difference” to relations with Germany, versus 22% saying “improved” and 6% saying “worsened”.
- 60% said “little or no difference” to relations with France, versus 22% saying “improved” and 9% saying “worsened”.
- 65% said “little or no difference” to relations with NATO, versus 17% saying “improved” and 13% saying “worsened”.
The three cases in which Obama was seen to have made the most progress were vis-à-vis China, Brazil and India, although a plurality still saw little or no improvement in each case:
- 47% said “little or no difference” to relations with China, versus 27% saying “improved” and 18% saying “worsened”.
- 45% said “little or no difference” to relations with India, versus 33% saying “improved” and 5% saying “worsened”.
- 42% said “little or no difference” to relations with Brazil, versus 29% saying “improved” and 4% saying “worsened”.
Perhaps expectedly, the area that saw least consensus was the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where 32% of respondents from the defence panel said “Obama has made little or no difference to relations” overall, versus 28% saying he has improved and 34% saying he has worsened relations.
But high scores for Obama’s Afghan and counter-terrorism policies
There are two policy-areas, however, in which the Obama Administration scores highly with this sample of the UK defence community.
57% of respondents said the US should stick to its current policy of withdrawing most troops by 2014, and then keep a smaller number of troops there in support and counter-terrorism roles. A further 11% supported the target of withdrawing troops gradually, but also urged Obama to bring all troops home by 2014. Only 5% said the US should bring home all troops immediately, regardless of the situation there, while 12% said the US should keep most troops in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to make the country stable, and only 7% said the US should speed up the pace of withdrawal and bring ALL troops home before 2014.
Finally, a significant 69% said they believed that al Qaeda has grown weaker since the beginning of the Obama Presidency, a perception no doubt aided by Obama’s biggest public opinion triumph from this administration, with the killing of Osama bin Laden.