Transatlantic Intelligence: The Missed Opportunity of the Joint Strategy Board

During President Obama’s state visit to Britain in May 2011, the White House and Downing Street jointly announced the establishment of a Joint Strategy Board to consider matters of long-term security, the threats posed by terrorism and rogue states. At the time it was anticipated that the new body presented the opportunity for the UK and the United States to work more closely together, to share intelligence and analysis, and address long-term security challenges rather than just immediate concerns. It also presented an opportunity to redress imbalances that had arisen in the past.[i]

The development was clearly intended as a commitment to the on-going relations between the United Kingdom and the United States that continues to defy expectations of an imminent demise. The relationship is one that is redefined by each new leader on both sides of the Atlantic; however, its fundamental foundations ensure that it continues to endure despite the fondest wishes of headline writers and left-leaning intellectuals. This announcement was also interesting considering the long and close relationship that has existed between the intelligence communities of both nations and also because of the unusual step of formalising a body that could potentially share what is usually jealously guarded, hard earned intelligence.

The expectation was that the Joint Strategy Board would be co-chaired by the U.S. National Security Staff and the U.K. National Security Secretariat and would include representatives from the Departments of State and Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Joint Intelligence Organisation. The board was expected to report to the U.S. and U.K. National Security Advisors who were expected to meet individually every few months.

The Board was expected to help enable a more guided, coordinated approach to analyse the “over the horizon” challenges we may face in the future and also how today’s challenges are likely to shape our future choices. It is designed to better integrate long-term thinking and planning into the day-to-day work of our governments and our bilateral relationship, as we contemplate how significant evolutions in the global economic and security environment will require shifts in our shared strategic approach. It was anticipated that the Joint Strategy Board would meet quarterly at locations that would alternate between the United States and United Kingdom. The long-term fate of the Board was to be decided by the US and UK National Security Advisors who would review its status after one year and decide whether to renew its mandate. That time has now elapsed.

The Parliamentary National Security Strategy Committee has raise questions as to the status of the Board and received rudimentary responses. The extent to which the Joint Strategy Board has provided any tangible benefits is yet to be seen. The Board only met once in 2011 and there has been an agreement not to disclose the precise topics discussed at meetings.[ii]

The status of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States is indeed in a unique position. For all of the attempts to define the relationship in recent years, as Special, Unique or Essential, the relationship is quintessentially unexamined in an official capacity within the Foreign and Commonwealth office. Unlike other nations that have dedicated analysts to consider the rudimentary aspect of the UK’s ongoing relationship across a range of issues, there is no full time dedicated experts considering the future direction of US global policy working in Whitehall.

This point has been lamented by the former Ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer; “I sought regularly and in vain to get the Foreign Office to…draw the conclusion that if it was right to train cadres of specialists in the EU, the Middle East, Russia and China, as we do, then it was also right to create an American cadre, which we do not.”[iii] With over 400 employees currently working in the UK embassy in Washington, it could be rightly asked why more analysts are required in Whitehall. However, those posted to Washington are not necessarily experts on U.S. policy and what is needed in Whitehall is nothing above and beyond the attention that is focused upon other nations, with whom the UK has far less interest.

There is a troubling tradition of assumption making in regard to the actions of the United States. Our shared language and related heritage makes for rushed assumptions in relation to intent and motivation. There is a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed regarding a misguided sense of familiarity with regard to American politics and its culture. This inadvertently causes a sense of dependency and reliance that is partially true but which is exaggerated to the detriment of both parties. As Meyer noted, “Think of American as Britain writ large and you risk coming to grief.” [iv]

It blinds the UK to policy flaws that could be potentially detrimental to the national interest and has on occasion bound us to policy initiatives that have been harmful. There is simply not enough strategic, horizon-scanning analysis being conducted on the future direction of US foreign policy and the its potential implications for the United Kingdom. The Joint Strategy Board could have been a solution to this but it does not appear to be addressing the challenges it was established to solve. It appears, instead, to be spending too much of its time addressing short-term issues rather than considering the far-reaching potential of a UK-U.S. alliance.

The Joint Strategy Board is a logical and tangible development, whose mandate should be continued, whose status should be enhanced and whose remit should be clarified. It has the potential to be a source of great significance both structurally and symbolically and its demise due to lethargy would be a sad loss and a missed opportunity.

——

This extract is taken from the author’s extended report entitled, Intelligence Design: UK National Security in a Changing World, which will be published shortly by the Bow Group, with a Foreword by Rt. Hon Dr. Liam Fox, MP.


[i] See James D. Boys, “What’s So Extraordinary About Rendition,” The International Journal of Human Rights,” Vol. 15, No. 4, May 2011, 589–604

[ii] Cabinet Office, Written evidence February 7, 2012, Evidence to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy: First Review of the National Security Strategy 2010, 111

[iii] Christopher Meyer, D.C. Confidential, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005, 59

[iv] Christopher Meyer, D.C. Confidential, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005, 58

One Hundred Days And Counting…

So, one hundred days after the tumultuous events that followed the 2010 general election, what have we learnt about the coalition government and its approach to foreign policy?

For one thing, Cameron appears to have taken to the job like a duck to water. No apparent hesitation or diffidence has been evident. Neither have signs of self-doubt or insecurity. Whilst he clearly relishes the role of statesman, he is secure enough in his own skin to have appointed the very credible William Hague as Foreign Secretary, who has gone about breathing new life into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Key policy decisions have already been made and announced regarding Britain’s role in the world, and the direction the nation intends to take in the 5 years of this government.

Cameron’s foreign trips have proven to be a success, even when failure was forecast. No apparent problems dealing with the White House, despite the all too problematic situation concerning BP. His declarations that followed, regarding Israel and Pakistan have been rounded on (unsurprisingly) by David Milliband, and praised by our former man in Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer. Take your pick as to who to side with. (Here’s a hint, he wears red socks…) Intriguingly, these declarations, on the status of Gaza and of terrorism in Pakistan, came after the meeting at the White House and not before. Could this be a new strategy in the Special Relationship, of good cop (Obama), and straight talking bad cop (Cameron)? It’s too early to tell, but it is worth pondering as the weeks unfold…

With a new foreign policy initiative and a new defence policy on the horizon, Cameron has sought to revitalise UK foreign policy. With the newly inaugurated National Security Council, he has sought to restructure the decision-making process and in so doing, bring both policies and procedures into the 21st century.

One hundred days in, so far, so good…

For more on this, see my interview on Aljazeera, August 18, 2010.