The reports that the Obama administration has told the Russians certain British nuclear secrets in order to secure a New START promotes him from being a mere irritant for the Special Relationship to a downright menace. It is bad enough the president arrogating to himself the decision as to who should rule in Egypt, but it is completely unacceptable for him to undermine the whole basis of the British nuclear deterrent, which has always been to keep the Russians guessing about how many warheads the United Kingdom has.
Here’s what happened: According to WikiLeaks, a series of classified cables were sent from the U.S. negotiators to the State Department explaining that the Russians wanted to know the full extent of Great Britain’s nuclear capability. This was hardly surprising, as throughout the Cold War they had been trying to get this information. Now they were insisting on it as a price for Russian support for the New START deal. They could gauge this information from examining the “unique identifer” serial numbers on the Trident missiles that the U.S. has sold the UK over the years. The State Department has called these reports “bunk”.
Instead of telling Moscow that Britain was an independent power not party to the treaty, and therefore information about her nuclear deterrent was non-negotiable, the leaked cables show that the Obama administration lobbied the British Foreign Office and Ministry of Defense in 2009 for permission to simply tell Moscow this data about the number, age, and performance capabilities of Trident.
Needless to say, the U.K refused, because not letting the Russians know the full extent of its deterrent has long been key to its success. Yet astonishingly—and in my view despicably—the Obama administration seems to have simply rode roughshod over British objections and—according both to WikiLeaks and the Daily Telegraph of London—“The U.S. agreed to hand over the serial numbers of Trident missiles it transfers to Britain.”
If it turns out that it is WikiLeaks and not the State Department that is right, this represents a clear violation of the agreement made between Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Hyde Park in June 1942 over Anglo-American nuclear cooperation. The idea that any American president would browbeat or simply ignore a British government and give U.K. nuclear secrets to the Russians in order to secure a treaty with Moscow would be unconscionable to Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, probably Carter, certainly Reagan, both Bushes and probably Clinton too. Yet Obama, who has treated Britain with a thinly veiled sneer throughout his presidency, has not only countenanced but actually done it.
Professor Malcolm Chalmers, fellow in British Security Policy at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies and an expert on nuclear issues, has said: “This appears to be significant because while the U.K. has announced how many missiles it possesses, there has been no way for the Russians to verify this. Over time, the unique identifiers will provide them with another data point to gauge the size of the British arsenal.” Meanwhile Duncan Lennox, editor of Jane’s Strategic Weapons Systems, has stated of the Russians: “They want to find out whether Britain has more missiles than we say we have, and having the unique identifiers might help them.” While William Hague, the foreign secretary, last year disclosed that “up to 160” warheads were operational, he took care not to confirm what the actual number was, nor the number of missiles to which the warheads attached.
Now, in his desire for a disarmament treaty that will boost Obama’s image as a peace-monger, the president has blurted out that number to the Russians. Any Briton caught doing such a thing would be immediately arrested under the 1911 Official Secrets Act, tried, and imprisoned for up to 60 years. When Obama does exactly the same thing, however, for short-term political gain, it’s called statesmanship. Small wonder that there has been an outcry in Britain, with the anti-American left instancing this as yet another example of the one-sidedness of the Special Relationship.
Supporters of that Relationship, who truly believe that it continues to be a mainstay of global civilization, are now being mocked for putting their faith in an alliance where the other side can behave so high-handedly. And where are the American friends of Britain who should be outraged at this treatment of the ally which has contributed the largest number of NATO troops—and thus casualties—to the American-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan?
The Relationship will survive Obama, of course, but it has been indisputably damaged, and for no good reason.
President Obama’s knee-jerk Anglophobia—seen when he returned the bust of Churchill to the British Embassy, when he talked of putting “British” Petroleum under his “boot,” when he called Sarkozy’s France “our closest and best ally,” and so on—most probably derives from his misconceptions about the British Empire’s record in Kenya, as relayed by his extremely unreliable father. Whatever the reason, his delivery to Moscow of Trident’s unique identifier numbers against British opposition represents the lowest point for the Special Relationship since Harold Wilson refused Lyndon Johnson’s blandishments to fight in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. The Relationship will survive Obama, of course, but it has been indisputably damaged, and for no good reason.
Historian Andrew Roberts' latest book, Masters and Commanders, was published in the U.K. in September. His previous books include Napoleon and Wellington, Hitler and Churchill, and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. Roberts is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.