Earlier this week, the top brass of the U.S. and British militaries huddled at Fort McNair to discuss the future of Anglo-American defense cooperation. This meeting was in the spirit of the Combined Chiefs of Staff conferences held throughout the 1940s to formulate Anglo-American military strategy for World War II and the postwar world.
It was the first such meeting in 65 years and it could not have come at a more important time. Anglo-American military cooperation has been tried, tested and forged on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. But after more than a decade, those combat operations are winding down. As the primary driver for this remarkably close cooperation wanes, military leaders need to focus on what the future will bring for the Anglo-American military relationship.
The United Kingdom is America's No. 1 global partner, so close cooperation between our armed forces makes sense. Culturally, both countries value liberal democracy, a free-market economy and human rights at a time when many regimes around the world reject those values. The U.S. and the U.K. also face the same global security challenges: continued international terrorism, increasing cyberattacks, nuclear proliferation in Iran and growing instability in the Middle East resulting from 2011's popular uprisings throughout the region.
With so much in common and so much at risk, it behooves American and British military leaders to work together.
During his famous 1946 "Sinews of Peace" speech — now better known as his Iron Curtain speech — Winston Churchill described the Anglo-American relationship as one that is first and foremost based on defense and military cooperation. From intelligence sharing to the transfer of nuclear technology, the degree of military cooperation has helped make the "special relationship" between the U.S. and the U.K. unique.
This relationship can trace its roots back to America's reliance on the Royal Navy to enforce the Monroe Doctrine in the 1800s. It was forged on the Western Front in World War I. It ensured victory over tyranny in World War II, and it brought a peaceful end to the Cold War. America is stronger when it stands side-by-side with its British partner.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the United Kingdom has, without a doubt, continued to be America's No. 1 military partner. Britain provided 46,000 troops for the invasion of Iraq. U.K. troops have been fighting in the deadliest parts of southern Afghanistan — an area that, at its peak, accounted for 20 percent of the country's total violence — while many other NATO allies tucked themselves away in the relative safety of the north.
And it is Britain that helps the U.S. Navy patrol the Persian Gulf, deterring Iranian aggression and guaranteeing uninhibited shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.
The Anglo-American military relationship boasts a long history rife with examples of cooperation and sacrifice. But the focus now must rest on where the relationship will go in the future. This challenge will be up to Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his highly respected British counterpart, Gen. David Richards, to solve. There is no doubt that both men are up to the task.
However much the detractors want to argue, the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is very, very real. On the military level, the desire to keep this relationship strong is there. On the political level, President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron need to ensure that the resources and funding are available to keep their respective armed forces prepared for the challenges of the 21st century. Any joint Anglo-American strategy for future military cooperation will be meaningless without adequate defense resources to back it up.
Like all relationships, the Anglo-American defense relationship needs nurturing, hard work and commitment by both parties. This week's Chiefs of Staff meeting should be the first of many more and the beginning of a long-term process that will chart a path for military cooperation well into the future.
• Luke Coffey is the Margaret Thatcher fellow, specializing in trans-Atlantic relations, at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).