In the weeks since British Prime Minister David Cameron lost a parliamentary vote that would have authorized the use of force in Syria, commentators have breathlessly debated whether the crisis over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons has heralded a significant shift in Western security relationships. Some have been moved to claim that, as a consequence of the vote, Paris is gradually replacing London as Washington’s European security partner of choice. While certainly providing food for thought in both the U.K. and France, such claims are profoundly misleading. Insofar as the United States chooses to work with its European partners on security issues, the U.K. will remain first among equals. The real significance of the crisis lies in the way it reveals longer-term trends: the crippling dependence of both major European states on their American ally, and the latter’s tendency to disregard their sensibilities in pursuing its own interests.
The governments of Britain and France were cheerleaders-in-chief for firm action against the Syrian regime. From the early days of the uprising, France strongly backed the rebels and called for the ousting of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. London and Paris together persuaded their European Union partners to lift an arms embargo on Syria. And both were vociferous in pressing for military retaliation against the regime for its use of chemical weapons.
And then, suddenly, everything changed. The U.K., courtesy of a vote in the House of Commons, was left high and dry, excluded from talks on possible military action as Paris and Washington continued their discussions. The subsequent decision by U.S. President Barack Obama to consult Congress prior to ordering military intervention left France in turn out on a limb, isolated in its continued insistence on the need to “punish” the Assad regime.