US and them

One of the great political friendships of the age has been all over our television screens during the last week. No, not Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, or even John Major and Edwina Currie, we’re talking about Jack Straw and Condoleezza Rice.


One of the great political friendships of the age has been all over our television screens during the last week. No, not Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, or even John Major and Edwina Currie, we’re talking about Jack Straw and Condoleezza Rice, the foreign secretaries who seem determined to put the special back into the UK-US relationship.


Rice’s trip to the north west of England included the usual round of photo opportunities – local kids, Blackburn Rovers – and one visit to the deadly serious environment of BAE Systems, where she saw at first hand the UK end of some of the major defence technology collaborations between her host nation and the US.


It’s good for such a high-ranking American politician to see the reality of the UK’s major contribution to projects such as the Joint Strike Fighter. Here is an industry where the UK really does punch above its weight, supplying technology, skills and experience which the world – even the mighty US – wants to buy into.


But there was also a slight irony in seeing two apparent epitomes of trans-Atlantic harmony in such a setting, because defence technology also forms the background to a distinctly un-chummy spat taking place between their two nations.


The UK is less than impressed that its role as major international partner in JSF does not extend to gaining access to key technology that will allow the RAF to operate and upgrade the aircraft on its own terms, without having to go cap in hand to the Pentagon.


For its part, the US is nervous in the extreme about handing sensitive military technology over to any other nation, even one which welcomes its secretary of state into its most advanced facilities and gives her a football shirt into the bargain.


The stakes have been raised over this issue over the last few months. Lobbying is ongoing up to and including the president, and ultimatums have been flying around about the UK’s very involvement in JSF.


It even cropped up during Rice’s visit to Blackburn like an unwelcome ghost at the feast of goodwill. ‘We’re working it out, like friends should,’ said the secretary of state.


The technology transfer issue is an interesting reminder that behind the photo-ops, the headlines and the pronouncements of common cause, the US-UK alliance can be beset by paranoia, self-interest and brinkmanship in a very un-Jack ‘n’ Condi fashion.