If this panel had been planned a month ago, I might have
insisted on a different title. Before Prime Minister Gordon Brown
visited in early March, it made sense to ask whether the U.S. could
depend on the United Kingdom. After his visit, I think we must also
ask whether the U.K. can depend on the U.S. That's a point that
I'll return to towards the close of my remarks.
Let me begin with the United Kingdom and with the possibility
that it may in future not be a reliable ally for the United States.
The United Kingdom is in the middle of a long transition, one that
began in the late 1940s. This is, on the surface, a transition from
Britain's historical role as a great and imperial power.
But even more fundamental, in my view, is a transition that
has largely escaped the notice of Americans. The Victorian model
that made the American image of Britain is breaking down, and the
breakdown of this model is affecting Britain's politics, society,
and culture. These changes, in turn, are steadily making
Britain both less willing and less able to project power in
the world and to stand up for the liberal principles on which the
Victorian model was based.
This poses a serious challenge to U.S. policymakers. Politics
matter, but the British transition goes beyond politics: It is a
civilizational shift that will take great leadership and the
pressure of terrible events to alter.
The "Three Circles" of British Foreign
If we want to understand where we are today, it helps to know
where we've come from. In the late 1940s, British foreign policy
was characterized by the "Three Circles." This model, popularized
by Winston Churchill, defined Britain as a separate, great power
that had to remain situated in the intersection of three
circles, each of which represented a vital British interest.
First--and this was Churchill's order--there was the U.S. As
Churchill put it in his closing words to his Cabinet in 1955,
"Never allow yourselves to be separated from the Americans."
Churchill's logic rested on the fact that Britain had worldwide
interests. The U.S. was not only a liberal democracy: It was
the only power that was willing and able to defend Britain's core
interests. Any clash between the U.S. and Britain--as, for
instance, in the Suez Crisis of 1956--was therefore foolish:
Britain had more to lose than to win from it.
The second circle was the British Empire, then undergoing its
transformation into the Commonwealth. As late as 1969, a
Gallup poll found that 34 percent of British people identified the
Commonwealth as the most important part of the world for
Britain, on a par with those who said America. The reasons for this
should be obvious. There were ties of "kith and kin." The
Commonwealth was an important market for British industry. And,
above all, the Commonwealth stood--at least in the minds of
many--for Britain's contributions to liberal civilization and
The third circle--and distinctly the least important--was
Europe. Here, Britain had to be involved for basically negative
reasons. Trade with Europe mattered, but it was British security
that was at stake: 1914 and 1939 had shown that Britain could not
afford to ignore the continent. In Churchill's vision, Britain's
role was to be a cheerleader for Western European reconciliation
and union and-- alongside the U.S.--a provider of military backbone
in opposition to the USSR. Anything more than that would pull
Britain too deeply into Europe for it to keep its place in the
other two circles.
The story of Britain since the late 1940s is the story of how,
and why, those circles have changed. The Commonwealth, it is hardly
necessary to say, has shrunk to insignificance: Today, only one in
five Britons can name any of its activities, and only a third of
young people can identify one of its members. Of course, the
fact that the British public is ignorant about the Commonwealth
does not necessarily make it unimportant, but British
priorities are adequately summarized by the fact that Britain
spends about 20 pence a head on the Commonwealth annually. By
contrast, Britain spends about 10 pounds per head on NATO and 54
pounds per head on the European Union.
Still, the question of ignorance is an important one. In
Churchill's vision, the relationship between the U.S. and Britain
had to, and would, endure because both were liberal,
English-speaking democracies. The alliance of interests was
real, but it rested on an alliance of ideals.
Declining British Sympathy with the
But surveys of British public opinion show that this alliance
can no longer be taken for granted. In 2006, a BBC poll found that
Britons believed that the U.S.'s influence on the world was mostly
negative by a margin of 57 percent to 36 percent. This
sentiment went hand in hand with considerable ignorance. For
instance, 58 percent of Britons agreed that polygamy was legal in
parts of the U.S. Indeed, all the illusions Britons held
about the U.S. stemmed from a liberal-left world view.
At the root of the decline of British sympathy with the U.S.,
therefore, is the belief that, unlike Britain and the continent,
the U.S. is simply not a "modern" country. This belief says far
more about how British culture and society have changed in recent
decades than it does about the U.S.
It is true that when it comes to practicalities much of this
resentment fades away. When asked where they would want to spend a
holiday, 45 percent of Britons name the United States, as
opposed to only 25 percent for France. But the sentiment, because it
is political, is important nonetheless.
Nor is the decline of sympathy solely a function of President
George W. Bush's tenure in office. Barack Obama's election did
produce an improvement in British feelings towards the U.S.,
but it elevated the U.S. only from ninth place to sixth, about
on par with Germany. (Japan, by the way, now ranks ninth, just
barely in positive plus/minus territory.) In other words, even now,
the British like us just about as well as they like the Germans.
Think about that for a while.
It is not that Britain, at least on a civic level, has warmed
towards Europe as it has cooled towards the U.S. Rather, it is cool
towards everyone, with the notable exception of the Australians.
There is less love, politically, for the U.S., but also no
enthusiasm for joining the Euro. With the marginal exceptions of
Hungary and Latvia, British opinion is the most Euroskeptic in the
What is replacing the U.S. is nothing in particular, except
a grumpy dissatisfaction with Britain and its place in the world.
Of Churchill's three circles, one has all but disappeared. The
other two-- Europe and the U.S.--have come to be of about equal
importance, but the U.S. one has shrunk. Simply put, Britain is a
more self-absorbed, less expansive society than it was in the
post-war era, and while it is more prosperous, it is also less
happy and less sure of itself.
Now, clearly, being dissatisfied, even grumpily so, is not the
worst thing in the world. Japan has oscillated between political
stability and revolution, but there is limited potential for
radical change in Britain today. Note that I do not say that there
is no potential. In the medium term, Scotland is extremely likely
to flake away from the no-longer United Kingdom. We can speculate
on the effect this will have on politics in England, Wales, and
Northern Ireland, but what is certain is that it will signal a
further retreat from the distinctly British political culture that
seemed so strong at the end of World War II.
The other source of potential political instability is
Europe--which is ironic, since in Churchill's vision Britain was
supposed to export stability to Europe, not import instability from
Europe. In late January, Britain was hit by a wave of wildcat
strikes at power plants. The strikes began when workers realized
that the operating companies had the right under EU law to hire
foreign workers for positions in Britain. This was not new, but
what the strikes revealed was that many workers--and, for that
matter, many other Britons--simply did not realize what they
had been signed up for.
Here too, as with the Commonwealth and the U.S., ignorance
matters a great deal, though in this case it redounds to the EU's
benefit. But of course the EU does a lot more than allow
continentals to take "British jobs." The EU is now responsible,
through the directives it issues, for making much of the law in the
land in Britain: The Victorian concept of parliamentary sovereignty
has been very badly eroded. In good times, this is not likely to
cause difficulties, but these are not good times. Therefore,
the single most likely source of systemic change in British
politics is a sudden popular reaction against the fact that Britain
no longer governs itself. For that reason alone, the January
strikes were portentous.
Breakdown of the Victorian Model
The decay of parliamentary sovereignty and the rise of Scottish
nationalism cut close to the heart of Britain's 19th century
achievements. The evidence that the Victorian model is failing is
everywhere, from declining trust in the political system to rising
illegitimacy and violent crime. And the Victorian model was, in the
classic sense of the term, a liberal model. Because the state
commanded the confidence of the people, it could fulfill the
limited duties it assigned itself. Central among these, of course,
was the protection of British interests abroad, which flourished
and grew mightily under its care.
Britain's loss of faith in the Victorian model, therefore, is
not important simply because it is linked to the rise of the
British underclass, as vital as this is to Britons. It matters to
the U.S., because it was that liberal model that built Britain's
worldwide interests and which justified Britain's
worldwide alliance with the U.S. that protected these
interests. As that model fades, Britain is turning inwards. This is
not quite isolationism. Rather, it is a resentful sense that there
are no good alternatives. And in a way, that is right: If Britain
rejects the Commonwealth, the U.S., and Europe and does not believe
in itself, then it indeed has no options. From three circles,
Britain looks as if it is moving towards no circles.
But there is one crucial difference between the American and
European circles. Britain is America's ally, but it is a member of
the European Union. Europe is therefore locked into British
policymaking. There is little enthusiasm for the EU among the
British public, but that has never mattered. What matters is that
the British political elite are strongly European, and in a curious
way, their preferences are reinforced by the broader British
disengagement with the world.
Though it poses as a force for world progress, the EU is in
reality a reflection of Europe's post-1945 desire to bring history
to an end. The EU wants, fundamentally, to ensure that nothing
ruffles Europe's tranquility. To that end, the EU will always
diminish the significance of foreign crises--witness, for instance,
the EU's reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia. What
troubles the EU is never the crisis. It is the possibility that the
U.S. or individual European states might respond to the crisis.
While there is little popular sympathy in Britain for the EU
itself, there is more sympathy with this European spirit of
disengagement. In a word, Britain is being Europeanized, and
that means--barring a sudden domestic reaction against the EU--that
the British political elite are likely to be able to continue
their slow but steady drift towards Europe that has marked much of
the past 50 years.
The financial crisis is only likely to accelerate that trend.
Gordon Brown, for instance, has lined up with France and Germany in
the run-up to the G-20 Summit in April and has accepted proposals
for Europe-wide financial regulation that he previously resisted. More
broadly, Americans are not widely aware of just how fragile
Britain's financial position is. No one knows the size of the
liabilities Britain has taken on by guaranteeing its banking
sector, but one reasonable estimate is that they amount to 250
percent of GDP.
And that is not the worst of it. Of the 7 trillion pounds on
deposit in the U.K., 4 trillion is denominated in foreign
currencies.  This problem of foreign currency
obligations was exactly what destroyed Iceland's banks and brought
that country to bankruptcy. That is not an unthinkable outcome for
Britain over the next 12 months.
As a result--and even leaving aside broader cultural
changes--the Anglo-American alliance will in the near future face
strains on two fronts.
First, Britain will be pressed to internationalize its
financial sector, which will, as witnessed by Gordon Brown, lead it
to pressure the U.S. to accept similar controls. That will be
intensely controversial in this country.
Second, there is no likelihood that Britain will increase
its military spending. Last year, Britain spent only 2.2 percent of
its GDP on defense, the lowest level since 1933. While there is no
budgetary reason why the overgrown British state could not
redirect spending to the military, this appears to be a political
impossibility. As a result, the U.S. will increasingly be forced to
go it alone in Afghanistan, and the U.K. will continue its retreat
from strategic reality. Britain's National Security Strategy
already makes for gloomy reading, with its ridiculous claim that
Islamic extremism has "very little support among communities in
Ideological trends and financial exigencies alike will only lend
further support to this head-in-the-sand attitude, which
exemplifies the broader incoherence of Britain's grand
strategy. It is a mistake to believe that the fear of domestic
Islamic radicalism is the main driver of British policy: Though it
does matter, the broader loss of civilizational confidence, now
exacerbated by the financial crisis, matters a good deal more.
And there is now a further source of concern: the attitude of
the United States. From 1783 to 1991, the U.S., by and large, was
the awkward partner in the Anglo-American relationship. From the
end of the Cold War until today, the U.K. has been the awkward one.
But we may now be entering a phase in which both sides are awkward
simultaneously. The American people remain relentlessly
Anglophile: The U.K. is regularly the second most popular
foreign country (ranking slightly behind Canada) in surveys of U.S.
But President Obama's dismissive treatment of Gordon Brown
earlier this month appears to be part of a broader strategy. This
strategy seeks to appease foreign policy problems--and to allow the
Administration to focus on domestic policy--by conceding
"spheres of interest" to powers such as China, Russia, and Iran,
often at the expense of the U.S.'s traditional friends. This is not
a policy that will make for close relations with Britain, both
because Britain is our most traditional friend and because the
Administration is likely to emphasize relations with the EU (which
in practice means France and Germany) at Britain's expense. The EU,
in short, will likely be treated as another power to be appeased,
an approach that is all too clear in the Administration's
support for an EU army and for France's reintegration into
If that is the Administration's policy, then the near-term
future for the Anglo-American alliance is bleak. Even Britain's
long-standing argument that it must seek to bridge differences
between the U.S. and Europe would make little sense in a world in
which the U.S. was cold-shouldering Britain.
True, this American policy is not likely either to enjoy success
or to endure for very long. As Harold Macmillan wisely remarked,
most U.S. Administrations come into office believing they
should talk to everyone except Britain, only to realize that the
British are, in fact, the only people that Americans can have
a genuine conversation with. But that realization will be some
time in coming, and until it does come, the Anglo-American
relationship will remain strained on both sides.
Of course, there is one alternative. If Britain is being
Europeanized, the U.S. could stay closer to it by Europeanizing
itself. In the broad perspective of domestic policy, that is
clearly what President Obama intends to achieve.
As the European alternative is based on the faulty belief that
history can be brought to an end, it is not likely to work; but if
we do go down that road, we and the British will find returning
from it as painful as the illusion on which it is based is
pleasant. To adopt this vision, even for a time, would be a
tremendous defeat for the assertive, liberal values that lay
at the heart of Churchill's vision of the interlocking circles
and on which the Anglo-American alliance was founded.
Ted R. Bromund, Ph.D., is Senior Research
Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of
the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. These remarks were delivered
at a panel on "Anchor Allies Adrift: Can the United States Depend
on Japan and Great Britain?" held by the American Enterprise
Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.