When British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visits the
United States next month he is unlikely to receive as enthusiastic
a welcome as his predecessor, Tony Blair. A recent report in
London's Sunday Telegraph cast a bleak spotlight on the
current state of Anglo-American relations with the stark headline:
"'Special Relationship' dies under Gordon Brown." The
Telegraph article revealed that British diplomats were no
longer using the term to describe the decades-long alliance between
London and Washington that had, in its heyday, successfully
defeated both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
The phrase has been quietly dropped by the British Foreign Office in deference to Britain's European Union partners. As the newly unveiled National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom made clear, while "the partnership with the United States is our most important bilateral relationship and central to our national security . . . the EU has a vital role in securing a safer world both within and beyond the borders of Europe." Referring to Washington in the same breath as New Delhi and Beijing, the report goes on to say that Britain "will continue to build close bilateral relationships with key countries, including the United States, and the emerging powers of India and China."
Equal billing for the United States and the European Union in the affections of Downing Street would have been unthinkable in the days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but the notion gained ground during the Blair years, despite the former prime minister's strong pro-American sentiments. Blair mistakenly believed that Britain could be both America's closest ally as well as a central player at the heart of an increasingly integrated Europe. He backed the European Union Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), the European single currency, and the defeated European Constitution, while simultaneously supporting the United States in the war on terror in the years following the 9/11 attacks.
However, the Iraq war sharply exposed the divisions within Europe over support for U.S. foreign policy, and Blair found himself sharply at odds with France, Germany, and the EU establishment in Brussels. Ultimately, Britain has had to bear the lion's share of the European military burden in Iraq as well as in the NATO operation in Afghanistan, shattering any illusion that the big powers of the European Union will stand shoulder to shoulder on the battlefield with either London or Washington.
Despite Blair being badly burned in his dealings with Paris, Berlin, and Brussels over Iraq, Brown seems determined to pursue the same pro-EU path of his predecessor, while adopting a distinctly lukewarm approach towards the United States. Blair's support for further integration in Europe was misguided and at times naïve, but few would doubt his genuine enthusiasm for, and commitment to, working with the United States on the biggest issues of the day.
In contrast, the strikingly uncharismatic Brown has adopted what can charitably be described as a laissez faire approach to the Anglo-American alliance, and this posture oozes indifference at almost every turn. His meeting with President Bush at the White House last July was businesslike but funereal in style, with little chemistry at all between the two world leaders. Indeed, the new prime minister had all the enthusiasm of an errant schoolboy forced to go on a school trip to the local transport museum.
Brown's half-hearted approach towards Washington can be explained by several factors, not least the new prime minister's aversion towards international affairs, and his almost obsessive focus on the minutiae of economic policy. It is not the Iranian nuclear crisis that keeps him awake at night, but the latest interest rate decision from the European Central Bank or its British counterpart. The dour Brown may have been a natural fit for Chancellor of the Exchequer (which he was for ten years), but he is far less suited to be prime minister--a reality reflected in the latest polls. Brown's approval rating now stands at minus 26 percent, and his party is at its lowest level since 1987, sixteen points behind the opposition conservatives.
As Chancellor, Brown had little enthusiasm for the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, barely lifting a finger to increase the military budget in real terms, and as prime minister he has followed the same approach. After more than a decade of Labour rule, Britain's military is severely overstretched and hugely underfunded. The UK still has over 4,000 troops in Iraq and more than 8,000 in Afghanistan, but their bravery is not matched by government's spending. Britain now spends just 2.2 percent of GDP on defense, its lowest level since the 1930s. The Ministry of Defense is expected to have to make $4 billion worth of cuts over the next two years.
Tony Blair was a firm believer in a muscular and interventionist British foreign policy, an approach that frequently united Britain and America, from Kosovo to Baghdad. Brown prefers the tools of soft power, such as foreign aid and international development assistance, to the flexing military might, and his approach has naturally brought him at odds with the White House. Not only has Brown dropped the term "special relationship," he has also rejected the phrase "war on terror," and British civil servants have now been instructed to use the term "criminals" instead of Islamic terrorists. In contrast to their American counterparts, Brown's political mandarins do not believe that Britain is fighting a global war, a fundamental divide that now separates Washington from London.
Under Brown, Britain has begun to adopt a more typical European approach to the fight against al Qaeda, viewing it more as a law and order exercise than a full-scale war. This despite the fact that there are at least 2,000 identified Islamic terrorists operating in the UK itself. In the words of the National Security Strategy, "while terrorism represents a threat to all our communities, and an attack on our values and our way of life, it does not at present amount to a strategic threat." This softer approach has gone hand in hand with the further surrender of British sovereignty to Europe. Brown has embraced the new European Reform Treaty, almost identical to the former European Constitution, and for all intents and purposes a blueprint for a European superstate. He has steadfastly refused to agree to a popular vote on the Treaty despite overwhelming public support for a referendum.
There is a real danger that the special relationship could eventually die a slow death through a combination of political indifference, a decline in British defense spending, and the erosion of British sovereignty within the European Union. It will be up to a future Prime Minister to reverse this process, as there is scant evidence that Brown has any appetite for doing so. It remains to be seen whether David Cameron, the increasingly popular leader of the Conservative party, will reinvigorate the alliance if he is propelled to power at the next election, which must be held by 2010. For the future of the free world though it is vital that he does. The special relationship has been the most enduring and successful alliance of modern times, and provides the best hope for defeating the threat of militant Islam and protecting the West against rogue regimes.
As Margaret Thatcher so eloquently put it in a speech at the end of the Cold War, "whatever people say, the special relationship does exist, it does count and it must continue, because the United States needs friends in the lonely task of world leadership. More than any other country, Britain shares America's passionate commitment to democracy and willingness to stand and fight for it. You can cut through all the verbiage and obfuscation. It's really as simple as that."
Nile Gardiner is the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Weekly Standard