April 1, 2008
By Nile Gardiner, Ph.D.
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
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
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
First appeared in the Weekly Standard
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."
Nile Gardiner, Ph.D.
Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom
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