May 24, 2006 | WebMemo on Europe
The Anglo-American Special Relationship is of great mutual benefit to both parties and should be strengthened. The United States has in Britain its only militarily effective and politically reliable global ally—a fact confirmed by past attempts to find an alternative. The Special Relationship with Britain does not complicate, but rather supports, America’s operation as a global superpower. The U.K. gains even more. Its economy gets a boost; its interests are protected; its security is increased (through vital intelligence sharing); and its standing in the world is immeasurably enhanced.
The Special Relationship’s history provides clues to how it can be made to work better today. The expression, coined by Winston Churchill, was never intended as an exercise in nostalgia, though the common experience of the two nations does makes it unique. It implied close practical collaboration in security and military affairs, and this is how it must finally be judged.
The Relationship depends in part upon good personal relations between American Presidents and British Prime Ministers, as when Harold Macmillan intervened with John F. Kennedy to secure Polaris against the doubts of the U.S. State Department and Pentagon. Warm personal relations and mutual political understanding between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were even more important in the 1980s. The Reagan Administration’s support for Britain in the Falklands and Mrs. Thatcher’s support for America in the Libyan raid were moments when the Relationship could have fractured if the wrong decisions had been taken.
But the Anglo–American Relationship worked, in the last analysis, primarily because of the two nations’ shared goals, above all the defeat of Soviet communism. And at no stage did either Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan forget their own countries’ national interests.
Tony Blair was right to invest so much effort in repairing the Special Relationship when he came to power, initially with President Bill Clinton. He was also correct, and his many domestic critics were wrong, when he strongly supported President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Yet the terms on which he felt he had to do so and the means he employed have, unfortunately, put the foundations of the Relationship at risk.
As a utopian liberal internationalist, Blair could not publicly support America’s objectives and rhetoric, instead concentrating his justification for war on WMD rather than espousing regime change as such. He similarly refused to abandon his commitment to close relations with “Old Europe,” continuing to deny the reality of deep-rooted European hostility to the U.S., its policies, and its allies. Worse, he never explained in a frank manner to the British public why it was in Britain’s national interest to support America.
The Special Relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. thus seemed simply a friendship between the American and British leaders, in which the latter lacked any significant influence. As a result, public and political opinion in Britain is now worryingly anti-American. This is particularly important because, unless reversed, distrust of America may prevent British involvement in or even support for further action against rogue states and terrorist regimes.
Moreover, through continuing European integration, especially in defense, Britain under Blair has been sucked further into arrangements which will render it difficult for the British to remain the reliable ally they have so often proved to be. An important element of this is defense procurement. Regrettably, the Bush Administration continues to support European integration, even endorsing the now rejected European Constitution. If the Special Relationship is to survive, let alone fulfil its potential, a different approach in a range of areas will be needed in the post-Blair era.
The fundamental change needed is open and honest recognition by both parties that the U.K.–U.S. Relationship is a reflection of real national interests, not a corny friendship between equals. The U.S. should be clear in what it expects from, and reliable in what it offers to, Britain. This means, on the one hand, taking Britain into its confidence and listening to British representations in a systematic manner. If British troops are to be deployed in support of U.S. policy, Britain must feel a part of it—without, of course, being allowed a veto. If Britain is a special military partner, it should be granted special privileges in defense procurement and elsewhere.
The U.S. also needs to clarify its attitude toward the emerging European megastate, which is a competitor and not a reliable collaborator. Far from persuading Britain to integrate further, the U.S. should be urging U.K. disengagement, particularly in the military field.
On the other hand, the U.S. should be less reticent about British shortcomings. It should insist that Britain support U.S. goals in different regions and forums rather than try to play to other galleries. It should also press the British government to take vigorous action against Islamic extremism, which has been allowed to gain a grip on British cities.
Similarly, America should no longer be prepared to accept at face value Britain’s defense effort. Although the U.K. has superb fighting troops, its defense budget has shrunk while Blair’s internationalism has increased deployments.
In the longer term, America needs to put much greater effort into its public diplomacy focused on Britain. The anti-Americanism that is now prevalent in the British electronic media receives no effective response. The U.S. also should be much less complacent about the growing divergence between the two countries’ cultural, social, and economic models. Although not easy to influence, these trends, if they continue, are likely to lead to political divergence as well.
As for Britain, its government must be seen to defend the national interest in its dealing with the U.S. The Special Relationship should not prevent that; but Britain will also have to make sacrifices to retain its influence in Washington, including the loss of British lives, both military and civilian, in support of U.S. goals. This can be spelled out realistically to the British people, who are quite up to coping with both war and terrorism. If the Anglo–American Special Relationship is once again understood as more than friendship, it will be stronger—and so, paradoxically, will the friendship.