The Special Relationship
When a serving British Prime Minister makes his or her first
visit to meet an incoming American President in Washington, it is
taken very seriously -- at least in London. For Gordon Brown, the
stakes in March 2009 were even higher than usual. Having been
written off by commentators and much of his own party as an inept
leader, destined to go down to defeat next year, he needed to
strengthen his political credibility at home. And having repeatedly
posed as a potential savior of the world's economy, he badly needed
the endorsement of the new and hugely popular American President.
Mr. Brown could rightly argue that, give or take a trillion
dollars or so, his approach of fiscal profligacy dressed up as
Keynesianism was enthusiastically shared by the new Administration.
So he might at least have expected some acknowledgement of his
promotion, if not his paternity, of the idea of a gigantic "Global
New Deal." He did not receive it.
Arguably, though, it was the mood, not the substance, that
mattered at that first official Obama-Brown encounter. The contrast
with Mr. Brown's frostily formal demeanor during his first meeting
with President George W. Bush in July 2007 could not have been
greater -- nor, unfortunately, could the contrast between the
attitudes of the British and Americans now. An almost excessively
thoughtful and sensitive choice of gifts by Mr. Brown was repaid
with a batch of American DVDs; a rousing proclamation of British
closeness to America was rewarded with a cancelled press
conference; and a speech to both Houses of Congress, which lauded
the American dream in terms which might have made Tony Blair blush
(were that still possible), evoked scant interest in the White
House-driven American media.
It is important not to exaggerate the significance of what may
be trivia. President Barack Obama had too many other things on his
mind to afford much time for diplomatic niceties. His team was
still new and in some areas incomplete.
Anyway, Washington assumes that Mr. Brown's days are numbered,
as they very probably are. Doubtless that helps to explain the
contemptuous reaction from an unnamed State Department official who
responded to British complaints by observing: "There's nothing
special about Britain. You're just the same as the other 190
countries in the world. You shouldn't expect special treatment."
From the official speeches and communiqués, there was
naturally another message. After their talks, the President
declared: "Great Britain is one of our closest and strongest allies
and there is a link and bond there that will not break.... The
relationship is not only special and strong but will only get
stronger as time goes on." Mr. Brown, in his speech to Congress, went
So let it be said of the friendship between our two
countries...friendships can be shaken but our friendship is
unshakeable. Treaties can be broken but our friendship is
unbreakable. And I know there is no power on earth that can drive
The words of the two leaders were certainly similar; indeed,
they probably came from the same script. But the sentiments behind
them were patently not. Mr. Brown is genuinely fascinated by
America, albeit the unrepresentatively liberal America he
encountered on his frequent holidays in Cape Cod. By contrast,
President Obama gives every sign of being bored with Britain, as do
his colleagues and advisers, including his Secretary of State. It
has been noted by an admittedly hypersensitive British press that
in speaking of America's partners during her confirmation hearing,
Hillary Clinton pointedly referred to France and Germany before
Britain. (The State Department has, of course, for
decades pushed each Administration's thinking in that direction,
though events like the first and second Gulf Wars have soon pushed
it back again.)
More worrying for the British side, however, is the widespread
if barely whispered perception that the new President harbors
anti-British prejudice, apparently because of harsh treatment
handed out to his grandfather in Kenya by the British colonial
power during the Mau Mau insurgency. The speedy removal of Winston
Churchill's bust from the Oval Office was hardly a good omen.
Arguably, though, the words used in Washington were quite bad
enough -- not for the thoughts behind them, but rather for the
thoughtlessness. It is difficult to imagine a less realistic basis
for future Anglo-American bonding. Would there (pace Mr.
Brown) really be no "break" if, say, America refused to
cooperate in updating the United Kingdom's independent deterrent?
Or (pace President Obama) would the relationship
really "get stronger" if Britain had refused further help in
Afghanistan? What if America decided that engagement with
Asia -- above all, China -- was now the strategic priority? Or if
Britain downgraded the transatlantic link in favor of closer
relations with the European Union?
Each of these possibilities is undesirable, but each is still
quite easy to envisage. We need to pinpoint, not ignore, the
mantraps if we are to avoid falling into them.
The truth is simpler. The Anglo-American Special Relationship
has had a great past, but its future now depends on how it is
applied and adapted. In any case, it is not so much personal ties
or individual pledges of support that matter in alliances. It is
the underlying realities. It is therefore also worth briefly
recalling, before attempting a tour d'horizon of current
challenges, what these realities have been and still need to
When Winston Churchill first explicitly formulated the concept
of an Anglo-American "special relationship" in his famous address
in 1946 in Fulton, Missouri, he was careful to seek a balance
between, on the one hand, the idealistic and, on the other, the
practical aspects of the partnership. At one level, he argued, the
alliance reflected shared values entailing a universal mission:
We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great
principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint
inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna
Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury and the
English common law find their most famous expression in the
American Declaration of Independence.
But at another, more prosaic level it all came down to shared
interests, which required sharing assets, thus leading to "common
study of potential dangers, the similarity of weapons
and...continuance of the present facilities for mutual security." The
essential background to such an arrangement was the close
intelligence and defense collaboration during the Second World War.
Churchill was also, as it happens, well aware of the current
discussions between the Truman Administration and Clement Attlee's
government relating to bases and other matters, the former war
leader having achieved a close if somewhat improbable relationship
with Labour's grittily shrewd Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin.
There was in Winston Churchill's public stance a degree of
studied vagueness about how much, and in what ways, past history
and present realities came together in the framing of current
decisions. This was only to be expected from the ex-leader of a
once predominant imperial power that was swiftly and uncomfortably
sinking into the second league and wanted to hang on. Yet
Churchill's formulation retains validity. Trust is, after all, the
essence of successful alliances, and trust grows most easily amid
common values and against the background of shared experience. Then
and since, the Special Relationship has worked effectively when the
ties of sentiment and the bonds of practical commitment kept in
step, but it has been open to misunderstanding and recrimination
when they did not.
The immediate circumstances of the Fulton speech were, of
course, the onset of the Cold War, which Churchill earned great
disfavor at the time by pointing out. So the case for cementing
Anglo-American relations was not made in a vacuum. Its restatement
was required to face a common danger. This threat was ultimately
global because the ambitions of Communism were global, but it was
also immediately concentrated against Europe because that was the
target of Soviet advance.
The Soviet challenge was thus an important factor in moulding
the political culture of the anti-Soviet camp: Among other things,
it gave a new and deeper meaning to the ancient but previously
nebulous concept of "the West." The Free World, defined as the
global community of democratic or at least law-based nations, might
expand or contract, but it was always the West -- the United States;
Britain (with, as an appendage, the Old Commonwealth); and some,
though not all, of the Western European states -- which constituted,
as it were, the moral, social, and economic heartland of
The end of the Cold War once more challenged these assumptions.
It was a period when a "New World Order" was briefly in the
ascendant and when, as now, multilateralism was much in vogue.
Intellectually, it was marked by discussion of why the Western
model had proved superior not only to its Soviet counterpart, but
also to other similar authoritarian, centralized models down
through history. Some of those who engaged in these discussions
emphasized the degree to which "Western" values, approaches, and
characteristics were universal. Others stressed the degree to which
they reflected distinct historical, cultural, and religious factors
only experienced first in Europe and then in the wider,
predominantly English-speaking world.
As one of the political leaders who had been actively engaged in
winning the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher thought a good deal about
these questions. She believed that while the aspiration to liberty
was universal, its successful application depended heavily on such
specific conditioning factors. She laid special emphasis on the
fact that in the West there had grown up a rule of law and that no
single power had been powerful enough to crush challenges to its
authority. She also considered that within this
Western framework, Anglo-American commonalities and those of the
wider (and still expanding) English-speaking world -- what has come
to be called the "Anglosphere" -- had a special and, indeed, a
British ideas about the Anglo-American alliance have become less
clear since Mrs. Thatcher's day. Take, for example, the
contrast between Gordon Brown's recent speech to Congress and Mrs.
Thatcher's almost a quarter-century earlier. Mr. Brown described
the Anglo-American relationship as "a partnership of purpose," but
without supplying any description of what the purpose was. In her
own speech, Mrs. Thatcher was quite explicit: The purpose, she
said, was very simply "to form the mainspring of the West."
She meant that the Special Relationship had a dual significance. It
was both a source of the values required for the practice of
liberty and -- through strong military cooperation in NATO -- their
This was indeed how it operated during the 1980s when Mrs.
Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan led their respective
countries. But how should it operate today?
As does every new Administration, President Obama's will enjoy,
for some months at least, the benefit of many doubts. Even
viscerally hostile powers wish to appear to have second thoughts,
and for America's traditional friends or occasional allies, a new
start, free of previously entrenched positions, offers obvious
There is not much justice in politics, and the achievements of
the previous Administration have certainly been underrated -- the
most important being that there was no repeat of 9/11.
The fact remains, however, that global perceptions of American
leadership and policy had become highly unfavorable. America was
heartily disliked without being widely feared, which is a perilous
situation for any great power, particularly one operating in a
media-driven age. New faces bring new starts.
Yet history shows that the interests of a nation rarely change
quickly, and neither do the risks it faces. So while it is
understandable to pledge (as President Obama did in his speech to
Congress on February 24) "a new era of engagement," it would be
imprudent to assume (as he also optimistically asserted) that
"there is no force more powerful than the example of America."
There are, in fact, many more powerful forces, and others will
wield them if the U.S. does not.
Nor is it evident that the application of "soft power" (or
"smart power" as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has dubbed
it) offers any escape from the choices about hard power which
America and its allies face. The acknowledged benefits
of the military "surge" in Iraq and the new President's own
decision on a swift reinforcement of American forces in Afghanistan
would certainly suggest as much.
More important than declared intentions may be imposed
restraints -- above all, those created by the recession and the
enormous increases in public expenditure and borrowing by America
that are designed to counter it. If growth rates remain anemic and
the burden of debt becomes oppressive, the U.S. and other Western
powers may be unwilling to contemplate risky and expensive foreign
initiatives, and the resultant perception of weakness might, in
turn, embolden the West's enemies. So there may be trouble ahead,
and that -- rather than an era of crisis-free consensus -- is the
assumption upon which Western planners should prudently work.
This does not, of course, provide an answer to the question of
exactly what resources to deploy. It does, though, provide a
starting point -- one which should be familiar because it corresponds
to "Thatcher's Law," according to which "the unexpected happens."
In her final considered pronouncement on the matter, written
shortly after 9/11, Mrs. Thatcher developed this idea further:
Military planners always have a thankless task. In peacetime
they are accused of dreaming up unnecessarily ambitious
war-fighting scenarios, and then demanding the money to pay for
them. But, when dangers loom, they are criticized for insufficient
foresight. Moreover, a global superpower's military planners have a
special problem. This is that a major threat to stability in
any continent is by definition a threat to the superpower's
own vital interests. And the nightmare is that several serious
regional conflicts may occur simultaneously. To the question of
what precise overall capabilities, and thus exactly what levels of
defence spending, are necessary to cope with such scenarios I can
only answer: "More than at present -- and possibly much more than you
The world would be safer if today's leaders gave signs of
agreeing with this rationally pessimistic thesis.
Any exhaustive list of current security threats would be beyond
the scope of this paper. Some are so general as to be difficult to
distinguish from the ordinary conditions of humanity, others are
impossible to quantify, and still others are quite specific. There
is an unhelpful tendency to throw into the same basket like and
unlike, immediate and distant, specific and systemic, manageable
For example, at a February 2009 security conference in Munich,
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden spoke of the challenges posed by
"the spread of mass destruction weapons and dangerous diseases; a
growing gap between rich and poor; ethnic animosities and failed
states; a rapidly warming planet and uncertain supplies of energy,
food and water; the challenge to freedom and security from radical
fundamentalism." (The epithet "Islamic" was mysteriously
omitted before "fundamentalism"). A foreign policy devised to cope
with all of these while the Administration at the same time
refinances the American banks, rebuilds the American
infrastructure, and remodels the American health service does not
seem altogether realistic.
One can (and must) be more specific. Three pressing and present
dangers to the security of America and the West are already
well-enough known and visible. And in each case there are
significant, if varying, implications for collaboration between
America and Britain.
In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, America's main military ally has
been Britain. But unlike Iraq, where a failure of political will
compromised Britain's performance in the later stages amounting to
what some have even described as effective defeat in Basra in 2007,
Britain's role in Afghanistan remains fundamental to the continuing
operation's possibilities of success. There are currently more than
eight thousand British troops deployed there, which is nearly as
many as all the other major European powers, and 150 British
military personnel have been killed -- over 120 of them in enemy
action -- which is again substantially higher than the figure for
America's other allies.
This is not just bad luck, though poor equipment is a factor.
The main reason is that while a number of other countries issue
"caveats" limiting the conditions of their forces' deployment so as
to keep them out of harm's way, British forces are in the front
line, responsible for securing the dangerous and unstable Helmand
President Obama's announcement of the dispatch of 21,000 more
American troops to Afghanistan stepped up the pressure on the
allies to increase their own contingents. Expectations were high
that, with British forces returning from Iraq by the summer,
several thousand would be deployed or redeployed to Helmand. In
fact, we now learn, less than a thousand will go, along with a
modest, mixed force from other NATO members, and then only to cover
the forthcoming Afghan elections.
It is hard to imagine that this will be the end of it or that
the U.S., despite the smiles at Strasbourg, regards the
contribution as more than a down payment. That is perfectly
understandable, but America also needs to understand the current
British mood -- not least if it wants to change it so as to secure
national support for a difficult, long-term commitment.
It all goes back to Iraq. Tony Blair based his case for war in
2003 almost entirely on the need to eliminate Iraqi weapons of mass
destruction, which in the end were not found. He also failed to
exert influence when key decisions were taken about the occupation,
which then went wrong. He may still be lauded and decorated in
Washington as America's friend, but he proved no lasting friend to
the Special Relationship, because he helped to destroy faith in
America's leadership even before the months of bad news began. The
news later, of course, got much better, but it was not noticed in
Britain, because British troops took no part in the "surge" and are
leaving Iraq amid a national sense of mission-not-accomplished. The
taste left in people's mouths is bitter, and it needs to be purged.
Perhaps the promised Inquiry into the Iraq War will help, but as of
now, it forms a difficult background to any renewed military
An opinion poll for the BBC conducted in November 2008 showed
that more than two-thirds of those asked wanted the U.K. to pull
out of Afghanistan within a year. A more recent survey
confirms that 60 percent are unconvinced by the government's
arguments for staying. The prospect of a substantially increased
and open-ended commitment would risk being still more
Nor has the government come up with a persuasive rationale for
current policy. Originally, predictions were of a reassuringly
low-key operation focused on restoring order and reconstruction,
but the reality has been altogether different. Plagued with
complaints about defective equipment and facing mounting
fatalities -- 80 percent of them from roadside bombs, to which badly
protected British forces are vulnerable -- the government has not set
out a measured case. It has adopted an increasingly hysterical
tone, which invites ridicule and magnifies unease. For example,
John Hutton, the Defence Secretary, has compared the campaign in
Afghanistan to the Second World War and likened the Taliban to the
Nazis. At the same time, the talk in the media
is of doing deals with supporters of the Taliban -- a prospect now
mooted by President Obama.
There is also a demoralizing contradiction of messages from the
authorities as to whether we are currently winning or not. Mr.
Obama says bluntly "no." Britain's Ministry of Defence says (or at
least implies) "yes." Meanwhile, there is a constant flow of
criticism of the whole British operation that finds its way into
the British press -- at one moment from disillusioned military or
ex-military sources and at others, it seems, from the Pentagon.
And British folklore hardly helps. Afghan campaigns in popular
British history are synonymous with disasters. Kipling's poetic
image of combat there is not a happy one:
When you're wounded and left in Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Liam Fox, the Tory Shadow Defence Secretary and a robust but
realistic Atlanticist, has therefore insisted that as a condition
for sending more troops, "there must be a clear and achievable
political mission to support the military mission, as was the case
with the surge in Iraq," adding: "This does not currently exist in
Afghanistan." He is right -- and it must.
The starting point now should be what it was at the very
beginning: maintaining Western security. The rationale for the
original war against the Taliban was the need to deny Islamist
terrorists the bases they need to prepare their campaigns against
us. That is still necessary. The proponents and practitioners of
global jihad have to be vanquished somewhere, and it is better done
in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan than amid the wreckage of New
York or London.
The wholly predictable news that many of those released from
detention at Guantanamo Bay have simply taken up cudgels again in
different theatres of terrorism proves the point. It shows that
letting our Islamist enemies find safe havens anywhere means
that they can and will turn up anywhere to wreak havoc
against us. British opinion would probably accept new sacrifices to
stop that. By contrast, nation-building, poppy-field destruction,
sanitation, education, and the emancipation of women, however
desirable in themselves, are less persuasive arguments for the
sacrifice of British blood and treasure.
The risks of getting these arguments wrong are not simply to the
campaign itself, and not even just military. If Gordon Brown
responded favorably to a request further down the line for a
substantial, open-ended reinforcement of British troops but
appeared to do so merely to gain political kudos with President
Obama, as Mr. Blair was perceived to do with President Bush, this
would yet again undermine the legitimacy of the operation in
British eyes. If the British Prime Minister refused or sent a token
force, that must harm Britain's standing in America -- where the
British are still widely regarded as America's most valuable
ally. Nor should the possibility of a bungled
deployment, and then some disaster, precipitating a collapse of
support and an early withdrawal be ruled out -- perhaps the worst
outcome in all respects.
None of these gloomy hypotheses is inevitable. Since the new
Administration places a high value on public diplomacy, here is an
early and urgent opportunity to practice it. Whatever the dangers
in Afghanistan, the greatest danger remains, as it was from the
start, the danger of failure.
Iran is among the most immediate and probably the most serious
of the security challenges facing the U.S. Unlike in Afghanistan,
Britain has and can have no more than a secondary role. Certainly,
the "special relationship" that matters most in this case is that
between the U.S. and Israel.
That said, London and Washington have every reason to keep
closely in step. In the event of any decision by Israel or the
United States (or both) to resolve the situation by force,
extensive British interests would be at risk in the Middle East and
throughout the Muslim world. As a counterpart to that, Washington's
best hope of finding a staunch ally at the negotiating table when
the hour of decision approaches, let alone in the event of strikes
on Iranian targets, is London. But, as with Afghanistan, a serious
and coherent approach will be required to keep Britain on
Britain has already been acting, albeit not with much success,
as a U.S. surrogate. Since October 2003, the British, alongside
France and Germany, have been one of the "EU-3" powers seeking to
negotiate an end to Iran's nuclear programs. In 2005, after the
imposition of limited U.N. Security Council sanctions, the three
European powers, now joined by the U.S., Russia, and China, again
exerted joint pressure. Finally, in July 2008, the U.S. itself
became involved in talks at the level of so-called pre-negotiations
between the EU and Iran representatives.
Consequently, when the new U.S. Administration announces that it
will now "talk" directly with Iran, the change is less than it
might seem -- others, particularly Britain, have been talking for
five years to press American concerns. In any case, as former U.S.
Permanent Representative to the U.N. John Bolton has noted,
"Negotiation is not a policy. Negotiation is a technique."
The important questions are really twofold: First, what if any new
diplomatic pressures can be brought to bear? And, second, what new
incentives might be offered?
Unfortunately, the prospects in both cases are bleak. It is
highly unlikely that Russia and China will cooperate in imposing
sanctions with sufficient teeth to make a difference, and as for
incentives, it is difficult to imagine what these could be beyond
what is already on offer. The underlying problem is, as experts who
have recently been arguing for a new, more engaged diplomacy
themselves honestly concede, that "Iran's interest in acquiring a
nuclear weapons breakout capability far outweighs its interest in
obtaining external assistance for its nuclear power programme."
Thus, for re-engagement with Iran to have any hope of success,
it has to embrace new issues. These would probably have to
encompass relieving current pressure on Iran because of its
destabilization of the Middle East through promotion of terrorism;
its hostility to current (Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Syrian)
peace processes; its systematic and unhelpful meddling in Iraq; and
its sponsorship and arming of Hezbollah. Yet can -- or, indeed,
should -- any of these matters be conceded? Surely not. So one is
left with more of the same -- notably the iteration of strong
diplomatic threats of unspecified "further and tougher sanctions,"
as repeated recently by Gordon Brown, without any fresh hope of
being taken seriously.
Despite the shortcomings of available intelligence, Iran's aims
are not, in truth, difficult to perceive or define. history,
geography, economics, and a large helping of religious ideology
provide the generally dispiriting answers we need to all our
questions. Iran seeks to be the principal regional power -- in this
sense a "great power": the superior of its immediate neighbors,
more than a match for Turkey or Iraq, safe from Israeli
retaliation, and able at a pinch to deal from a position of
strength with Russia and China. It knows that in order to achieve
all this while at the same time pursuing the Islamist goals which
are central to its régime, possibly and not coincidentally
including one day eliminating Israel, it needs a supply of nuclear
warheads and the means to deliver them to its targets.
Perhaps without the ideology it would adopt a less rigid stance
in negotiation. Perhaps without the historic ambition to become a
major power it would be less intent on having a fully developed
nuclear weapon. But the combination means that it is not easy to
imagine any circumstances in which Iran can be prevented by
peaceful means from achieving its national goals.
At which point, all that is at issue is timing. Iran needs
access to foreign technology, investment, and markets. It has no
wish to precipitate a crisis -- which, of course, is why strung-out
negotiations suit it well. The state of Iran's missile technology
is no secret: It is making great strides. Its progress on the
nuclear front is, by contrast, uncertain and debatable. The U.S.
2007 National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran had ended
its nuclear weapons program in 2003, but there is a dearth of
reliable sources for making judgements. One should fear and prepare
for the worst.
In any event, it is difficult to reconcile Iran's stubborn
willingness to provoke international condemnation by going ahead
with uranium enrichment with anything other than a timetable to
produce a nuclear weapon. If that is so, and whatever the precise
time frame, the options available to prevent Iran becoming a fully
fledged nuclear weapon state -- an outcome which would also, of
course, prompt other states in the region to acquire the same
capability -- are rapidly narrowing, and all seem likely to involve
either the direct threat or the use of force.
Great powers are, of course, ill-advised to advertise all their
intentions in such matters, and certainly not the modalities. But
if America wishes to keep this route open -- and it must -- it should
be taking Britain and the other main European powers along with its
thinking and preparations now rather than serving out
diplomatically reassuring bromides.
A lack of realism about one set of problems can lead to wishful
thinking about others, and this now seems to be the case with
current discussion about Russia. Central to the Administration's
new approach is an attempt to "press the reset button" (in Vice
President Biden's phrase) in relations with Moscow.
This, it is hoped, will ease the path toward a common view on Iran
and collaboration in Afghanistan, particularly in the event that
the situation in adjoining Pakistan deteriorates, as it may well
Unfortunately, it is easier to erase computer memory than it is
to alter long-run strategic intentions and interests. Therefore,
while some continuing contact with Russia makes sense, there should
be no illusion about meaningful results. Regrettably, the
Administration, in search of détente with Moscow, has
already taken risks with Western security and European stability.
These risks outweigh other gains on offer, and it is to be hoped
that they do not mature into settled policy.
What has been revealed of the contents of a "secret" letter sent
by President Obama to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in February
suggests that the Administration is willing to trade the new
missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland for help
from Moscow in ending Iran's development of long-range ballistic
missile weaponry. The likelihood that Russia, even if it
wished to do so, could prevent Teheran's missile development (as
opposed to merely refraining from assisting it or joining in
sanctions against already prohibited nuclear programs) is, in
truth, small. Either way, the initiative harms the credibility of
ballistic missile defense as a whole, because it suggests that the
U.S. is not serious about or confident in it, and it destabilizes
friendly governments in Eastern Europe.
Russia has, of course, some potential common areas of interest
with the U.S. It would be happy with mutually agreed nuclear
stockpile reductions. It has lingering worries about China. Partly
as a payback for its own brutalities in Chechnya, it is (like the
West) a target of Islamist terrorism. But none of this counts for
much when Moscow calculates what it has to gain or lose by
cooperation, because its priorities are different and more
Russia's attempts to reintegrate the "near abroad" within its
sphere of influence by use of its minorities, its tactics to
undermine pro-Western former Soviet Republics, and its reiterated
determination to prevent NATO expansion Eastwards were already
evident before last August's Georgian crisis. They have continued
since. Ukraine's vulnerability to these tactics is obvious, and, as
in the case of Georgia, NATO's refusal at its April 2008 Bucharest
summit to offer a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Kyiv was taken by
Moscow as a sign of weakness. Alongside internal meddling, Moscow
has successfully used the energy weapon to turn Germany and other
European countries into critics of Ukraine and against any swift or
serious initiative for Western integration that might risk Russian
Coercing its neighbors while exploiting fault lines to divide
the West was, of course, a consistent strategy of the Soviet Union
right up to its demise, and the same game is being played with some
skill by the Kremlin now. Regrettably, a new generation of Western
leaders seem content to ignore past precedents. They also seem to
have forgotten the important Cold War insight that the failure to
respect human rights at home is a sure sign that a state will also
disrespect its neighbors' rights whenever that suits, as it
eventually will. Vladimir Putin's government is behaving in all
these respects according to recognizable and well-known norms of
bad behavior that stem from the earlier era in which he learned his
The Russian challenge is manageable as long as it is recognized
for what it is -- a problem and not the source of other solutions (to
Iran, Afghanistan, Islamist radicalism, energy insecurity, etc.).
It must be faced realistically and without trying to be too
diplomatically clever. From the West, it requires, as it did in
earlier years, a renewal of self-confidence. And such confidence is
amply justified not just at the summit of high principle, but at
the lower echelon of resilience.
Russian clout today rests on two main supports: in the first
place, the legacy of structures, including structures of
repression, inherited from the old Soviet Union and, in the second,
its energy wealth. It has developed both, using each to buttress
Russia has been modernizing its armed forces and increasing its
military spending. Although the precise rate at which this is
happening and the level of total expenditure are shrouded in
statistical obscurity, Russia's 2009 defense budget is up by a
quarter on the previous year; an ambitious program of nuclear and
conventional force updating is under way; and it is worth recalling
that, despite the well-known decrepitude of much of the old Soviet
arsenal, today's development takes place against a 350 percent real
increase in defense expenditure since Mr. Putin became President.
Until recently, these increases were affordable; indeed, they
required no increase in defense spending as a share of GDP, because
Russia has been floating on a rising sea of oil and gas revenues.
Its ability to exploit this energy wealth is greatly reduced,
however, by the technological backwardness of its oil and gas
industry, from which its bad behavior has scared off foreign
capital. This in turn lies behind the use of monopoly power and
aggressive price manipulation rather than legitimate market
activity to maximize profits.
What really distinguishes Russia, though, in both foreign and
energy policy (to the extent the two are distinguishable) is its
zero-sum approach to bilateral deals of all kinds. It is assumed in
Moscow that Russia's gain must involve someone else's loss and vice
versa, all of which makes the Russians an uneasy partner in any
Unlike Western powers, Russia shows no inhibition about using
its strengths and advantages in its own interests, whether
militarily in Georgia or by cutting gas supplies through Ukraine to
much of Europe in the dead of winter. The dependence of East and
Central European countries on Russian gas, in particular, will
continue to permit Moscow to intimidate these countries. Germany,
as during much of the Cold War period, is especially wobbly in this
regard. It imports 40 percent of its gas from Russia and is set to
import much more, but it shows no awareness of the trap.
Yet, for all these worries, Russia can be cut down to size. It
is vulnerable, and both its rational if brutal rulers and its
eminently commonsensical people know this. The collapse in energy
prices and the catastrophic slump in the Russian stock market have
reminded all Russians that Moscow is not able to ignore the rest of
the world. Recession is already prompting the first stirrings of
dissent against Mr. Putin -- even apparently from his
protégé, President Medvedev. The country's long-term
problems are huge and as yet barely tackled, while the most
serious -- demographic decline -- is probably insoluble.
When all relevant factors are weighed, it is clear that Russia
needs the West more than the West needs Russia. The best policy to
adopt is therefore precisely the opposite of that favored by the
activists in the U.S. State Department. As one authoritative
commentator has suggested, "A powerful and immediate weapon may be
simply to do nothing.... The main aim now must be that Russian
neo-imperialism gains not an inch more territory."
This can be done if, as in the past, Russia's current hostile
exertions are contained by Europe working alongside America.
Compared with the other European players, Britain is uniquely well
placed to assist. Germany is subject to energy blackmail; France,
as demonstrated by President Nicolas Sarkozy's clumsy and confused
efforts to negotiate peace in Georgia, is simply out of its
diplomatic depth; Italy is happily subservient to Moscow; and the
Poles, though robust as always, are simply too physically close to
their old enemy. Britain, by contrast, still benefits from its
traditional and psychologically important distance from the
European front line, as well as its especially close working
relationship with America, particularly with the U.S. defense and
Moreover, Britain is much less vulnerable to Russia's energy
weapon. Although the country confronts an energy problem, this
stems not from dependence on Russian gas, but rather from the
overdue construction of a new generation of nuclear power
stations. The important point is that while Britain
now imports about half of its gas, just 2 percent comes from
Russia. In short, faced with a Russian-induced crisis, British
consumers may pay more, but they will not freeze in any blast from
Equally important, though, is the fact that both the British
government and the British public already resent Russian behavior
on British soil. What gave every impression of being the
Kremlin-sanctioned poisoning of the Russian dissident (and British
citizen) Aleksander Litvinenko in a London hotel in 2006, followed
by total non-cooperation from the Russian authorities in the
ensuing criminal investigation, crystallized British anger at
Russian misbehavior. It resulted first in vigorous British protests
and then in expulsions of Russian and tit-for-tat expulsions of
British "diplomatic" personnel. (The Russian authorities drew the
obvious conclusion: The persecution of the Kremlin's critics has
continued, of course, but now in Russia).
At the time, Britain received no support from the U.S. or the EU
and was privately (which means semi-publicly) criticized by the
Germans -- all of whom were then desperate to keep on friendly terms
with Moscow. The whole experience still rankles in London.
Needless to say, wider questions of energy supply, including
pipeline routes, need to be addressed as part of the West's
long-term solution to the problem of Russia. So do the functioning
and priorities of NATO. But because of that Anglo-Russian spat, and
once the West's latest attempt to appease Russia fails, as it will,
and a new tougher policy is adopted, as it must be, Britain will
again prove to be America's key ally in its implementation.
Why such lessons about how to deal with fragile but aggressive
would-be superpowers need to be relearned so frequently is, one
should add, something of a mystery. It has all been said before. In
1995, when Vladimir Putin was still an obscure figure working for
the Mayor of St. Petersburg, Mrs. Thatcher warned:
We cannot know whether Russia will ultimately go in the
direction of democracy or free enterprise. If Russia were to embark
on a course of restoring the old Soviet Union as a new Russian
Empire this could not happen peacefully. Nor could it leave Russian
relations with the West unchanged. In any event, it would clearly
be against our strategic interests if Russian power were once again
to move close to the heart of Europe. Similarly, Russia's
commitment of scarce resources to any such imperial strategy would
inevitably mean abandonment of the continuing tasks of economic
reform and political liberalism. We could thus expect both external
and internal policies to revert towards those of the old USSR.
As they are now doing. And as an old Cold Warrior, she would
have known what to do about it.
The Security Framework
The Anglo-American Special Relationship has developed over the
years, as Churchill urged that it should, through the two nations'
unique security and defense cooperation. This has occurred at
several quite well-known and long-established levels.
First in importance is still intelligence
cooperation -- most valuably for Britain Signals Intelligence
(SIGINT), but also Human Intelligence (HUMINT) -- with the main focus
for the foreseeable future being the Islamist threat.
Second is conventional defense cooperation, most
obviously on the battlefield, where Britain over many years has
made a unique contribution, both in terms of effectiveness and in
terms of willingness to accept casualties. In recognition of this,
Britain has enjoyed unique if irregular access to U.S. defense
planning, though to questionable effect during the Iraq campaign.
Britain has also since 1948 provided the U.S. with valuable
military bases at home and overseas (Ascension Island and Diego
Third, nuclear cooperation with the U.S. is essential to
the maintenance and credibility of Britain's independent nuclear
deterrent. The acquisition of Polaris and then Trident set this
relationship in concrete, and, at least from the British side, it
is indeed unbreakable. Britain gets an extraordinarily good deal
both financially and in terms of technology. The condition is,
however, that U.S. intentions have always to figure large in
British plans, as now with the renewal of the four Vanguard
submarines to ensure that they accommodate any new U.S. missile.
Doubts about the ability of Washington and London to keep
completely in step have surfaced in Parliament, and, given past
experience, such scrutiny is salutary.
Fourth, and as the case of Trident illustrates, defense
procurement collaboration is of great importance to the Anglo-U.S.
relationship, more so than is acknowledged in polite circles. It is
also a subject of some tension on both sides of the Atlantic
because of the huge sums -- both costs and profits -- involved. Britain
is rightly on occasion critical of American reluctance to give full
access to the defense technology it needs to keep its forces fully
effective. America, for its part, is understandably cagey about
giving such access, except in limited cases and under controlled
circumstances, for fear of leakage to other unreliable powers like
the Chinese. In both cases, and inevitably, plenty of special
pleading by special interests is also involved.
The U.K. has perforce to play the supplicant, which can be
galling. Not only does America's defense program dwarf Britain's,
but its defense industry is more closed than Britain's, the
budget-strapped U.K. having opened up to foreign suppliers to keep
down costs. On closer examination, however, cooperating on defense
procurement turns out to be yet another of many two-way streets in
Despite the risk and complication, it is in America's and not
just Britain's interests for such collaboration to continue and
intensify. This is because America needs Britain as an effective
ally; but Britain faces an enormous challenge in achieving
interoperability with American forces on the battlefield, and it
cannot afford that without U.S. help. At the same time, unless the
U.S. offers alternative opportunities, Britain's defense industry
will become ever more closely sucked into that of Europe, under
pressure from the European Defence Agency (EDA). That would be a
powerful force leading toward the eventual decoupling of the two
Beyond collaboration at these levels, the overarching framework
is clearly provided by NATO. As with the Special Relationship
itself, it is worth reaching back into recent history and recalling
something of the original impulse in order to estimate both present
opportunities and risks.
When NATO celebrated its 60th anniversary in Strasbourg, it
could point to a record of astonishing success. It won the Cold
War -- or, more precisely, it survived long enough and cohesively
enough to allow America and its key allies, above all Britain, to
win it. During several crises, that outcome could not have been
assumed. It even survived victory when it might have gone, and with
different leadership would have gone, the way of the Warsaw Pact.
Twice since then, with the onset of "New World Order" utopianism in
the early 1990s and the confrontation with "Old Europe" over the
second Iraq War in 2003, it again looked at risk.
Sometimes, external threats have come to the rescue -- for
example, the Soviets' overreaching themselves in earlier times and
Saddam Hussein's ill-timed aggression in 1990. Sometimes, political
changes within the Alliance have helped -- notably the election of
moderately pro-American leaders, Angela Merkel in Germany (2005)
and Nicolas Sarkozy in France (2007), to succeed viscerally
anti-American predecessors. But, taking a longer-term view, the
successful longevity of the Alliance has depended on three elements
that have determined the nature of the whole project: American
leadership, British support for that leadership, and the
Anglo-American concept of law-governed liberty.
From the beginning, Britain's role was unique. At the end of the
Second World War, America enjoyed more security than at any other
time in its history. So the question immediately arose: Why should
it recommit itself to the defense of Europe now any more than in
the aftermath of World War One? The Europeans, face-to-face with
the Soviet threat, whether directly or through Communist parties
and fronts, and pitifully lacking the means to resist, were for
once desperate to see the Americans re-engage. The Truman Doctrine
and, more practically, the Marshall Plan soon provided proof of
U.S. commitment, but something more structured and permanent was
The predecessor of NATO can, in one sense, be seen in the
Western Union (later Western European Union) set up by the European
powers through the Brussels Treaty in 1948, but it was a
broken-backed affair. Everyone knew that only the direct
involvement of the U.S. could turn this association into a
militarily credible bulwark against the USSR, but who could get
America to commit? Only Britain. It was British influence in
Washington and the capitals of Europe (and the determination of
Ernie Bevin in London to wield it) which secured the crucial
transformation of Western security.
The North Atlantic Treaty -- the founding document of
NATO -- observes in its preamble, after a little cap-doffing in the
direction of the U.N. Charter, that the parties are "determined to
safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their
peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty
and the rule of law" and that they "seek to promote stability and
well-being in the North Atlantic area." Article Five, drafted after
much agonizing, then crucially pledges that an armed attack on any
of the parties shall be considered an attack on all, who will take
action deemed "necessary, including the use of armed force, to
restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic Area." The
document thus itself contains all the key elements which still
define the Alliance: commitment to freedom; commitment to the
security of a specific (if loosely defined) geographical area; and
commitment to defending that security through military means.
At the official signing in Washington on April 4, 1949,
then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson later recalled, "The Marine
Band added a note of unexpected realism as we waited for the
ceremony to begin by playing two songs from the currently popular
musical play Porgy and Bess -- 'I've Got Plenty of Nothin'' and 'It
Ain't Necessarily So.'"
Acheson's scepticism was understandable but, in the event,
misplaced. At each stage, Stalin unwittingly helped. Communist
subversion of non-communist governments had driven matters forward
thus far, and the Soviet Berlin blockade provided an ominous
backdrop to the signing (defeated by the airlift, it stopped the
following month). Then, when the U.S. Congress hesitated to endorse
plans for direct military aid to Europe, Moscow again came to the
Alliance's aid: In September, it emerged that the Soviets had
tested an atomic weapon. Once again, America was at mortal risk. It
was then only a matter of time before the different political and
military structures that we recognize today were in place.
NATO now is not short of tensions and competing agendas, which
were barely addressed at the recent summit. The U.S., with
traditional backing from Britain, would like the organization to
develop into more of an all-purpose instrument of global
intervention; the newer members, led by the Poles, are anxious that
its original purpose of defense against Russia from the East be
restored; the French and Germans, with variable support from other
older European members, want to build up the European pillar to
such an extent that it can stand on its own but not do anything to
have it tested by the Russians. How to accommodate these differing
imperatives -- and within what arrangements for decision-making and
burden-sharing -- will preoccupy NATO's members for some time to
The European Dimension
The fundamental question now, as in the past, is how to defend
the territories and interests of NATO's members most effectively.
Other matters such as the scope and pace of enlargement, the
sharing out of commands, or relations with other states or
organizations are (or should be) subordinate to that. This is why
both America and Britain need to reflect jointly, not just as part
of multilateral NATO discussions, on the risks posed by the wider
On one point Washington and London must agree: At present -- and
this has been so since the end of the Cold War, but an accumulation
of missions has more recently highlighted the fact -- America simply
bears too large a share of the burden of NATO's defense. This, more
than anything else, lies behind Washington's recurring interest
under different Administrations in building up Europe's influence
as a quid pro quo for Europe's building up its own
A further change is occurring under the new U.S. Administration.
It has already been acknowledged by the Europeans. When Mrs.
Clinton made her first visit to Europe as Secretary of State,
European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering gushed that the
U.S. and Europe once again "share the same values" and added in
reply to her speech: "What you said mostly could have been said by
a European." This was perhaps a back-handed
compliment, but there has already been a more tangible response
After an absence of 40 years, France under President Sarkozy is
now poised to rejoin NATO's integrated command structure. The
French people know the significance of the gesture, and it arouses
deep unease. Mr. Sarkozy is prepared take the political risk
involved because he believes that France can at last achieve its
long-term objective of a French-led European defense which, while
enjoying technical and logistical support from NATO, can be
deployed to serve Franco-European priorities. (Since he has set out
his intentions very clearly, there is no excuse for
There are other attractions. Paris's volte-face means
that France can effectively sideline Britain, which, mainly for
financial reasons, and despite the Blair-Chirac agreement at St.
Malo on bilateral military cooperation in 1998, has dragged its
heels on the matter. Reasserting a French leadership role in NATO
has another benefit when viewed from Élysée Palace.
It offers a way around the embarrassing problem created by
Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, whose provisions,
welcomed unthinkingly by the U.S., would have provided a
comprehensive legal framework for an integrated European defense
It is important not to misunderstand what is at stake. In
itself, France's reappearance at all of NATO's top tables has no
precise practical effect. France has, for example, already
reinforced its troops in Afghanistan as part of Mr. Sarkozy's
rapprochement with America. It is also perhaps worth
recalling that General de Gaulle's withdrawal from NATO's central
organization in 1966 did no great harm. It mainly provided the
occasion for some patriotic polemic. France under the general was
in fact a resolute, if willful, defender of Western interests
against Soviet blackmail, proving even more robust than Britain
during the Berlin standoff and the Cuban missile crisis.
Arguably, the French national psyche requires the reassurance
that France cooperates only from a position of strength. This, too,
is a reason for wondering whether Mr. Sarkozy's flamboyant and
unpopular Atlanticism really increases France's long-term
reliability as an ally.
The significance of what is happening, in any case, relates not
mainly to France -- which by and large does pull its weight -- but to
the other mainland European nations, which with few exceptions do
not. If the result is to reinforce the tendency toward granting
Europe more autonomy within NATO in the hope that Europe will
commit more effort to defense, this is bad news for NATO and for
the United States because the Europeans will take, but they will
Again, a little history -- but in this case of more recent
vintage -- will help to prove the point. At its Cologne summit in
June 1999, the EU launched its Common European Policy on Security
and Defence, subsequently referred to as the European Security and
Defence Policy (ESDP). This in turn was supported in 2002 by the
so-called Berlin Plus Agreement, whereby NATO assets under certain
conditions are made available for EU-led operations.
Two things have become clear. First, allowing the EU to assert
itself with NATO support has not led to any reduction in its
ambition to have its own separate planning and standing forces to
use as it sees fit. Second, during the 10 years that the ESDP has
been in effect, and despite a succession of grandiloquent
announcements and pledges, EU members of NATO have signally failed
to increase their defense spending. This is demonstrated beyond any
doubt by Table 1.
A clearer demonstration of frustrated intentions and radical
policy failure is difficult to imagine.
Against this, it may be argued that the forces of European
countries can be found fighting alongside American and British
soldiers. This is true, but they have not done it any more
willingly or effectively because of the ESDP, and the countries
that have been most keen on the ESDP have often been least keen on
doing the fighting.
It may also be objected that since the inception of the ESDP,
the EU has launched a number of interventions. This also is true.
In fact, there have been 22 such operations, 10 of which at the
time of writing are still under way. This sounds rather
impressive -- until the record is subjected to closer scrutiny. The
first qualification is that only six operations have been military
(two in the Democratic Republic of Congo and one each in Macedonia,
Bosnia, Chad, and Somalia). Furthermore, in Macedonia and Bosnia,
where the EU has been quite useful, the hard work had already been
done by NATO. By contrast, the EU was notably weak in responding to
trouble in both the DRC and Darfur.
EU spokesmen have talked on occasion of very large forces being
made available. The EU Helsinki Headline Goal of 1999 mentioned
60,000 troops, 100 ships, and 400 aircraft. The results have turned
out to be risible. The EU still lacks the means to airlift its
forces, most of which cannot be deployed outside of Europe anyway;
its two "battle groups" (1,500 men each), which are meant to have
been operational since 2007, exist on paper but have never been
used; and problems about who will pay for what within the EU
context are even less resolvable than those that bedevil NATO.
More successful, and a better guide to what the Europeans could
usefully be expected to do, have been the non-military missions,
such as policing, border control, and monitoring. If the EU were
more realistic about its own limitations -- and if the U.S. were more
willing to pour cold water on Europe's hubris -- there is even some
hope that Europe could begin to play the internationally positive
role that its enthusiasts have always expected it to play. The
European speciality is "soft power" -- diplomatic contact, cultural
influence, trade links, technical programs, and economic aid -- and
its exertion on, for example, Europe's eastern borders, where NATO
has run up against fierce obstruction from Russia, could be
valuable. The same is true of Africa or the Middle East, where for
different reasons America has found it difficult to make
But all of these programs are not essentially ESDP functions.
"Hard" power should be left to a militarily integrated
NATO -- American-led, true to its founding doctrines, and built upon
cooperation by sovereign nations willing to pay on the battlefield
or through the bank (or both) for the right to live in freedom. In
such a context, Britain has a uniquely valuable part to play, but
can Britain play it? And will it?
The British Problem
The answer to these questions will ultimately be determined at
three levels -- military, economic, and political. Britain needs to
have not just one, but all three elements of defense capabilities,
economic strength, and political will if it is to fulfil its
traditional role as America's closest partner in global affairs.
Unfortunately, neither current British nor American approaches are
helping, with bad ideas in one country finding sympathetic echoes
in the other to the detriment of both.
There is now almost universal agreement that Britain's defense
is overextended and underfunded. A leader headline in the
Economist summed up the quandary: "Overstretched,
Overwhelmed and Over There." All three services are in
difficulties, but the army is under the greatest strain.
Battalions are as much as a fifth below their regular size.
The pace of deployments is imposing unmanageable strains and
Repeated shortcomings in kit and equipment have created
disaffection in the services and scandal in the press.
A multibillion-pound cumulative deficit, heavily but not
exclusively focused on the procurement budget, has opened up.
Short-term means of financing the higher than budgeted costs of
overseas deployments, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan, are
rapidly being exhausted.
Last December, the Ministry of Defence announced the further
postponement of major projects, including the two planned aircraft
carriers. At the same time, in a technical but significant change,
it was revealed that in future the core defense budget rather than
the Treasury would have to bear the cost of so-called Urgent
Operational Requirements." This means that British defense spending
faces a pincer movement of cuts, both in programs and in the
At the policymaking level, the underlying problem is that there
has been no Strategic Defense Review (SDR) -- designed to match
objectives and resources -- since 1998. Succeeding White Papers have
merely botched together new requirements in the light of
circumstances without taking a long-term view of needs and funding.
As a result, there are loud demands from all quarters for a new
SDR. An incoming Conservative government would legislate for
American-style Quadrennial Defense Reviews, but welcome as
that may be, it is hardly a panacea.
Underlying the shortfall is the fact that Britain is undertaking
a global role as America's main ally but increasingly budgeting for
the role of a third-order, regional power. Experts at Chatham
House, London, have recently reached the damning conclusion: "In
all significant aspects of defence -- political, financial,
industrial and operational -- the British Government is confronted
with a state of degeneration perhaps more serious than at any time
since the end of the Cold War." That cannot continue.
But before enthusiasts for Britain's global role can raise a
cheer, they will have to overcome deeply entrenched reluctance to
envisage a substantial increase in defense spending. Even within
the defense community, there is a mood of pessimism -- a preference
for cancelling programs, including Trident, rather than fighting
the public relations battle for a higher priority for defense.
The wider public, worried about Britain's economic problems and
indeed their own, is also not too interested in fighting and
winning future wars.
That is one reason why the economic background is the second
element of the problem. The British economy is on the slide, and
British finances may be on the precipice.
Although Gordon Brown stubbornly refuses to apologize for his
stewardship as Chancellor of the Exchequer and prefers to describe
Britain's crisis as imported, it was on his watch that the
conditions for it were created. Because the Labour government
increased public spending for almost a decade, net public debt has
risen to levels not seen in Britain since the early 1970s, before
the continuing and hugely costly bailout of the British banking
system. Taking into account the government's off-balance sheet
liabilities -- unfunded pensions, rail debt, projects funded through
private finance -- and adding in taxpayer's money for the banks, one
realistic estimate implies a total debt of 160 percent of GDP.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer's own recent budget figures, based
on forecasts of economic growth that many consider overly
optimistic, are sufficiently dire. Public-sector borrowing next
year is estimated at some £175 billion -- almost 12 percent of
GDP -- and will then stay worryingly high.
Perhaps the most important contrast is with the last recession,
in the early 1990s. Not only is the public sector overburdened by
borrowing, but so are individuals. Household debt has risen from 60
percent to 100 percent of GDP over the past decade, and personal
incomes are in a much weaker position to take the strain than then,
having virtually stagnated in recent years.
The era of low tax rates in Britain has also come to an end,
with a sharp increase announced last November in marginal income
tax rates for the better off. An already announced rise from 40
percent to 45 percent in the top rate on incomes over
£150,000 has now been increased to 50 percent, and the change
has been brought forward a year. Taking into account accompanying
cuts in personal income tax allowances and rises in employee
National Insurance Contributions -- a second income tax by any other
name -- marginal rates for many will be over 60 percent.
All this puts the U.K., as in the pre-Thatcher era, back near
the top of the international league of countries with tax rates
that penalize wealth creation and promote the exodus of capital and
talent. The Conservative Opposition, in order to prove its "caring"
credentials and ashamed of its leaders' wealthy backgrounds, has
refused to promise to reverse this economically damaging and
fiscally self-destructive rise in tax rates. Moreover, with neither
Labour nor the Conservatives envisaging serious cuts in spending,
it is now all but certain that taxes will rise again, slowing the
rate at which the British economy comes out of recession and
weakening its long-run productivity growth.
But might the "long run" -- about which Keynes, today's
resurrected guru, joked that by then we will all be dead -- not
really matter? The recent failure to sell government gilt-edged
securities to finance debt sent a shudder of fear through the
markets. The latest projected public borrowing
figures, it is being suggested, may even lead to the loss of the
U.K.'s "AAA" sovereign credit rating. Were Britain not outside
the euro and thus able to take the strain on a freely floating
exchange rate, Mr. Brown might now be struggling to stave off
default and pleading with the International Monetary Fund rather
than lecturing the world on how to spend and borrow its way out of
Britain was bound to be affected more seriously by a crash in
the banking system than were economies which do not rely so heavily
on financial services. But had not the government been overspending
and overborrowing in previous years, it would have the scope to cut
taxes, which is the only sustainable way to get out of the mess. As
it is, with the government indulging in a further spending and
borrowing splurge while nationalizing, subsidizing, distorting, and
controlling larger swaths of the economy, Britain's ability to pay
its way -- and with that, inevitably, its international role -- has
been put at risk.
Other things being equal, this should alarm America. But, of
course, they are not equal, because the new U.S. Administration is
committed to adopting a similar socialistic program on a still
greater scale. This will have the same weakening effect on America
that it is having in Britain. How it will occur has been described
by Heritage Foundation scholars, among others. At least in
America, intellectual resistance to the transformation of
free-enterprise capitalism into European-style big-government
corporatism is boldly stated, and by experts in the field, so once
the backlash begins, there will be a program at hand to reverse the
In Britain, that is not the case -- which trespasses on to the
third, last, and most worrying aspect of the problem: a lack of
political will to make the Special Relationship work as it should.
The Labour government is terminally exhausted. The Labour Party is,
for the most part, no longer anti-American, but it lacks the ideas
or energy to reforge the partnership on a stable basis. In any
case, next year Britain will probably have a Conservative
What this would mean for the Special Relationship is not
altogether clear. The unpopularity of the Iraq war persuaded the
Tories, in the aftermath, to take refuge in evasive ambiguity.
While their new leader, David Cameron, denounced "Anti-Americanism
[as] an intellectual and moral surrender," he also added that "we
should be solid not slavish in our friendship with America."
Mr. Cameron's grasp of foreign policy is now much more assured, as
he demonstrated on his visit to Georgia last year.
By contrast, the Opposition's economic policies are still
half-formed and its performance fumbling. Similarly, its approach
to security, which stems from ardent courting of the civil
liberties lobby at the expense of security considerations, may yet
pose difficulties for America in counterterrorism cooperation.
All things considered, however, there are grounds for modest
confidence. Despite earlier attempts to step out of the shadow of
Margaret Thatcher, the values which she and Ronald Reagan embodied
still also provide the core beliefs of most senior Conservatives.
If David Cameron does, indeed, soon enter Downing Street, that will
therefore offer a new opportunity for Britain to think afresh about
its commonalities with America and how to use and strengthen
The starting point for such reflection should be that the
Anglo-American partnership, though it can function between leaders
from different political parties, never has been and cannot
ultimately be ideologically neutral. It is based on ideas, not just
personalities or circumstances. When sentiment, history, language,
and interests have all been taken into account, something else is
still potentially missing, something without which the Anglo-Saxon
mix does not gel. This element, as conservatives on both sides of
the Atlantic have long recognized, is what, for want of a better
term, can be described as "individualism."
Individualism, as Margaret Thatcher once argued, is "a term
which is often used disparagingly, but which should be
rehabilitated, for it explains much about our country's history,
achievements and traditions." And, she might have added,
those of America. Limited government, the rule of law, democratic
debate and consent; free markets, low taxes, private property;
family cohesion, volunteering, neighborliness; initiative,
independence, uprightness -- it is not difficult to see how these
elements of the Anglo-American brand of individualism go to create
a distinctive institutional, economic, social, and moral matrix.
Each aspect is inspired by the same spirit, each strengthens the
other, and the lack of any element will threaten all the rest -- as
Nor can contagion be quarantined at all easily, for bad ideas,
like good ones, cross the Atlantic by remarkably rapid osmosis to
the damage of our joint civilization. It is not hard to see how
current policies of expansive government, centralized control,
bailouts, rewarding failure, penalizing thrift, downgrading
responsibility, passing the buck to regulators, and empowering
international bureaucracies all pose a threat to Anglo-American
values -- as their proponents, secretly for the most part and openly
on occasion, intend they should.
In the end, though, the Anglo-American affinity will not be lost
unless the civilization underlying it is lost. It is high time that
the British thought this through. After all, they gave birth to the
Special Relationship, just as in the beginning they gave
birth -- albeit reluctantly and painfully -- to America itself.
Edmund Burke, an enthusiast for America even at the height of
America's Revolution, and not by chance also the founder of British
conservatism, memorably spelt out to a hostile House of Commons the
facts of the matter:
The people of the [American] Colonies are descendents of
Englishmen. England, Sir, is a nation which still I hope respects,
and formerly adored, her freedom. The Colonists emigrated from you,
when this part of your character was most predominant; and they
took this bias and direction the moment they parted from your
hands. They are, therefore, not only devoted to Liberty, but
Liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles.
Whether the Special Relationship could continue between
societies organized on other principles is questionable. Even
whether it should do so is far from clear. The most important
contribution that America's British friends (and Britain's American
friends) can now make to their alliance is therefore to ensure that
the principles of Anglo- Saxon liberty are not permanently
compromised by today's resurgent collectivism.
And if, whatever their party stripe, conservative-minded
Atlanticists could win an election or three, that also might
Dr. Robin Harris served during the 1980s as an adviser
at the United Kingdom Treasury and Home Office, as Director of the
Conservative Party Research Department, and as a member of Prime
Minister Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street Policy Unit. He
continued to advise Lady Thatcher after she left office and has
edited the definitive volume of her Collected Speeches. Dr. Harris
is now an author and journalist. His books include Dubrovnik: A
history (Saqi Books, 2003); Beyond Friendship: The Future of
Anglo-American Relations (The Heritage Foundation, 2006);
and Talleyrand: Betrayer and Saviour of France (John Murray,